Assessing the Jefferson Administration’s Actions During the First Barbary Wars and their Impact on U.S. Small War Policy

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.


Samuel T. Lair is a research associate at the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.  He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Nevada, Reno studying U.S. Foreign Policy and American Constitutionalism.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing the Jefferson Administration’s Actions During the First Barbary War and their Impact on U.S. Small Wars Policy

Date Originally Written:  May 24, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  July 25, 2019.

Summary:  The First Barbary War of 1801 was the first significant American engagement outside of the Western Hemisphere and the second significant engagement against a foreign state without a formal declaration of war. Furthermore, this war’s multilateral strategy of using a coalition and diplomatic pressure provides valuable insight into the elements of a successful limited military operation. 

Text:  In the early 18th century, the independent state of Morocco and the Ottoman vassal states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania (comprising modern-day Libya) formed what is known as the Barbary States. These rogue states would frequently engage in piracy, slave trading, and extortion along the Mediterranean coast, harassing the mercantile fleets of Europe in a form of textbook state-sponsored terrorism[1]. Prior to 1776, the American mercantile fleet under the tutelage of the British Empire was provided indemnity from the molestation of its Mediterranean trade. However, with the procurement of self-determination came an abrogation of many of the former Colonies’ favorable commercial pacts, including that with the Barbary States of North Africa. The United States’ mercantile fleet soon became frequently subject to the harassment of the Berber corsairs, subjecting American citizens to foreign slave camps and threatening the economy of the fledgling republic. In response, U.S. President George Washington agreed to pay tribute to the Barbary States in 1796. Following the election of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the Pasha of the Eyalet of Tripoli demanded increased tribute then shortly after declared war on the United States. In an unprecedented display of executive authority, President Jefferson responded by sending U.S. Navy Commodore Dale to protect U.S. interests in the Mediterranean and thus began the nation’s first small war.

Among the most impactful consequences of the First Barbary War was the now established authority of the Executive Branch to engage in limited military operations against foreign adversaries without a formal declaration of war. The President of the United States, although the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, has no expressed Constitutional authority to engage in acts of war without U.S. Congressional approval. Prior to the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the authority of the Executive Branch to proactively respond to threats against American interests abroad relied on the precedent of limited military operations beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s conduct during the First Barbary War. Jefferson received no formal authority from Congress before sending Commodore Dale in command of a small squadron to the courts of the Berber rulers to negotiate terms and protect U.S. merchant vessels, and it was not until after hostilities began that Congress retroactively authorized military force nearly nine months later[2]. Regardless, President Jefferson’s tactful use of executive authority in the commencement of the campaign and subsequent negotiation with the Maghreb states left an indelible mark for the standard of response to affronts on American interests.

Other notable precedents set during the First Barbary War was the multilateral approach of the Jefferson Administration. The war, though fought primarily by the United States Navy, was not entirely unilateral. The United States at the beginning of the war conducted operations jointly with the Royal Navy of Sweden in its blockade of Tripoli. Moreover, American forces received valuable logistical support from the Kingdom of Sicily, who provided ships, sailors, and a base of operations in the port city of Syracuse[2]. The American mission also applied ample diplomatic as well as military pressure in order to achieve its aims. In an apparent precursor to the Perry Expedition and the opening of Japanese markets to U.S. goods through gunboat diplomacy, the American mission was able to force the capitulation of both Morocco and Tunisia by employing bellicose diplomacy. The only Barbary State that the United States actively engaged in combat with was the Eyalet of Tripolitania under Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli.

In the commencement of military action against Pasha Qaramanli, the United States utilized both conventional and unconventional warfare. The first strategy was to deploy the United States Navy to blockade Tripoli and when appropriate, commence naval assaults on combatant naval forces and naval bombardments on Tripolitan cities. However, following the limited success of the naval operations, William Eaton, American consul to neighboring Tunisia, conspired to depose the Pasha and install his exiled brother, Hamet Qaramanli, on the Tripolitan throne[1]. Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, Eaton and Hamet with a small squadron of six U.S. Marines and a homogenous force of 400-500 Greek, Arab, and Turkish mercenaries began their march to Tripoli. En route, the motley force with naval support from U.S. Naval warships commenced the first land battle fought on foreign soil, assaulting and capturing the port city of Derna.

Despite the success of the Derna operation, it would be the joint use of force and diplomacy that would end hostilities between the United States and the Eyalet of Tripoli. With the Treaty of Tripoli, the United States agreed to abandon support for Hamet Qaramanli and pay 60,000 U.S. dollars. In return, the Pasha released all the American nationals taken as prisoner throughout the war and the United States once again received assurance its Mediterranean trade would commence unabated[2]. If not for the success of the Battle of Derna and the U.S. Naval Blockade, it is likely that such an agreeable settlement would not have been impossible. Although Eaton’s and Hamet’s forces may have been able to take Tripoli and forced peace without having to pay ransom for the American prisoners, it is equally plausible the continued campaign would have turned into a drawn out and increasingly costly venture. Therefore, an assured and expedient end to the war required both skilled diplomacy and military ferocity. 

The First Barbary War stands as a model for pragmatic foreign policy and whose lessons touch upon the nuance necessary for even contemporary issues of national interest. Its lessons demonstrate that sound foreign policy requires a balanced, multilateral approach which recognizes that military aggression ought to be matched with ample diplomatic pressure, the benefit of coalition building, the necessity of combined arms operations, and the opportunity in unconventional warfare. The United States’ engagement on the shores of Tripoli echoes in future engagements from Nicaragua to China and numerous other small wars which act as an indelible mark on American foreign policy. These engagements range in scope and outcome, geography and foe, but regardless, it is upon the bold precedent set by President Jefferson during the First Barbary War that all proceeding American small wars stand.


Endnotes:

[1] Turner, R. F. (2003). State Responsibility and the War on Terror: The Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates. Chicago Journal of International Law, 121-140. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from https://heinonline org.unr.idm.oclc.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/cjil4&id=145&men_tab=srchresults

[2] Boot, M. (2014). The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=YX7ODQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=savage+wars+of+peace+barbary+wars&ots=GxfcnIpmJY&sig=B7XyieNfzbC50MINDvo-92k4y7I#v=onepage&q=savage%20wars%20of%20peace%20barbary%20wars&f=false

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