Thomas Jefferson faced a lingering foreign crisis early in his administration. For more than twenty years, he had been urging military action against Arab corsairs on the Barbary coast. These were fast, cheap warships that preyed upon merchant shipping along the northern shore of Africa. Various Arab rulers there would regularly declare war against European countries and then begin seizing their ships and men. The captured crews would be held for ransom or sold in the market as slaves. “Christians are cheap today!” was the auctioneer’s cry.
This practice had been going on for centuries.As many as a million and a quarter Europeans had been enslaved by Muslims operating out of North Africa. When he served as America’s minister to France in the mid-1780s, Jefferson had once confronted an Arab diplomat, demanding to know by what right his country attacked Americans in the Mediterranean:
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.
Confronted by such obstinacy, Jefferson appealed to John Adams, who was then America’s minister to England. But Adams was unwilling to fight. Jefferson resolved from those early days to fight the Muslim hostage-takers. “We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our own commerce. Can we begin it on a more honourable occasions or with a weaker foe?” he wrote to James Madison in 1784. The kidnapping and ransoming of American merchantmen continued for nearly twenty years.
The Washington and Adams administrations had gone along with the European practice of paying off the Barbary rulers. It was a protection racket, pure and simple. Adams believed paying tribute was cheaper than war. “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever,” he said. Paying off the Barbary rulers was not cheap. When Jefferson came into office, the United States had already paid out nearly $2 million. This was nearly one fifth of the federal government’s yearly income!The Bashaw of Tripoli declared war on the United States in 1801. Jefferson was determined to fight rather than pay tribute. Jefferson sent Commodore Edward Preble in command of the USS Constitution to strengthen America’s naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea.
Bennett then recounts some of the exploits of Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur and then concludes:
By 1805, the pirates had had enough. Jefferson’s willingness to use force had triumphed in America’s first war on terror in the Middle East.
Well, to quote Paul Harvey, here's "The rest of the story." Or should I say the beginning of the story.
In his effort to praise the apparent foresight of Jefferson, Bennett does a disservice to both George Washington and John Adams. For while it was true that Jefferson did express a desire to directly confront the Barbary threat, the key question is: with what?
The answer was, of course, the navy. And while Jefferson did want to build up the navy in 1786, the developing political situation—in which he emerged as the leader of the decidedly anti-naval Democrat Republicans—definitely affected his public support of a strong navy and thus prevented him from throwing his weight behind a large naval buildup. In fact, he and his party attempted to thwart the Federalist naval program at every turn. They viewed the navy as both inherently expansionist and as a source for government patronage and corruption. They also feared that a strong navy would be used against the French, whom they favored against the British--whom the Federalists favored--in the international arena.
Despite this, some few ships were approved under Washington--and fewer still built under Adams. Despite the reduced naval program, the Federalists still succeeded in building a small and effective force that was used in the undeclared naval war against France (the so-called Quasi War) from 1798-1800.
In fact, thanks to the experience gained during these actions, then Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert was able to implement various rules and regulations and was able to evaluate both these as well as the performance of naval officers. Thus, the trial by fire of the Quasi-War proved to be a valuable learning tool for the nascent U.S. Navy.
With lessons learned, a much more effective force was prepared to be called upon when and where needed, as in 1805 when President Jefferson turned to them to deal with the Barbary Pirates. Therefore, while Jefferson deserves credit for finally confronting the Barbary Pirates, it must be remembered that he was able to do so only because of the efforts of his two predecessors, and despite the political policies favored by he and his party.
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