Jefferson-Signed Act of Congress Authorizes Bribes to Barbary Pirates, and Pays for with Hamilton’s “Whiskey Tax”
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Congressional Act authorizing tribute payments to the Barbary Pirates, which would be paid for through funds from the infamous Excise or “Whiskey” Tax. THOMAS JEFFERSON.
Document Signed, as Secretary of State. Philadelphia, March 3, 1791. One page.
“Appropriation...for the purpose of effecting a recognition of the treaty of the United States, with the new Emperor of Morocco, there be, and hereby is appropriated a sum not exceeding twenty thousand dollars, to be paid out of the monies which prior to the first of January next, shall arise from the duties imposed upon spirits distilled within the United States…And the President is hereby authorized to take on loan, the whole sum by this act appropriated...at an interest not exceeding six percent per annum...”
Jefferson opposed paying tribute to the sultans of the Barbary states--they were essentially bribes for permitting American ships to pass through their Mediterranean ports. But all other nations paid these “duties” as a cost of doing business in the region, and President Washington and Congress decided to do so as well. Here the Congressional lawmakers describe the payment destined for a sultan’s purse in suitably decorous language. After Jefferson became President in 1801—and after the Tripoli sultan decided he needed a larger “appropriation”—Jefferson decided to end this practice (at least in the case of Tripoli) through force of arms.
Interestingly, the Act provisions money for the tributes to come from Alexander Hamilton’s infamous Excise Act, or “Whiskey Tax,” which gave rise to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The assumption of state revolutionary war debts forced the federal government to find new sources of revenue. Thus, Congress passed one of the most controversial tax measures in American history. The Excise Act imposed duties not only on imported spirits, but also on those produced domestically. Passage of the act immediately stirred resentments among western residents who depended on whiskey for income. Whiskey provided the most efficient means to process their harvests into an easily transportable commodity and was even used as a currency. Riots against collection of the tax broke out in western Pennsylvania in 1794. President Washington called up 12,000 troops, but there was no significant violence and the rebels were quickly dispersed.
Although Jefferson signed this document in his role as Secretary of State, he was vehemently against the “Whiskey Tax” and paying bribes to the Barbary Pirates.
This act also authorized the President to take on loans under the new national bank.
As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson signed only two copies of each act, individually printed on large paper, for distribution to every state. Thus, it is likely that only twenty six copies were signed by Jefferson, with very few surviving.