Profiles in Liberty: The Barbary Pirates

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By Dave Smith, Senior Contributor, USADC.

“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli; we fight our country’s battles, in the air, on land, and sea.“ – The Marines’ Hymn (author unknown)

With the rise in commerce following the feudal self-sufficiency of the Middle Ages, technological advances in seafaring, and increased discovery and exploration arose a new villain:  pirates.

Based out of North African states of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, the Barbary Pirates preyed on ships in the Mediterranean, plundering commercial vessels and conscripting the crews into slavery.  As they grew more successful, the pirates extended their reach to coastal Europe; at one point, they abducted an entire Irish village population for the slave trade.  It is estimated that as many as 1.5 million people were enslaved by the Barbary “corsairs”.

The European powers eventually calculated that it was cheaper to pay the pirates rather than go to war, so a system of “tributes” was established to secure safe passage.  American ships were protected by the British Navy during the colonial days; when the United States declared independence and went to war with Britain, France offered its protection to American vessels.

Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation was faced with a question:  pay the pirates, sacrifice goods and sailors, or fight?  Unsurprisingly, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams disagreed, with the former wanting to fight and the latter favoring payment.  Jefferson even attempted to assemble a coalition of American and European nations for a mission, but Adams won the day, and the United States signed treaties offering payment.  By 1800, payment of tribute to the North African states was 10-20% of the entire federal budget.

The conflict was influential in the early history of the new Republic.  In the Federalist Papers, both Alexander Hamilton (Federalist 24) and James Madison (Federalist 41) reference the pirate threat and protection of American trade as justification for a more assertive federal government, and it was to protect the growing American merchant marine that the United States Navy was founded in 1794.

On taking the office of President in 1801, Jefferson decided to end the payment of tributes on both economic grounds and as a matter of principle.  The Barbary response was a declaration of war on the United States by the state of Tripoli.   Without waiting for his own Congress to issue a formal war declaration, Jefferson sent a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to fight the pirates.  When the Marines and Navy captured Tripoli in 1805, they installed a new monarch who negotiated an end to the war.  The dress sword worn today by Marines symbolizes this first foreign soil victory for the young nation.

Emboldened by what they saw as American weakness following the War of 1812, the Barbary Pirates declared war again on the USA in 1815, this time led by the state of Algiers.  The US Navy was once again victorious, and the practice of paying ransoms and bribes to the pirates met its final end.  The Barbary States themselves would soon be ended by the European colonization of Africa.

Born in the same county as Davy Crockett in East Tennessee, Dave found his way to Texas where he works in the petrochemical industry. He’s written and spoken about politics on various media outlets including Fox, ABC, and Townhall. He is a graduate of Tennessee Tech with a degree in chemical engineering. Dave writes a popular feature at USDR called “Dave Smith Said That”. Follow Dave on Twitter: @semperlibertas.

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