According to Wikipedia, the US decisively won both Barbary wars and could press on if they wanted to. However, they signed peace treaties, which incredibly granted to the loser a significant sum of money. I'm quite astonished by that: why in the world would the winning side pay money to the losing side? Especially since that war was about money (tributes) in the first place?

Sure, I'm not the only one who was surprised by such an apparent nonsense, as the article itself suggest, William Eaton had similar feelings and was ignored. However, this was apparently accepted by most as normal, and I've no clue why.

  • To free enslaved American sailors? To put an end to the war at a reasonable price (vs $1 million)? There's plenty of potential reasons. Now, you could argue that America negotiated poorly and failed to translate military success into political gain. But it's not like there's a law against giving a losing enemy money.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:27
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    The same question can be asked about Mexican-American War of 1845 (15 million).
    – kubanczyk
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:44
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    @kubanczyk IIRC, in that case it offered the pretence that the United States had not just conquered half of Mexico but instead simply bought the land.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 2, 2014 at 13:10
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    Also remember that the Democratic-Republican party position was that Republics did not engage in warfare. Implicit in Jefferson's behavior was the notion that setting or maintaining a budget was a crass act unworthy of a gentleman. Peace and the elimination of a standing military may have been a higher priority than money.
    – MCW
    Dec 2, 2014 at 14:02
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    You might as well ask why the US paid to the losers of WW II. See The Marshall Plan for further clarity on that question. Politics is the parent of war, and has always been. Jan 10, 2018 at 3:30

4 Answers 4


I will answer with regards to the first barbary war.

It is indeed true, as can be read in the Treaty Of Peace and Amity between the United States of America and the Bashaw, Bey and Subjects of Tripoli in Barbary. signed June 4, 1805, that the US did pay $60 000 as ransom in order to achieve peace. The second article of the treaty reads:

The Bashaw of Tripoli shall deliver up to the American Squadron now off Tripoli, all the Americans in his possession; and all the Subjects of the Bashaw of Tripoli now in the power of the United States of America shall be delivered up to him; and as the number of Americans in possession of the Bashaw of Tripoli amounts to Three Hundred Persons, more or less; and the number of Tripolino Subjects in the power of the Americans to about, One Hundred more or less; The Bashaw of Tripoli shall receive from the United States of America, the sum of Sixty Thousand Dollars, as a payment for the difference between the Prisoners herein mentioned.

You say that the US decisively won the war, but consider the character of the war: It was a naval war. And it was not the first, Tripoli declared war all the time: Versus Sweden, France, Portugal, and others. Tripoli never had a fleet to fight the frigates that were brought against it, but once they were gone Tripoli would resume its piracy. Therefore the aim of the wars were usually to blockade the port of Tripoli until a favorable peace treaty was attained. Sweden in 1802 for example managed to lower its annual tribute to Tripoli from 20 000 Spanish piastre to only 8 000 piastre (they also paid a large amount in ransom, just like the US). Most countries did pay tributes, but the size varied. The great achievement of the US was that their treaty contained no tributes, they only paid a ransom. Which is, in principle, a big difference. If they would have had to continue with the payment of tributes, it would indeed have been a failure (the war was started because Jefferson refused to pay the demanded tributes).

Was Eaton right? Did they pay more than they had to? Consider the following paragraph from The U.S. Navy: a history:

Faced with the twin threats of Eaton's army and Barron's ships, the pasha had dropped his demand for the payment of American tribute and accepted $60,000 - about half what he had previously demanded - as a ransom for the crew of the Philadelphia. Lear's peace at a price received a mixed reception in the UnitedStates. Critics charged that the treaty was ill timed because resumption of the naval bombardment, combined with an attack by Eaton's force, would have brought the war to an end without the payment of ransom. Others argued that this was the best treaty ever extracted from the Tripolitans, and as long as the Philadelphia's crew remained in enemy hands, no better one could have been obtained without endangering their lives.

I am unsure of what Eaton could have accomplished, he was heading for Tripoli when the peace treaty was signed.

So the answer to your question would be, I believe, that a "decisive victory" does not mean what you think it does. They never controlled the city of Tripoli, merely the sea outside it. At some point, they had to make peace. Having frigates in the mediterranean sea was not cheap either.

  • The US did continue to pay tribute however after the end of the First Barbary War. Because the Pirates continued to take American ships after accepting the 60,000 thus necessitating the second Barbary war a decade later. Eaton's forces had just taken Derma the second largest city in Tripoli. With US Naval support they could have challenged Tripoli and put an end to the Pasha thus negating the need for the second Barbary War. Perhaps that's an uncertain outcome, but we know for certain Tobias Lear was a scoundrel, and his peace was an utter failure.
    – user27618
    Jan 3, 2019 at 20:20

I am not sure what you are talking about.

The treaty between the United States and the Dey of Algiers signed July 3, 1815, ended all tribute, freed all American slaves in Algiers, and gave the United States complete commercial rights. Moreover, the Dey was required to pay 10,000 Spanish dollars to the American consul.

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    After the First Barbary War in 1805, the United States paid $60,000 to ransom her sailors back.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 2, 2014 at 17:58
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    @Semaphore I know that, but the OP seems to think that the US paid "at the end of both barbary wars" to quote from the title of the question. Dec 2, 2014 at 18:25

Question: Why did the US pay money to the losers, at the end of both Barbary wars?

Short Answer:
The United States did not win the First Barbary War. After some amazing and unexpected success in a ground invasion, which involved minimal US support, Tobias Lear and Commodore James Barron grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. Commodore Barron refused to support the continuation of the ground invasion, and Tobias Lear signed a peace treaty with the Tripoli Bey which increased annual payment to the pirate nation. The United States was also paying off the Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian pirates who all demanded individual treaties and tribute. America's Barbary Pirate problems wouldn't be resolved until the second Barbary Pirate War conducted a decade after the first in 1815.

Detailed Answer

Treaty of Tripoli
With the disbanding of the former Continental Navy and the selling of its last warship by the Confederation Congress in 1785, now without a standing navy, much less a navy capable of projecting force across an ocean, the U.S. was forced to pay tribute monies and goods to the Barbary nations for the security of its ships and the freedom of its captured citizens. As Lieutenant and consul William Eaton informed newly appointed Secretary of State John Marshall in 1800, "It is a maxim of the Barbary States, that 'The Christians who would be on good terms with them must fight well or pay well.'

Soon after the formation of the United States, privateering in the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern Atlantic Ocean from the nations of the Barbary Coast prompted the U.S. to initiate a series of so-called peace treaties, collectively known as the Barbary Treaties. Individual treaties were negotiated with Morocco (1786), Algiers (1795), Tripoli (1797) and Tunis (1797), all of them more than once.

Time Line

  • 25 July 1785, Algeria began piracy against the U.S. with the capture of the schooner Maria, and Dauphin a week later. All four Barbary Coast states demanded $660,000 each tribute from the US. However, the US envoys were given only an allocated budget of $40,000 to achieve peace.
  • July 15, 1786, The United States entrees into it's first agreement with a Barbary Pirate state where it agrees to tribute in exchange for safe passage the Treaty with Morocco,
  • June 21, 1788. The United States Constitution is ratified.
  • 1795 the United States agreed to pay $800,000 to the Bey of Tunisia in exchange for 100 American captives, plus annual tribute that amounted to about 20 percent of the yearly federal budget.
  • 1796: United States signs a treaty with Tripoli President Adams agrees to annual tribute.
  • 1799: United States agrees to pay Tripoli $18,000 per year to secure safety for American trade ships in the Mediterranean; similar agreements with the other Barbary powers are also settled
  • February 17, 1801: Thomas Jefferson becomes President of the United States. Jefferson who is philosophically against paying for a standing navy, doesn't object to paying off the Pirates.
  • March 1801: Tripoli declares war on the United States and seizes numerous American merchant ships

Tripoli declares war because while the United States has agreed to pay them, the United States is not paying them in a timely manner. So the Pirates start causing trouble.

Thomas Jefferson uses a three pronged approach to deal with the declaration of war from the Bey of Tripoli.

A).. He dispatches a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean to confront the pirates and blockade Tripoli's main port.

B). The former envoy to the Tripoli pirates is dispatched from the United States back to Tripoli with a wild scheme to cause insurrection against the Bey. The envoy was William Eaton, one of the great American hero's lost to history. Eaton had been serving as a kind of Foreign Service Officer to the Barbary Coast Pirates under the Adams Administration so he was familiar with the part of the world and the pirates. Eaton had recently been recalled when Commodore Richard Morris, had shown up in Tripoli and had been "arrested", until he agreed to pay off Eaton's $26,000 debt. Commodore Morris's brother had recently cast the tie breaking vote in the US senate which selected Thomas Jefferson as our third President over Aron Burr. There is some question as to how much of that debt was actually owed. They Bey bascally saw the opportunity for a pay day and sticking it to the United States who wasn't paying tribute in a timely manner. Morrison's squadron paid the sum, and Eaton was returned to the US in disgrace with an angry Commodore Morris blaming him for the embarrassing episode.

Anyway Eaton makes it back to Washington City just ahead of the notice that the Tripoli had declared war on the US. Jefferson initially tells Eaton that the US government isn't going to honor / pay for his debt which Eaton claims was insured on behalf of the United States. If Jefferson did not agree to cover the debt it would bankrupt Eaton's family. The two men strike an agreement which see's the settlement of the debt deferred, and William Eaton boards a ship back to Tunisia with a wild plan to de-throne the Bey. Eaton with no money, and just a handful of marines (8) is tasked with starting a revolution in Tripoli unseat the Bey and place his older brother on the throne. Jefferson doesn't give William Eaton operational command over any ships, nor weapons, nor money to see this plot through. William Eaton basically gets passage back to North Africa, an honorary rank in the US Navy and a hand shake agreement with Jefferson.

C). Meanwhile.. Jefferson dispatches Tobias Lear, an infamous and also forgotten name in US history. Lear was George Washington's aid /book keeper/right hand man after Washington Left the White House. Lear is infamous for:

(1)Attempting to embezzle money from the aging Washington.
(2)Sending out letters to the founding fathers after Washington's death; offering to destroy Washington's personal correspondences and diary entries which could be embarrassing if entered into the historical record. Lear would provide this service for a price. Anyway Jefferson and Lear had done business and this leads to a series of lucrative postings for Lear under the Jefferson Administration. His latest was as diplomat seeking to settle/payoff the Bey of Tripoli.

The First part of Jefferson's plan is an utter failure. In Oct 1803 The USS Philadelphia under Captain Bainbridge is trying to blockade Tripoli. 1 Ship blockade. That's what you do when you have fewer than 10 ships in the entire US navy. The USS Philadelphia runs aground. Captain BainBridge immediately gives orders to dump the guns and gunpowder overboard and surrenders. The USS Philadelphia unbeaches itself a few hours latter when high tide comes up, but by that time the 307 US servicemen have already surrendered and become slaves of the Bey of Tripoli. So much for the US Navy. The US Navy's greatest exercise in Tripolian coastal waters in the first Barbary War is a raid in which they burn the captured USS Philadelphia thus keeping it from becoming the Bey of Tripoli's pirate fleets flag ship.

Meanwhile Jefferson's underfunded second plan to pressure the Bey of Tripoli shows some results. William Eaton and 8 marines(lead by 1st Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon) start recruiting mercenaries along with the Bey's older Brother(Hamet Karamanli) who is living in exile in Egypt. They promise US Navy Support, which they don't have, and elude to a chest of gold. The chest however doesn't contain gold, as Jefferson gave them no gold. Ultimately they are able to convince 500 European Mercenaries and Arabs to join them on their quest. This "army" with almost no support, and with just scant provisions crosses 500 miles into Tripoli. There with US Navy coordination, they successfully attack and capture the second largest city in Tripoli(Battle of Derna (April–May 1805).

After they capture Derna, they send word back to Malta the base of operations for the US navy squadron. Eaton calls for more Marines in preparation for an assault on the Capital Tripoli to unseat the Bey. Only Commodore James Barron refuses to support him. Commodore Barron tells Eaton their is no money in the Navy's budget for this war. He says his ships can't take another winter in the Mediterranean and need to be going back to home waters. Commodore Barron pulls the plug on William Eaton's amazing, but never really supported successful component of the First Barbary war. Eaton and O'Bannon are forced to abandon their "army" in the field as they slip aboard a US ship and flee back to the United States.

The now properly motivated the Bey of Tunisa and Tobias Lear reach an agreement where the US agrees to continue to pay tribute to the Tripoli pirates, to go along with the tribute we are paying to the Morrocco Pirates, and the Algerian Pirates and the Tunisian Pirates... and Jefferson declares victory.... but make no mistake, the United States Lost the first Barbary war. The enemy was left in the field, payments continued, and the Second Barbary war would be fought a decade latter over basically the same terms.

Notable Statements from William Eaton....

Congress should have dispatched a squadron of quaker meeting houses, as they would have performed identically to the US Navy.

Congress should change the sigil of the United States. Instead of an Eagle clutching arrows, they should change it to an Eagle clutching a Cigar, or a Fiddle Bow.

  • 1
    Good comprehensive answer, atrocious grammar in a couple of spots. (or auto-corrupt?) Jan 2, 2019 at 3:41
  • @mickeyf - Is this edit better?
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 4, 2019 at 21:58
  • @T.E.D. As information, it's a great answer. As written English, the rapid switches between "historical present" and "past tense" cause mental whiplash. Is "entrees" supposed to be "entered" or "enters"? "their is no money"? And to "elude" to a chest of gold sounds like a trick worthy of Houdini. But hey, this is the History stack, not the English stack, and I'm delighted to have this information provided by JMS on an episode about which I'm largely ignorant. I read a lot of history but will be the first to state that I'm rarely knowledgable enough to actually answer any of the questions here. Jan 5, 2019 at 1:56

Eaton's capture of Derne scared the Bashaw senseless, so when Lear, not knowing how impactful Eaton's victory was offered to pay $60,000, because he thought the bashaw would have demanded more. In reality, The bashaw would most likely have have accepted almost any treaty, so long as it meant he kept his throne from his brother.

  • 3
    Hi bookish and welcome to History SE. providing sources would improve your answer and make it more likely that people will upvote. Jan 1, 2019 at 17:04

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