Roger Kaplan: Piracy Then and Now





[Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington, D.C.]

Reading about the activities of Somali highwaymen, seawaymen rather, brings to mind the circumstances of our Republic's first experience in power projection.

In 1785, as soon as the colonies -- battered by the War for Independence -- were in condition to resume the lucrative trade with southern Europe, two American merchant ships were seized by Algerian pirates, and their crews held for ransom.

Domestic considerations and fair-weather foreign friends caused the young nation to waste valuable time while figuring out how to respond, during which its citizens suffered further damage to their interests and lives. In the end, Thomas Jefferson's initial reaction was the right one: "Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish, often prevents them."

The Barbary pirates at the end of the 18th century had two operating methods. They sold "peace treaties" and they held ships, crews, and passengers for ransom. The major commercial power of the day, Great Britain, found it worth its while to buy treaties rather than wipe out the North African gangs, which it was well within its power to do. In effect kept in business by British subsidies, the pirates preyed on weaker maritime nations, improving Britain's competitive position. The calculation was a ruthless one. As Benjamin Franklin put it: "If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England's while to build one."

The young nation did not have a navy. Indeed, under the Articles of Confederation, the United States did not even have an executive branch legally empowered to devise and execute an anti-pirate policy. And one of the principal problems confronting Thomas Jefferson, the Confederacy's ambassador to France, was that the Congress was not especially keen on raising any money for a national war-fighting machine, either on land or on sea.

Thomas Jefferson saw the advantages that a strong central government could muster, diplomatically, if it had some muscle at its disposal. He wrote to James Monroe that with the Unites States taking the lead, "a convention might be formed with those powers establishing a perpetual cruise," which is to say a deterrent force, in the Mediterranean.

The Constitution gave the national government enhanced powers and responsibilities, but it was not until 1794 that the Congress authorized funds for a six-shop navy. By then, Algerian pirates had seized 11 more American vessels, putting more than 100 officers and men in conditions of wretched captivity. "Death would be a great relief," wrote one captain. But rather than using force, money and military supplies were used to ransom off the Americans.

Mr. Jefferson, temperamentally and philosophically scornful of the practice of paying tribute, accepted the war Tripoli declared on us in 1801. It did not go especially well for us. Capt. William Bainbridge was captured with his ship, the Philadelphia; the entire crew of 300 was put to hard labor and had to be ransomed off. In 1804 Lt. Stephen Decatur sailed into Tripoli harbor and destroyed the ship. Perhaps the most perceptive observation on the war was made by Sen. William Plummer of New Hampshire: "Had [Jefferson] sent a sufficient number of men and ships it would have been expensive -- it might have endangered his reputation for economy and lessened his popularity with the rabble, but most probably would have saved the lives of deserving men."

An American named William Eaton, acting in a private capacity, attacked Tripoli from the desert, planning to install opponents of the pirate gang that sat there. The campaign went well, but the Jefferson administration decided to end the war by resuming payments of tribute.

In 1815, after the continuing troubles with Great Britain were settled by the War of 1812, the problem of Barbary piracy returned, as Algiers reneged on the tribute deal and captured an American vessel. Congress declared war. Lt. Decatur and Capt. Bainbridge returned to the Mediterranean with much more power than the first time and brought memories of Carthage to Algiers. Great Britain, meanwhile, encouraged by the American example, gave up its policy of paying tribute and instead joined in the naval operations, which included heavy bombardments. Algiers accepted treaties, abolishing tribute; Tunis and Tripoli soon did likewise. Although lone-gun pirates continued to infest the North African coastline until the French established their hegemony there in the 1830s, state-sponsored piracy in that part of the world was finished -- until the 20th century...



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Bob Stapler - 11/27/2008

Kaplan's article (Piracy Then and Now), unfortunately leaves readers with the impression Jefferson was an advocate of the Navy. In fact, the opposite was true. He opposed the Navy from the moment Adams first proposed the creation of "wooden walls" because a) he felt it was too costly and irreversibly so (i.e., ships must be maintained), b) favored the militia as our first line of defense, c) was hostile toward the northern mercantile class (which was the reason for having a Navy), d) favored the radical French (who were just then attacking our shipping), e) opposed an officer corps necessarily populated by Federalists (too few Republicans were appropriately educated and trained to qualify), and f) saw the Navy as a major step toward a permanent military (which he viewed as a threat to liberty). Once he became president, however, he saw things in a different light, readily employing Adams' navy and marines and Washington's army for his own political ends. Otherwise, he mothballed most of the fleet both to reduce expenses and as a means to weaken the military (discharged most naval officers). In those days, the officer corps was the key to a navy (as ordinary sailors could easily shift between navy and commerce, whereas capable fighting officers were difficult to reacquire once lost). By cashiering 2/3 of the officer corps, (starting with the most experienced) Jefferson effectively crippled the Navy for half a generation through destroying its prestige and morale. If not for the Barbary pirates, we might have lost our Navy altogether. For an excellent account of our early Navy and the Jefferson’s role in discouraging it, read "Six Frigates", by Ian W. Toll ( http://www.amazon.com/Six-Frigates-Epic-History-Founding/dp/039333032X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&;s=books&qid=1227740939&sr=1-1 ).

Kaplan seems to have a beatific regard of Jefferson the icon at odds with Jefferson the man. Jefferson was often hypocritical as between philosophy and actions; and the Barbary incident was one of those times. Before he was president, he'd long advocated a peaceful, agrarian society (versus a pushy, commerce driven America); even to the point of advocating America ignore attacks on our commerce and retreating within our shores. He unequivocally advocated a strict and limited interpretation of executive powers before he had them, only to double our size (Louisiana Purchase) without reference to Congress when he did, and necessitating an expanded military presence to secure into the bargain. His decision to deploy the Navy to Tripoli was similarly unilateral, by passing Congress without a formal declaration of war. Despite his anti-militant domestic sentiments, he long championed the military exploits of the French and of Napoleon (i.e., selective militarism). He was a devious, vindictive and divisive politician who kept hidden his machinations against rivals, a strong sectionalist who manipulated every opportunity to the South’s favor at the expense of the northeast, and established a virtual Virginian dynasty lasting through three presidencies (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe). His partisanship was so strongly divisive it came very near to wrecking the union, with the northeast threatening to secede on more than one occasion. Jefferson’s rivalry with his own vice-president (Burr) ended with Burr’s political career in ashes despite an acquittal and in a permanent rupture with moderate Federalists. His rivalry with Marshall (over the roles and power of their respective branches – executive & judiciary) similarly split the country; precipitating a series of Constitutional clashes starting with Marbury v. Madison.

We are greatly indebted to Jefferson for our Declaration of Independence, his Constitutional contributions, diaries and extensive philosophical musings, but Jefferson the politician had a decidedly unattractive, disloyal and renegade side not yet fully explored.

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