The U.S. vs. International Terrorists


In 1793 the situation for American trade grew worse. For several years Portugal had been at war with Algiers. Now a Portuguese-Algerian truce enabled the corsairs of Algiers to sally again past the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic. In October and November, 1793, eleven American vessels were captured. Over one hundred more officers and men became prisoners. This time the captors disregarded the distinction between officers and men. Moses Morse, master of the brig Jane, wrote that “we were all of us Strip’t of evry thing, even part of our old sea cloths on our backs were taken, and the day after our arrival here was put in Iron’s, & a chain of about 30 Ib. and in that situation … was put to the Hardest Labour, and continue at the same every day. they have since taken off our Iron’s, but the cruel treatment is too much for me to discribe.” Another captain wrote that “Death would be a great relief & more welcome than a continuance of our present situation.”


At last Congress moved. The law creating the navy and authorizing the construction of six ships was passed March 27,1794. But still Jefferson’s preferred policy against the Barbary states was delayed. The wars of the French Revolution soon embroiled the United States in potential conflict with Great Britain or France. The pirates would have to wait to receive their medicine. Congress authorized ransom and tribute instead of war, and in 1795 peace was made with Algiers upon the promise to pay $642,500 plus an annual tribute in the form of naval stores. The surviving prisoners were freed.

By 1797 the United States had spent almost a million dollars to keep the peace. Nearly a third of this was in naval stores and weaponry, including a superb frigate. Here was the first time the United States provided a form of foreign military aid. The Dey of Algiers was so pleased with the quality of American warships that, with the approval of President John Adams and the Congress, he purchased several more. As one historian has commented, it seemed as if the United States was about to become “the arsenal of piracy.”

Meanwhile the new American Navy was in combat for the first time—against France in the undeclared war of 1798–99. In 1800 the quarrel with France was papered over and Jefferson was elected President. He inherited a lean, combat-tested navy and a Barbary policy of tribute that he had earlier deplored. In 1786 he had warned that a purchased peace would not last. He was right. In 1800 the Barbary states wanted more tribute and presents.

President Jefferson despatched a fighting squadron to the Mediterranean. It arrived in the summer of 1801 just after Tripoli declared war on the United States. Fighting began—desultory at first but mounting in intensity as American naval strength increased and Commodore Edward Preble assumed command. A score of naval heroes were made and enough tales of high adventure were written to enthrall schoolboys for ten generations. The most significant event was the loss to Tripoli of the frigate Philadelphia , Captain William Bainbridge, after the ship ran on a reef while pursuing a Tripolitanian cruiser. Bainbridge and his crew of 307 were captured, swelling the ranks of Barbary captives. The enlisted men were put to hard labor. Subsequently, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur became a hero for destroying the Philadelphia in a daring raid. The details of combat, however, are less significant than the policy considerations.

Jefferson in 1786 had underestimated the naval force required to subdue Algiers and he made the same mistake during the war with Tripoli. As Secretary of State in 1791 he came under attack from antimilitarists for proposing to use any force at all; as President he was criticized for failing to use enough force. One of his sharpest critics was Federalist Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire, who thought it “ bad policy, & base wickedness for a president to send brave men where they must inevitable [ sic ] be destroyed for the want of an adequate force. Had he sent a sufficient number of men & ships it would have been expensive—it might have endangered his reputation for economy & lessened his popularity with the rabble but would most probably have saved the lives of deserving men. He ought to have sent something more than a sufficiency—enough to inspire the Men with confidence—to guard against accidents—& to insure success.”

Another who shared Plumer’s reservations was William Eaton, an adventurer with a dubious past, an active imagination, and a taste for military glory. Baton’s solution was for the United States to provide combat support on land for one Hamet Caramanli, a Tripolitanian seeking to overthrow his brother and regain the throne. Caramanli, in gratitude, would then make peace with the United States and maintain a friendly posture. He would be our man in Tripoli. It was an early example of the policy of controlling another country’s behavior by trying to overthrow its government.