The U.S. vs. International Terrorists

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John Adams in London played the cool skeptic. Adams agreed that “Avarice and Fear are the only Agents at Algiers,” but he doubted that Congress had the will to raise a force sufficient to use fear as an instrument. Furthermore, he calculated that war would be ten times more expensive than tribute “and when you leave off fighting you must pay as much money as it would cost you now for peace.” To do nothing would mean abandoning a trade worth “more than half a million sterling a year.”

The problem, said Adams to Jefferson, was Congress. Until Congress imposed regular taxes and raised a sufficient revenue “you and I as well as every other Servant of the United States in Europe ought to go home, give up all Points, and let all our Exports and Imports be done in European Bottoms. My Indignation is roused beyond all Patience to see the People … in a Torpor, and see them a Prey to every Robber, Pirate and Cheat in Europe.” Adams, the cantankerous New Englander, exaggerated regional differences over foreign policy in the United States and put the blame for impotence on the Southern states. He said he was as ready in theory to fight as Jefferson. If his Virginia friend could persuade the South, Adams promised that the other states “from Pennsylvania northward would not object. It would be a good occasion to begin a Navy.”

Jefferson disagreed with Adams’ arithmetic and did not share his pessimism. In a famous letter on July 11,1786, he marshaled all his arguments in favor of war. “1. Justice is in favor of this opinion. 2. Honor favors it. 3. It will procure us respect in Europe, and respect is a safe-guard to interest. 4. It will arm the federal head with the safest of all instruments of coercion over their delinquent members and prevent them from using what would be less safe.… 5. I think it least expensive. 6. Equally effectual.”

The fourth point was the most interesting, for it raised the issue of the domestic political uses of a foreign policy based on armed force. Jefferson at this stage, a year before the Constitutional Convention, was an unabashed Federalist. He saw the possibility of disunion and the need for power to prevent it. But he feared a standing army as a dangerous instrument of coercion. A navy could bring pressure on coastal cities, could coerce by controlling trade; but it could not strike inland, could not attack the hearth of Jefferson’s beloved husbandman.

Jefferson and Adams agreed that the United States would get no assistance from France and Great Britain. They even suspected that the British were encouraging the Barbary states to attack American shipping. But, said Jefferson, the United States might be able to negotiate a naval alliance with some of the lesser maritime states. He wrote to his friend James Monroe at home that if the United States could supply “a couple of frigates, a convention might be formed with those powers establishing a perpetual cruise,” which would bring the pirates to reason. With or without such a confederacy, the United States must have a naval force. “It will be said, there is no money in the treasury. There never will be money in the treasury, till the Confederacy shows its teeth.”

While Jefferson waxed ever more enthusiastic and made calculations of how many naval guns would be necessary and how much each gun would cost, Adams grew more resigned to national failure. He said that Jefferson’s estimates of naval requirements were far too low. No war should be started unless the nation had the means and determination to fight to a finish, which meant “finally breaking up these nests of Banditti.” But, alas, the “States are so backward that they will do nothing for some years.”

The man in the best position to judge what the states would do was John Jay, Secretary to Congress for Foreign Affairs, closest equivalent to Secretary of State in a government without an executive branch. Jay was an intelligent but somewhat arrogant aristocrat who looked on the Congress he served with contempt. Never in the twentieth century did any believer in presidential power heap as much scorn on the legislature for supposed lack of vision or courage in foreign affairs.

When Jay first learned that Algiers had declared war on the United States, he had some hope. “If we act properly,” he wrote Adams, “I shall not be very sorry for it. In my opinion it may lay the foundation for a navy, and tend to draw us more closely into a federal system.” And to the Congress he said: “This war does not strike me as a great evil. The more we are ill-treated abroad the more we shall unite and consolidate at home. Besides, as it may become a nursery for seamen, and lay the foundation for a respectable navy, it may eventually prove more beneficial than otherwise.” And to Jefferson he declared: “If our Government could draw forth the Resources of the Country which … are abundant, I should prefer War to Tribute, and carry on our Mediterranean Trade in Vessels armed and manned at the Public Expence.”