The U.S. vs. International Terrorists

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Thus, Americans were on their own. Congress in 1784 instructed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to negotiate treaties with the Barbary states. Franklin soon returned from Paris to the United States, his place as minister to France taken by Jefferson, and John Adams assumed the post of minister to Great Britain. From Paris and London the two men grappled with the question of the Barbary states and directed some lesser diplomats in attempted negotiations.

At first the problem was theoretical. There were no American ships seized in 1783 or 1784 because few American shipowners had yet returned to trading after the devastation of war. But soon vessels began to resume the important prewar trade with Spain, Portugal, and the Mediterranean. Before 1776 an estimated one hundred American colonial vessels a year had carried fish, grain, flour, and rum to southern Europe. Americans confidently expected that the volume of trade and profit would double in the 1780’s—but these high expectations were soon violently dashed.

On July 25, 1785, the schooner Maria , of Boston, Captain Isaac Stephens, was sailing toward the Strait of Gibralter and Cadiz, Spain. The sails of a vessel appeared on the horizon and came rapidly closer. She carried fourteen guns, flew the flag of Algiers, and quickly declared the Maria captive. Six days later the ship Dauphin , of Boston, Captain Richard O’Brien, met the same fate. The twenty-one officers and men of the two vessels were carried to Algiers and slavery. They would be freed, the captors said, when the United States paid a heavy ransom and purchased a peace treaty. Did not the Americans understand that Algiers considered herself at war with all nations that had not agreed to pay regular tribute? The news of these warlike, or piratical, seizures soon reached Jefferson and Adams. As Woodrow Wilson was to say about German submarine attacks in 1917, the United States now faced “overt acts.”

For a moment Jefferson and Adams saw some hope. An agent sent to Morocco came back with a quick and misleadingly easy treaty that cost only $20,000 and, while it lasted, protected American shipping from Moroccan capture.

But the American agent sent to Algiers reported that the twenty-one captives would be freed upon payment of $59,496. Captains were $6,000 per head, mates and passengers $4,000, sailors $1,400. Eleven per cent was to be added “according to custom.” Jefferson, Adams, and John Jay, the Secretary to Congress for Foreign Affairs, then began a searching discussion of the connection of foreign and domestic policy, the use of violence to achieve objectives, and the difficulty of defining and acting upon the national interest. The issues raised and the arguments used so early in our national history have echoed down to the present.

What should a nation do when its merchant shipping is seized and its citizens are held captive by a small, distant enemy whose only objective is to collect ransom and perpetual bribes as the price of refraining from further captures? Swallow pride and pay? Abandon trade in dangerous waters? Seek assistance from other nations? Or incur the expense of a fighting navy in order to free the captives and punish, perhaps even destroy, the captors? The questions become more difficult to answer when the offended nation is without a reliable federal revenue, without a navy, even without an executive branch to carry through a policy. This was the case for the United States government under the Articles of Confederation in 1786.

Jefferson approached the problem by asking what kind of people Americans ought to be. “Were I to indulge my own theory, I should wish them to practise neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe, precisely on the footing of China. We should thus avoid wars.…” But Jefferson admitted that, despite his own predilection, the American people would turn to the sea. They believe “it is necessary for us to take a share in the occupation of the ocean.” An equal share of the ocean would lead to wars and threats of war. A navy was a first necessity. “Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish, often prevents them.”

Confronted with the spectacle of Americans chained to slavery and hard labor in Algiers, Jefferson became uncharacteristically impetuous and emotional. The pirates were an unspeakable affront. He gagged at the prospect of rewarding criminality through bribery. He was hot for an American navy, hot for punishing the “Algerines,” hot for victory at the cannon’s mouth. He gathered naval intelligence with relish and diligence, delighted in proposing tactics and strategy, scorned the fighting abilities of the Barbary mariners, and dreamed of setting John Paul Jones loose among them. On this question Jefferson was not the cautious figure familiar to students of his Presidency, but rather a vicarious commodore pacing the quarterdeck of his mind, sending ships to battle and disposing his forces.