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The U.S. vs. International Terrorists

July 2024
17min read

A Chapter From Our Past

Terrorists hijack an airplane and hold the passengers for ransom. A merchant ship is seized by the forces of a small, disorganized state. The United States retaliates. The ship and crew are rescued, but many lives are lost.

Such events are shocking yet familiar manifestations of the apparent lawlessness of the modern world. But if we could bring back an American of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and ask his comment, he would show little surprise except, perhaps, at the changes in the technology of transportation. He would have seen the United States confront a similar phenomenon: the Barbary pirates.

There were in the eighteenth century four Barbary states lining the north coast of Africa from Egypt westward to the Atlantic. Morocco on the Atlantic was an independent state ruled by an emperor. Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—corresponding roughly to the modern states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya—were nominally part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, but were in fact brazenly independent of Constantinople. The rulers of all four states maintained their revenue and power by preying on commerce—capturing ships and cargoes, making and ransoming slaves. Nations desiring immunity from these depredations could get it for a heavy price: continual tribute in cash and gifts and large sums to negotiate and renew so-called peace treaties.

The enslaved captives were usually treated according to the amount of ransom each would bring. Captains and distinguished passengers were well fed and housed. Some became advisers to their captors; others were allowed to open taverns or otherwise go into business; all were allowed to correspond with friends and representatives of their own governments in order to raise the money for ransom. Common sailors, illiterate and friendless, men of uncertain nationality and without influence, were put to hard labor building breakwaters and other public works. Their food was terrible and they were clothed in rags. With scant medical attention many of them died. Since they were worth relatively little in ransom, the Barbary rulers valued them for their labor as slaves.

The naval power of the Barbary states was enough to terrorize lightly armed or unarmed merchant ships, but was insignificant compared to that of any major European navy. Why then was the piracy condoned, even encouraged by the payment of tribute? The answer is that large, wealthy maritime powers such as Great Britain found it expedient to pay the price of protection for British commerce in order to keep the pirates in existence as a threat to smaller commercial rivals such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Naples, and—after 1783—the United States. London merchants believed, Benjamin Franklin observed, “that if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”

Had the smaller powers banded together in a naval alliance, they could have put an end to piracy. They talked of coalition, but did not act effectively. The result was that the Barbary states maintained a constant state of war with one or more of the smaller European nations. Algiers, for example, might make peace if the price was right and sell a batch of captives back to freedom. A few years later, with the supply of slaves depleted, Algiers would find some pretext, some alleged insult or failure to pay tribute on time, and casually declare war again. The captain of a merchant vessel from a small country could never know when he began a voyage whether by the time he reached the North African coast his country would be at war with one or more of the Barbary states.

Before the war for independence Americans traded safely in the Mediterranean under the protection purchased for all British subjects by the government in London. American peace negotiators in Paris in 1782 tried to persuade the British to continue this service for independent Yankee shipping. No luck. A few British statesmen had fraternal feelings toward the United States, but the majority agreed with the influential publicist Lord Sheffield that the upstart Americans should be punished by the most severe economic policy that Parliament could devise. Sheffield wrote in 1783 that the United States would not “have a very free trade in the Mediterranean; it will not be the interest of any of the great maritime powers to protect them there from the Barbary States.… The Americans cannot protect themselves from the latter; they cannot pretend to a navy.” American diplomats asked France to guard the new nation’s Mediterranean trade. The French promised only to provide their “good offices” when the United States dealt with the Barbary states. The cost to France and the benefit to the United States of good offices were the same: zero. Vergennes, the French foreign minister, was quite willing to give advice to the Americans, but it all boiled down to a polite reiteration of the comment that the United States did indeed have a serious problem.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.

Eaton failed to gain Jefferson’s full support, but, undeterred, returned to the Mediterranean, raised a ragtag army, and led a remarkable desert campaign on behalf of Caramanli. Just as Eaton thought he was on the verge of victory, Tobias Lear, American consul general in Algiers, came to Tripoli and paid $60,000 ransom for some American captives and signed a peace treaty. Caramanli was left dangling, a pitiful suppliant for charity from the United States. Eaton and his friends excoriated Jefferson and Lear, but the Senate in 1805 ratified the peace Lear had made.

The year 1805 also brought the first Moslem envoy to the United States. Sidi Soliman Mellimelni arrived from Tunis with a large and colorful retinue. In Washington he was a major tourist attraction but was ineffectual in negotiating a dispute arising out of the American blockade of Tripoli during which some Tunisian vessels were seized. Mellimelni toured several American cities before returning to Tunis, where, in 1807, Tobias Lear found the Tunisians amenable to a settlement—perhaps because of reports by Mellimelni on the size and power of the United States.


During the next decade the Barbary question nearly disappeared from the agenda of American foreign policy, overshadowed by the controversies with Great Britain that culminated in the war of 1812. American naval forces returned to home waters and fought valiantly in that war. Nearly all American merchant vessels also withdrew from the Mediterranean. But in 1812 Algiers broke her treaty with the United States, captured an American vessel, and enslaved the crew. Soon after peace with Great Britain was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, President James Madison opened the last chapter of the Barbary story by asking Congress to declare war on Algiers. Congress complied.

Two powerful squadrons—one under Stephen Decatur and the other under William Bainbridge—sailed to the Mediterranean and inflicted heavy damage on the Algerians. The Dey of Algiers signed, almost literally at the cannon’s mouth, a treaty abolishing tribute in every form. He then procrastinated about putting the treaty into effect. The United States threatened more force. At the same time the British and the Dutch abandoned the old policy of tribute and administered a ferocious bombardment against the fortifications and fleet of Algiers. The Dey capitulated. Tunis and Tripoli, intimidated by the display of power, also turned gentle. Barbary piracy, as an act of governments, was over. The residual piracy of isolated private bands was easily suppressed. Henceforth, until the world wars of the twentieth century, American shipping traversed the Mediterranean in safety.

Some reflections are in order. The final destruction of Barbary piracy was attributed by most Americans to their own determination and naval prowess. The importance of Great Britain’s decision no longer to play the tribute game was overlooked, while patriotic naval heroes—Preble, Decatur, Bainbridge—filled the stage. The affair lost all complexity and emerged as melodrama in the popular mind. The debates within the American government over the use of force, the price of honor, and the sometimes hidden connections between domestic and foreign policy were overlooked. Yet these debates contain more drama and lasting interest than a score of naval engagements and expeditions “to the shores of Tripoli.”

The simplified version of the Barbary wars contributed its bit to the myth of American righteousness and omnipotence. Subconsciously, later Americans may have equated all foes from “backward” countries with the Barbary pirates: contemptible bandits motivated by fear and avarice alone. Withdrawal from the Mediterranean, tribute, or war may have been the only alternatives in dealing with the Barbary states at the turn of the eighteenth century. But those states were throwbacks to the middle ages rather than forerunners of the modern “Third World.”

Thus the Barbary experience should not be pressed too closely to provide lessons for the present. It is as important to know the differences as it is to note the similarities between Barbary pirates and modern hijackers. The Barbary predators were not motivated by ideological passion. They led no fervent national movement. They were, for all their violence and threats, entrepreneurs playing the game of snatching and selling men. They calculated profit against loss, declared war, made peace, and haggled over prices with equal nonchalance. When faced with superior force they backed off and ultimately, when the major powers no longer found it convenient to tolerate piracy, withdrew altogether from the game. The roots of modern terrorism are far deeper, far more entwined with powerful grievances and ideological objectives. The surface similarity with the Barbary piracy is there, but the solutions today are infinitely more difficult.

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