Commander in Chief: Barbary Pirates

As soon as it became an independent nation, the US faced an “unconventional enemy” in the Barbary Pirates who had controlled the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all exercised their power as Commander in Chief in various ways to deal with the threat posed by the pirates before Madison was eventually able to declare victory against them.

It was the end of the eighteenth century, and for hundreds of years, pirates from the coast of North Africa had controlled the Mediterranean Sea. They plundered and looted ships. They captured sailors, holding them for ransom or selling them into the slave trade. These pirates considered themselves at war with any nation with which they did not have a “treaty;” treaties were demands for “tributes:” payments to prevent attacks.

The British fleet had defended American ships from the Barbary pirates while it was part of England. Once the US won its independence US ships were on their own. Congress appropriated money for “tributes,” but the attacks continued. By 1794, the pirates were holding dozens of US citizens for ransom. Thomas Jefferson, who was then President George Washington’s Secretary of State, advised Congress to declare war on the pirates. Congress did not heed his advice. When John Adams became President in 1797, he continued paying the pirates. By the turn of the century, Congress was paying twenty percent of the US’s annual revenue to the pirates.

President Jefferson took office in 1801. He believed paying off the pirates only led to more demands, and announced there would be no more tributes paid. Tripoli demanded a payment of $225,000, Jefferson refused to pay, and Tripoli declared war on the US.

Jefferson took this defensive military action without seeking a declaration of war from Congress. He believed that a more decisive response would be needed, and so he asked Congress for formal action. In response, Congress passed the “Act for Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan Corsairs.” This act authorized an expanded force to “subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, or to his subjects.”

Years later in 1815, President James Madison sent the navy to the Barbary Coast once again. (The phrase “to the shores of Tripoli” from the Marine Hymn refers to this historic battle.) Madison eventually declared victory against the pirates in his Seventh Annual Message to Congress.

Source: Commander in Chief: Barbary Pirates
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