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Thomas Jefferson first heard of the depredations of the Barbary pirates of North Africa while serving as the American minister to the Court of Versailles in 1784–89. He referred to the Barbary powers as “these nests of banditti” and as early as November 1784 expressed the desire to “cut them to pieces by piecemeal.” The four Barbary States—Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis—extorted “tribute” from western powers in exchange for safe passage of commercial vessels in Mediterranean waters. Most European powers paid this tribute as the price of doing business, and on occasion even bribed the pirates to attack their rivals. The United States was forced to pay tribute as well. During the 1790s that tribute began to approach 10 percent of the federal budget.
Jefferson’s elevation to the American presidency in 1801 gave him the opportunity to strike back at the states harassing American shipping in the Mediterranean. Despite his long-standing disdain for the Barbary States, however, Jefferson initially responded to their hostility with a mix of conciliatory gestures (including payments) and a show of force. On May 14, 1801, just over two months into Jefferson’s presidency, the King of Tripoli chopped down the American flagpole at the American consulate, signaling war between the two nations.
President Jefferson held his first cabinet meeting the next day and raised the issue of sending U.S. Navy ships to the Mediterranean to confront Tripoli. Jefferson and his cabinet concluded that it was within the president’s constitutional rights to do so, and the administration issued orders to the commander of the American flotilla to be extremely aggressive in pursuing pirate vessels. The instructions read in part, “chastise their insolence—by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & vessels wherever you shall find them.” Jefferson would later congratulate the commander of the USS Enterprise for punishing “those barbarians” who for too long “trample[d] … on the rights & laws of human nature.”
Jefferson misled Congress in this account of events in the Mediterranean by claiming that the U.S. Navy maintained a defensive posture and engaged in hostilities only in case of an attack on an American ship. This restraint was due to the absence of any congressional authorization for the use of force, the president observed. Jefferson would not be the last American president to offer a less than candid account of events leading to hostilities, as we will see with James K. Polk (Document 28). Jefferson was determined to leave a legacy of executive restraint in keeping with his strict construction of the Constitution, however, and thus he offered a less than accurate account of American actions in the Mediterranean. Misleading accounts such as this one and those of Jefferson’s successors would erode Congress’ constitutionally mandated authority over war and foreign affairs.
An interesting side note regarding this message: Jefferson had his secretary, Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809), who with William Clark later led the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific coast, deliver written copies to Congress, breaking with the practice of delivering an annual message in person that began with George Washington. Jefferson’s precedent held until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson renewed the practice of addressing Congress in person.
President Thomas Jefferson, First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1801, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/mss/mtj//mtj1/025/025_0179_0186.pdf.
… To this state of general peace with which we have been blessed, one only exception exists. Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had permitted itself to denounce war on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer.
I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean, with assurances to that power of our sincere desire to remain in peace, but with orders to protect our commerce against the threatened attack. The measure was seasonable and salutary. The bey had already declared war. His cruisers were out. Two had arrived at Gibraltar. Our commerce in the Mediterranean was blockaded and that of the Atlantic in peril.
The arrival of our squadron dispelled the danger. One of the Tripolitan cruisers having fallen in with and engaged the small schooner Enterprise, commanded by Lieutenant Sterret, which had gone as a tender to our larger vessels, was captured, after a heavy slaughter of her men, without the loss of a single one on our part. The bravery exhibited by our citizens on that element will, I trust, be a testimony to the world that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace, but a conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race, and not to its destruction. Unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense, the vessel, being disabled from committing further hostilities, was liberated with its crew.
The legislature will doubtless consider whether, by authorizing measures of offense also, they will place our force on an equal footing with that of its adversaries. I communicate all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstances of weight.
I wish I could say that our situation with all the other Barbary States was entirely satisfactory. Discovering that some delays had taken place in the performance of certain articles stipulated by us, I thought it my duty, by immediate measures for fulfilling them, to vindicate to ourselves the right of considering the effect of departure from stipulation on their side. From the papers which will be laid before you, you will be enabled to judge whether our treaties are regarded by them as fixing at all the measure of their demands or as guarding from the exercise of force our vessels within their power, and to consider how far it will be safe and expedient to leave our affairs with them in their present posture….
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