- Historic Sites
The U.S. vs. International Terrorists
A Chapter From Our Past
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Congress, however, was in no mood to tax and spend; nor could it compel contributions from the states. An infinitesimal sum—$80,000—was available for negotiations. Adams and Jefferson discovered from an ambassador of Tripoli in London that the annual amounts demanded by Tripoli and Tunis were far in excess of “the Limits of Congress, and of Reason.” Furthermore, peace with Tripoli and Tunis was of no value as long as there was no peace with Algiers, since Algiers could block the entrance of American shipping into the Mediterranean. Nothing was done.
Jay’s optimism evaporated quickly and by 1787, with the Constitutional Convention about to convene, he had ceased to make any significant effort to persuade Congress to act. He took masochistic delight in America’s troubles on the theory that only complete degradation could compel the people to improve their condition by forming a powerful government. In an address to the people of New York in 1788, he lamented: “Our shipyards have almost ceased to disturb the repose of the neighbourhood by the noise of the axe and the hammer; and while foreign flags fly triumphantly above our highest houses, the American stars seldom do more than shed a few feeble rays about the humbler masts of river sloops and coasting schooners.… The Algerines exclude us from the Mediterranean and adjacent countries; and we are neither able to purchase nor to command the free use of those seas.”
By then the old government under the Articles of Confederation was fading away, unlamented by Jay and those who shared his vision. The new Constitution was before the states for ratification. In 1789 the Constitution came into force with George Washington as President and John Adams, home from London, as Vice President. Soon Jefferson would return from Paris to become the nation’s first Secretary of State.
The Constitution did not bring about a magical, instantaneous change. In Algiers the despondent American captives from the Maria and the Dauphin were still enslaved, except for seven dead of the plague. Year by year the asking price for ransom had gone up, and an effort by Jefferson to employ a religious order called the Mathurins, dedicated to ransoming captives, had come to nought. American trade to the Mediterranean was at a complete halt.
The situation was static for more than a year under the new government, while Congress and the executive were busy establishing procedures and getting organized. But late in 1790 Secretary of State Jefferson received a detailed proposal from a European friend (whose identity is a mystery to this day) for carrying war to the Mediterranean, for seizing rich booty, taking Barbary prisoners, even selling them into slavery. Jefferson was delighted. He wrote two reports to Congress and the President on the state of Mediterranean trade and on the captives in Algiers, recommending war.
Congress discussed the reports in closed session. The best record of what was said is the journal of Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania. Sometimes called “the first Jeffersonian,” Maclay reacted with deep suspicion. Jefferson’s reports, he said, “seemed to breathe resentment, and abounded with martial estimates in a naval way. We have now fourteen unhappy men in captivity in Algiers. I wish we had them relieved, and the trade to the Mediterranean abandoned. There can be no chance of our wanting a market for our produce.”
The Senate responded in January, 1791, with the oft-quoted resolution “That the trade of the United States to the Mediterranean cannot be protected but by a naval force, and that it will be proper to resort to the same as soon as the state of the public finances will admit.” Maclay, a classic agrarian antimilitarist, opposed the resolution. He deplored the fact that the taxes that would support a navy were called “bonds of our Union” by some of his fellow senators. “War is often entered into to answer domestic, not foreign purposes. I fear such was the design of the present report. It was even talked how many ships should be fitted out and of what force.” Maclay believed that Barbary affairs were a pretext of “the court” to build a powerful central government in order to annihilate state government. An army for unnecessary war with the Indians and a navy would require “a host of revenue officers.” The result would be “farewell freedom in America.”