They [the Algerines] have taken two of our vessels, and I fear will ask such a tribute for a forbearance of their piracies as the U.S. would be unwilling to pay. When this idea comes across my mind, my faculties are absolutely suspended between indignation and impotence.
To Nathanael Greene, Jan. 12, 1785
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Herding cats is hard on leaders.
Jefferson was trying both to promote American trade with European nations and recruit those nations to combat the Barbary pirates. Those city-states on the North Africa coast had preyed on other nations’ ships in the Mediterranean for centuries. The action of those pirates worked against his efforts to increase trade.
He had reached an accommodation with the Moroccans, who had seized an American ship. He feared he would not be as successful with the Algerians. The price they would demand for two ships and their crews would be more than the U.S. government would pay. What was he to do?
I’ve always loved the line he used to describe his impossible situation, that his mind was “absolutely suspended between indignation and impotence.”
That’s what herding cats can do to you. It leaves you both frustrated and incapable of fixing the problem.