It was bad enough that American merchants and seamen were regularly abused and insulted by the British imperial navy. To be humiliated by Barbary pirates was intolerable.
Few felt this dishonor more acutely than Thomas Jefferson. As early as 1784, from his perch as the American representative in Paris, he argued that the most economical and honorable course for dealing with Barbary piracy was to build a naval squadron that would remain on permanent station in the Mediterranean. He calculated that John Paul Jones, armed with 'half a dozen frigates,' could 'by constant cruising' of the Mediterranean waters cut the Barbary fleets to pieces and thereby 'totally destroy their commerce.' Jefferson 'saw no reason to buy from a weak state what he could achieve with less cost through a limited war.'
His plan was not limited to the building of a U.S. 'Mediterranean Squadron.' He proposed the creation of an international league for the permanent policing of the Mediterranean, with the United States playing a lead role. Jefferson's league would include all the smaller maritime powers of Europe and replicate the 'Armed Neutrality' that Russia's Catherine II had organized in 1780 to protect the smaller neutral shippers from attack by the British and French navies. 'Each state would contribute a quota of ships, sailors, and capital, and the campaign would be directed by a council of ministers of the confederated states in a European capital under American supervision.' The league's international fleet would remain 'in perpetual cruise' until the pirates' attacks ceased and 'the offensive capabilities of the North African regimes were destroyed.' As Jefferson explained, 'Such a convention, being left open to all powers willing to come into it, should have for its object a general peace, to be guaranteed to each by the whole.' Jefferson anticipated that all the commercial powers of Europe, 'except France, England, and perhaps Spain and Holland,' would join the proposed league. And he was not far wrong. Portugal expressed interest, and Jefferson received favorable responses from Naples, Venice, Malta, Denmark, and Sweden. Even the French seemed inclined to go along with what Lafayette enthusiastically called the 'Antipiratical Confederacy.' Jefferson's plan died when the British government expressed its strong, and predictable, disapproval, and the American Congress proved unwilling to pay for even one new frigate.
The problem of the Barbary pirates continued to prey on American statesmen's minds, however. A turning point came after the peace treaty between Portugal and the Dey of Algiers unleashed the Algerine pirates to attack American shipping in the Atlantic. Four days after news of the treaty reached the United States in December 1793. President Washington implored Congress to act. Three months later Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 providing for the building of four large frigates of forty-four guns each and two of twenty guns. The new American navy was built to fight pirates and to meet the challenge of Algiers.
Before American naval power could be brought to bear in the Mediterranean, the Washington administration negotiated a deal with the Dey, opening the Mediterranean to American shippers in exchange for a ransom of almost a million dollars. But other Barbary states continued to impose new demands, and the most obstreperous of the Barbary rulers, the Pasha of Tripoli, unsatisfied by the bribes offered by the United States, finally decided in 1800 to return to attacks on American shipping. Within a year he formally declared war. In the last days of the Adams administration, the Federalists prepared to launch a punitive expedition against Tripoli. But before it could be carried out, the Federalists were swept from power, and the Mediterranean problem landed back in the lap of the new president, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson returned to his earlier dreams of using the new American navy against the Barbary powers and establishing a permanent Mediterranean squadron to police those troubled waters and uphold the principles of international law. He saw only two choices: either 'abandon the Mediterranean, or keep up a cruise in it,' by which he meant war. In June 1801 a squadron of three frigates and a schooner sailed for Tripoli as the beginning of a naval campaign that would continue without interruption for the better part of four years.
The task the United States had set for itself was daunting. 'Four thousand miles from home, and in an area again beset by major war, the American squadron had to deal with the Pasha of Tripoli while at the same time keeping watch on the other restless rulers of a fifteen-hundred-mile stretch of African coast.' Between 1801 and 1804 American naval vessels cruised the Mediterranean, intermittently blockading Tripoli, occasionally engaging Barbary corsairs, sinking or capturing some Tripolitan ships, and, in a disastrous setback, losing the frigate Philadelphia, which ran aground in Tripoli's harbor. By the time the campaign was three years old, almost the entire U.S. Navy was deployed to the Mediterranean—all five of the remaining frigates, three brigs, three schooners, ten newly built gunboats, and two mortar boats. By the summer of 1804 a portion of this flotilla was firmly ensconced in the harbor of Tripoli (after the dramatic burning of the Philadelphia la a commando raid led by Stephen Decatur), bombarding the pasha's fortifications and city at will.
Jefferson supplemented this transoceanic naval campaign with vigorous international diplomacy. His plan for an international league was dead, but he successfully enlisted broad international support anyway. Sardinia-Piedmont and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies made their ports available and contributed supplies to the American fleet. Sweden and Denmark, frequent victims of Mediterranean piracy, contributed money to pay for the American naval campaign and acted as intermediaries with the pasha.
But what turned the tide in the conflict was an American adventure that defied the modern caricature of the early republic's foreign policy. In 1803 the American consul in Tunis, William Eaton, asked for permission from the Jefferson administration to mount a coup d'etat against Qaramanli, the current ruler of Tripoli, and install his brother as the new pasha. Secretary of State James Madison, though acknowledging that Eaton's plan did not 'accord with the general sentiments or views of the United States' with regard to meddling in 'the domestic contests of other countries,' nevertheless concluded it could not 'be unfair, in the prosecution of a just war, or the accomplishment of a reasonable peace" to exploit such opportunities when they came along.
In 1805 Eaton and a small group of U.S. Marines led a contingent of four hundred Greek, Levantine, and Arab volunteers and mercenaries across five hundred miles of desert to Tripoli's second city, Derna. Outside the town Eaton appealed to the residents to join their cause in return for a promise of 'perpetual peace and a free and extended commerce.' Then, with three U.S. Navy vessels pummeling the town from the sea. Eaton and his international band overwhelmed a larger Tripolitan force and drove out the governor. Henry Adams noted almost a century later that Eaton's actions had exhibited an 'enterprise and daring so romantic and even Quixotic that for at least half a century every boy in America listened to the story with the same delight with which he read the Arabian Nights.'
Eaton failed to take Tripoli, and American intervention did not end piracy in the Mediterranean. But Jefferson's naval campaign was largely successful. No less a figure than Admiral Horatio Nelson considered Decatur's burning of the Philadelphia 'the most bold and daring act of the age.' The pope declared the Americans had 'done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages.' Jefferson took a Hamiltonian pleasure in the way his military venture had earned the respect of the Buropean great powers. The assault on Tripoli had taught Europeans that the United States would not 'turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten.' It also established the permanent and influential presence in the Mediterranean that Jefferson had long sought. Americans had 'no intention of withdrawing again to the western shore of the Atlantic.' By the beginning of the nineteenth century the United States had established an 'impressive network of commercial and naval representatives in the Mediterranean,' with American consuls in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malaga, Alicante, Port Mahon, Leghorn, and Messina, and navy agents at Syracuse, Leghorn, Naples, and Malta.'
With this foothold in the Mediterranean, American diplomats aimed at more than merely assuring safe conduct for their merchants. Or rather, in trying to safeguard its commercial interests, the United States took a most expansive and typically liberal view of how that might be accomplished. Among the diplomats sent to further American interests in the Mediterranean were some of the leading apostles of American Enlightenment thought. David Humphreys and Joel Barlow, who negotiated peace with Algiers and remained deeply involved in shaping U.S. policy in the Mediterranean thereafter, were diplomats and practical men of the world. But they were also 'worldly philosophers' who wrote poems in praise of the 'new American Aera' and the power of commerce to enlighten mankind.' Even the more prosaic Timothy Pickering, now secretary of state, in his instructions to Eaton while the latter was consul-designate at Tunis, suggested that the 'great commerce' of the Tunisians, if ever properly developed, would provide the antidote to their piratical ways. 'If ever the states of Barbary lay aside their practice of depredating on the commerce of Christian nations,' he opined, 'it will probably be owing to an extension of their own commerce, which may convince them where their true interest lies by the greater advantage derived from trade.'
As with the Indian in the western territories, the Barbary pirate needed to be persuaded that his interests and those of the United States were actually the same. As with the Indian, the best solution lay in the conversion of the Barbary pirate into a Lockean man. If he refused, it might be necessary to convince him by other means. Jefferson's war against the Barbary powers had been fought not merely to protect American shipping and avenge a wrong. It also had a 'pedagogical content': 'the attempt to convert the Barbary states to liberal principles and an appreciation of the virtues of legitimate trade could at least be rationalized as an effort to make them see their own best interests.'
The American Mediterranean venture was not unique in this respect. On the North American continent, in dealing with Indians and Spaniards, the same blend of self-interested and lofty motives had shaped American behavior, the same combination of force and persuasion had been used to transform peoples into contented and peaceful dwellers in the American liberal order. The chief difference—and an important one—was that Americans never intended to settle themselves in the lands of North Africa and thus did not have to suffer the same moral pangs of displacing a people who refused either to become Lockeans or to make room for Lockean man. That particular problem existed only in North America. But that is why American behavior in the Mediterranean provides such a useful glimpse of what was to be the future of the nation's foreign policy, especially by the end of the nineteenth century, when American territorial ambitions, at least, had dwindled. For even when Americans felt no further need to conquer new territory, by peaceful means or otherwise, they conceived it as both in their interests and in accord with their universalist principles to make liberal converts out of those with whom they did business, preferably by friendly persuasion, by letting the powerful force of commerce work its magic, and sometimes, though rarely, by military intervention.