The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815

The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815

by Robert J. Allison


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195086126
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 05/25/1995
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.81(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Robert J. Allison is chair of the Department of History, university archivist, and director of American Studies at Suffolk University.

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The Crescent Obscured

The United States and the Muslim World 1776â"1815

By Robert J. Allison

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1995 Robert J. Allison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01490-6


American Policy Toward the Muslim World

Patrick Henry was worried. Three mysterious strangers, two men and a woman, had arrived in Virginia in that November of 1785, and Governor Henry suspected they were up to some bad tricks. One of his predecessors, Thomas Jefferson, had left office under a cloud four years earlier, having failed to defend the state from a British invasion. Britain no longer threatened Virginia's peace and security, having recognized American independence, but Henry feared these three strangers were the advance scouts of a more dangerous enemy. He believed they were spies sent to Virginia by the Dey of Algiers.

Henry's fear of Algerian spies was not farfetched. Algiers had declared war on the United States in July 1785, encouraged to do so by the British, who wanted to scare American commerce out of the Mediterranean. British papers reported that Algiers had already captured "an infinite number" of American vessels, including one carrying Benjamin Franklin home from France. Franklin, it was reported, bore his "slavery to admiration." A New York paper reported that an English ship was mistaken for an American, and the Algerians stopped it five times between London and Lisbon. Virginia legislator John Bannister wrote to Thomas Jefferson, now U.S. minister to France, in December 1785 that "The Inhabitants of these States are greatly alarmed at the hostility of the Algerines," and this fear had stopped Americans from trading with Spain and other Mediterranean countries. This was "of the utmost consequence to our grain trade." Under these threats, America's carrying trade would fall into the hands of the British, "whose interest it is to depress us by becoming our Carriers." From Philadelphia, Samuel House wrote that business lagged, that no American ship could pick up freight in Europe. This fear that American ships would be taken by Barbary cruisers meant indeed that either British ships would capture all the carrying trade or Americans would have to pay exorbitant insurance premiums. Frenchman James le Maire warned Henry that if the Algerians themselves did not molest Virginia's coast, then "some ill-designed Brittons, Irish, Jersey, or Guernsey men, under the cloak of a Barbarian, with an Algerine Commission" might do so. Le Maire suggested that he be sent to France to buy a frigate and commissioned by Virginia to protect the commonwealth from the impending Algerian attack.

Jefferson found this fear frustrating. Algiers had not captured any American ships, and he believed the British were using fear of Algiers to ruin American trade. Morocco, it was true, had captured the American merchant ship Betsey in October 1784. But Morocco had done this for a particular purpose: Emperor Mawlay Muhammad (reigned 1757–1790) had recognized American independence in 1778, but the Americans had so far failed to send a negotiator. To get the Americans' attention, he ordered an American ship captured and promised to hold it hostage until the United States sent a diplomatic agent.

Jefferson's friend John Page asked, when he heard of the Betsey's capture, if it was true that "the Emperor of Morocco had made advances to Congress" that had been ignored, in consequence of which the emperor had sent his cruisers after American ships. Page hoped that this, like the Algerian captures, was "a british Tale" but still thought "a little Flattery, a few Presents, and the Prospect of our Trade with them" would secure American trade in the Mediterranean. Richard Henry Lee hoped American negotiators could accommodate the Barbary states and open the Mediterranean to trade, and he criticized the "avaricious, monopolizing Spirit of Commerce and Commercial Men," such as the British, who had closed the Mediterranean to Americans, preventing contact "between the human species in different parts of the world."

After the Betsey's capture, John Adams went to France's foreign minister, the Comte Vergennes, for advice. Vergennes advised Adams that Emperor Mawlay Muhammad, whom he called the greediest and "most interested man in the world," was piqued at the American failure to send him presents. Vergennes told the Americans of this but refused to offer any more advice. He suggested they consult the Marquis de Castries, France's minister of marine, for more information. When John Adams asked if France had renewed its 1684 treaty with Algiers, Vergennes smiled, amused that Adams knew this, but he would not answer Adams's question. It was not in France's interest to help the Americans to the Mediterranean trade, and Vergennes, Adams, and Jefferson all knew this. Vergennes told Adams to direct his questions to Castries, who Adams knew would reveal even less than Vergennes.

It was in England's interest to hurt American commerce, but it was not in France's interest to help the United States. It was, however, in Spain's interest to do the Americans and the Moroccans a favor. Spain had become convinced that the United States was likely to endure, and Spanish Foreign Minister Floridablanca thought the United States could be a valuable ally against the British in North America. Spain was preparing an expedition against Algiers, and Floridablanca wanted Morocco as an ally in North Africa. So Spain interceded in Morocco, and in March 1785 Mawlay Muhammad returned the Betsey, and the U.S. promised to send a negotiator. Congress appropriated $80,000 for negotiations with the four Barbary states (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli). American Foreign Minister John Jay told the commissioners that they would "find it expedient to purchase the Influence of those ... able to impede or forward your views," particularly in "Courts where Favoritism as well as Corruption prevails."

While the American diplomats struggled to secure European support and North African treaties, Governor Henry and his council worried about what to do with the three North African strangers in Virginia. Henry ordered them locked up in Norfolk, then sent them to Williamsburg, and finally had them brought to Richmond. Henry sent Richmond doctor William Foushee to interrogate the strangers as best he could and to search their luggage. Foushee found a little cash, no weapons, and some documents in Hebrew, along with their English traveling papers. Though this did not look like the stuff with which to launch an invasion, Foushee was not satisfied with the strangers' story. They said the Hebrew documents were to admit them to a temple; since Foushee could not read Hebrew, he could not vouch for that. Their story, that they were travelers from England, did not correspond with the English documents they carried, which suggested the three were from Morocco. The strangers explained to Foushee that since they could not read English, they could not vouch for what papers in that language said. Foushee's interrogation of the three was less satisfactory. He was not satisfied with either their looks or their story, but he could prove nothing. Foushee sent them to Norfolk, and Henry gave orders to send them back to their native land, wherever that was. The three were disappointed not to be going to Philadelphia, where they thought they might have had a friendlier reception.

With these three strangers being shipped out of the commonwealth, the Virginia legislature passed a law to prevent such dangerous aliens from ever again molesting the people or disturbing Virginia's safety. The legislature gave the governor power to deport aliens from countries at war with the United States. This Virginia act anticipated the Enemy Aliens Act of 1798, which gave the president of the United States power to deport aliens from countries at war with the United States. Virginia would declare the 1798 federal Enemy Aliens Act an unconstitutional abuse of power. In 1786, the Virginia legislature tried to control suspicious-looking characters, but it also restricted the power of the state. The legislature gave the governor power to ship out undesirables, but it also passed the statute for religious freedom, preventing any future legislature from entertaining, in the words of the bill's sponsor James Madison, "the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind." Not merely tolerating different religious faiths, the Virginia act, according to its author Thomas Jefferson, guaranteed religious freedom to "the Jewand the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." The Virginians shipped the mysterious travelers out of the country, while protecting their right to worship in a temple or mosque.

Jefferson would later regard this statute granting religious freedom as one of his greatest achievements. But freeing the American mind proved easier than freeing the seas for American ships. Jefferson and Adams waited throughout the summer of 1785 for Congress to send a negotiator. Jefferson's friends in America assured him that he was not the only one wondering what Congress intended to do. Francis Hopkinson wrote from Philadelphia that "we know little more of Congress here than you do in France—perhaps not so much." Congress was "seldom or ever mentioned in the papers and are less talked of than if they were in the West Indies." Eliza House Trist wrote that "Every now and then we hear of an Honble Gentleman geting a wife or else we shou'd not know there existed such a body as Congress."

Congress sent John Lamb, a Connecticut mule trader with some experience in the Mediterranean, to Paris in the spring of 1785. Lamb would not arrive in Paris until the fall and would not reach Algiers until the spring of 1786. By the time Jefferson and Adams realized that Lamb was incompetent, it was too late to find someone else. Jefferson did not think Lamb's ineptitude a problem; even an angel, Jefferson said, could not negotiate with Algiers. But while Adams and Jefferson waited for the tardy Lamb, Algiers declared war on the United States, and in September 1785 Jefferson learned that Algiers had captured two American ships.

Congress wanted to negotiate, and most Americans seemed to prefer paying tribute to waging war. Most Americans realized that the country, with no central government able to raise either money or a military force, was in no position to fight a war in the Mediterranean. John Page and Richard Henry Lee urged Jefferson to use flattery and presents to secure free trade in the Mediterranean, and Page was upset to learn that Morocco's Mawlay Muhammad had wanted peace with the Americans since 1778 but the United States had offended him by failing to send a negotiator. Jefferson disagreed. While he too was painfully aware of the country's military and financial weakness, he could not accept the idea of paying tribute to Algiers or Morocco. He told Page that he did not know how much a treaty with Morocco would cost, but was certain it would be more than Page imagined and certainly "more than a free people ought to pay." The "English" of Mawlay Muhammad's friendly overtures to the United States was "Plainly this. He is ready to receive us into the number of his tributaries." Algiers, the strongest Barbary power, would be next in line, followed by Tunis and Tripoli. European nations accepted the idea of paying tribute to the Barbary states, but Jefferson saw no reason for "laying the other hemisphere at their feet." Every American would feel this tribute when he paid taxes.

Jefferson did not think that buying peace with Algiers and the other regencies would be cheaper than fighting a war. "[O]ur Honour as well as our Avarice" was involved, and failure to establish a better national identity would "involve us soon in a naval war," if not with Algiers, then with England. America had to show strength and energy both to the Barbary states and to Europe. Buying peace, the short-term solution, could not prevent a war, which Jefferson considered the only long-term solution. Securing "a peace thro' the medium of war" would earn the newly independent nation the respect of Europe.

The United States was not prepared for war, but Jefferson was confident that it would not have to fight this war alone. Spain's negotiations to release the Betsey reaffirmed for Jefferson the common interests of Spain and the United States. Each nation was threatened by the British presence north of the Ohio River and by British involvement in Central America. Jefferson hoped the Americans would recognize these common interests and join Spain's campaign against Algiers. William Carmichael, the American chargé d'affaires in Spain, thought Spain was likely to cooperate with Naples and Venice against the Algerians. Since Spain had aided the Americans in Morocco, it would be fitting for the United States to join Spain in this multinational military enterprise. Congress had empowered Jefferson to negotiate, but he did not believe negotiations with Algiers were worthwhile. He summarized a letter he wrote to his friend in Italy, Philip Mazzei: "Query if ask peace with sword or money." To a Neapolitan diplomat in France, Jefferson asked if Naples would cooperate with the United States in joint actions against the Barbary states. Jefferson imagined that the United States could help put together a multinational force of smaller European states such as Italy, the Scandinavian countries, and Portugal, as well as Spain. It would not have the support of either Britain or France.

War, Jefferson believed before a shot had been fired, was the only practical and honorable policy in dealing with Algiers and the other Barbary states. But as a diplomat he was bound to follow Congress's instructions. By the fall of 1785, when Algiers had already declared war and Patrick Henry was worried about an Algerian invasion, Jefferson still had not received the official word from Congress. Lamb, "this tardy servant," slowly made his way to Europe, though private correspondents had already told Jefferson and Adams what the instructions said. But Jefferson and Adams could do nothing without the official word.

The wait grew more frustrating. Jefferson learned in mid-September that the Polly and Dauphinhad been taken by Algiers and that Spain and Algiers were negotiating. Spain, Jefferson heard, would give Algiers the equivalent of a million dollars, though details had not been worked out. It seemed that Portugal and Naples might also sign treaties with Algiers, thus destroying Jefferson's hope for a multinational alliance. Clearly, time was running out for the Americans. If Lamb did not arrive on the next packet, Jefferson would send Thomas Barclay to Algiers immediately.

John Paul Jones, the American naval hero, was not surprised when he heard Algiers had declared war; he was only surprised it had not happened sooner. Jones hoped this war would jolt the Americans to unite "in measures consistent with their national honour and interest," and rouse them "from that illjudged security which the intoxication of Success has produced since the Revolution." This was precisely what Jefferson wanted to hear, and he shared Jones's hope that Americans would take action "as will make us respected as a great People who deserve to be Free."

Jefferson shared Jones's sentiments, but Congress had decided to negotiate, and it was not up to Jefferson or Jones to make war against Congress's intentions. Jefferson felt "suspended between indignation and impotence." John Jay joined Jefferson in preferring war to tribute, but most Americans did not. While some Americans wanted war, according to the French consul in New York, many more were willing to pay tribute to secure a peaceful Mediterranean trade. Even those who wanted war recognized the country's weakness. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, asked "Must we also Subsidize Algiers?" He told Jefferson, "Delenda est carthago. Algiers must be subdu[ed]." But until the United States was ready to subdue Algiers by force, "we must expend £200,000 and subsid[ize] that piratical State," since peaceful Mediterranean trade could bring the United States that amount every year.

John Adams, American minister to London, agreed with those who preferred tribute to war. Adams did not think it good economics to sacrifice "a Million annually" in trade just "to Save one Gift of two hundred Thousand Pounds." If the Americans paid up like everyone else, Adams thought, they could at that moment have 200 ships in the Mediterranean, with freight alone worth £200,000. A simple gift to the Dey of Algiers would open the Mediterranean and raise the price of American grain. Instead, American reluctance to pay a few bribes meant the Mediterranean was closed, and American farmers and planters suffered. Adams joined Jefferson and the other bellicose statesmen in lamenting that the "Policy of Christendom has made Cowards of all their Sailors before the Standard of Mahomet," and agreed that it "would be heroical and glorious in Us, to restore Courage to ours." But Adams knew too much of American character, and human nature, to think that his countrymen would be any different. Of course, if the American people set their minds to fighting the Algerians, and, more importantly, committed their money to the cause, they could do it. "But the Difficulty of bringing our People to agree upon it, has ever discouraged me." Could Jefferson persuade the planters of Virginia and South Carolina to support a navy? Adams knew that people from Pennsylvania and all the states north would gladly do so, and he himself thought this would be a good time to build a navy. But Adams spent most of his time in Europe trying to borrow money to pay American debts. He had a keen idea of how little money the United States had or could raise.


Excerpted from The Crescent Obscured by Robert J. Allison. Copyright © 1995 Robert J. Allison. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. American Policy Toward the Muslim World
2. The United States and the Specter of Islam
3. A Peek Into the Seraglio: Americans, Sex, and the Muslim World
4. American Slavery and the Muslim World
5. American Captives in the Muslim World
6. The Muslim World and American Benevolence
7. American Consuls in the Muslim World
8. Remembering the Tripolitan War
9. James Riley, the Return of the Captive

What People are Saying About This

Richard W. Bulliet

Allison's incisive and informative account of the fledgling republic's encounter with the Muslim world is a revelation with a special pertinence to today's international scene.
— (Journal of Interdisciplinary History)

Richard M. Eaton

This book should be widely read. . . . Allison's study provides a context for understanding more recent developments, such as America's tendency to demonize figures like Iran's Khumaini, Libya's Qaddafi, and Iraq's Saddam.
— (Eighteenth Century Studies)

David W. Lesch

A powerful ending that explains how the experience with the Barbary states compelled many Americans to look inward . . . with increasing doubts about the institution of slavery.
— ( Middle East Journal)

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