THE BARBARY CORSAIRS: CONQUERORS OF UNITED STATES
COMMERCE AND THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION
History and Social Science
by Jason Freewalt
April 9, 1998
injury results from an unstable government.
Madison, "Federalist 62."
INTRODUCTION AND THESIS
became a problem for the American colonies as soon as the first
settlers landed in Massachusetts and Virginia. From ca. 1620
to ca. 1720, piracy along the shores of colonial America enjoyed
a "golden age" in which its terrorism and looting wreaked
havoc on colonial commerce.[i] Later,
after securing nationhood from Great Britain and losing Britain's
protective "shield" over foreign commerce, the young
United States, under the Articles of Confederation, found itself
at the mercy of pirates in other parts of the world as well.[ii] The
pirates of the North African states of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli,
and Tunis, known as the Barbary states, plagued United States commerce
in the Mediterranean Sea region,[iii] creating
a crisis for the new Confederacy, and perhaps posing the worst
threat to the commerce of the Confederation.
the Articles of Confederation, the young United States faced this
humiliating crisis but failed to coordinate an effective response. According
to Bailey, "The feebleness of America under the Articles of
Confederation was nowhere more glaringly revealed than in dealings
with the Barbary pirates."[iv]
purpose of this paper is to show that this failure to respond effectively
to the depredations was due to the weaknesses of the Articles of
Confederation. The Articles, by their nature, made an effective
response difficult, if not impossible. To this end, this
paper will show that the United States’ response to the depredations
on commerce was inadequate because the response failed to follow
the criteria for an effective response. Furthermore, this
paper will show that the criteria for an effective response could
not have been met due to the inherent weaknesses of the Articles
of Confederation. Therefore, the United States’ response
to the piratical depredations of the Barbary corsairs failed due
to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.
DEFINITION OF TERMS
developing the thesis of this paper, it is first necessary to define
the terms of the thesis. This chapter discusses the following
terms and concepts: Articles of Confederation, Barbary corsairs,
depredations of the corsairs, crisis caused by the depredations,
and the humiliating nature of the crisis. These terms are
defined here to provide sufficient background with which to develop
the thesis of this paper.
Articles of Confederation
order to fully understand the magnitude and multitude of the deficiencies
of the Articles of Confederation that led to an ineffective United
States response to the problem with the Barbary corsairs, it is
first necessary to examine the intricacies of the Articles of Confederation.
after the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress
drafted and approved the Articles of Confederation. The states
ratified its thirteen articles, which established the name, "The
United States of America,"[v] and
created a confederacy in which the sovereign states agreed to enter
into "a firm league of friendship with each other."[vi] The
choice of the words, "league of friendship," was intentional
on the part of the founding fathers, who did not want to produce
a well-ordered, central government. In their opinion, the
sovereign states were "order-centered" in themselves.[vii] The
intent was to form a government that contrasted the tyrannical,
central authority of Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence,
by its very nature, formed the colonies into a nation that abandoned
such potentially tyrannical government. So, it is quite understandable
that the founders were eager to avoid any great similarities to
the British system, choosing instead to form a weaker central government.[viii]
the Articles of Confederation, the states were considered "the
soul of [the] confederation."[ix] Therefore,
the intentionally weak, “confederal” government, run
by an elected congress without a strong chief executive, dealt
with a very limited range of concerns common to the sovereign states.[x] Relying
heavily on the voluntary cooperation of the states,[xi] the
Confederation, according to James Madison, gave each state the
right to "dissolv[e] the Union altogether" if any state "breach[ed]
. . . any of the articles of the Confederation."[xii] This
encouraged the idea of a "league of friendship," rather
than the idea of a unified "nation."
the emphasis on voluntary cooperation and the right of the states
to dissolve the Confederation at any time, the Articles of Confederation
carried other provisions that reflected the consideration that
the states were the “soul” of the Confederacy. One
particular provision was the direct tax of citizens. The
Articles encouraged voluntary taxation of the states to pay for "expenses
that [were] incurred for the common defence [sic] or general
made no provision for directly taxing citizens to fund the central
the Articles provided no standing army or navy, fearing that such
a military force would become "tools of the tyrant."[xv] According
to the sixth article, "No vessels of war shall be kept up
in time of peace by any state . . . nor shall any body of forces
be kept up by any state, in time of peace." This provision
of the Articles, regarding a peacetime military, reflects the widespread
isolationist view of the day,[xvi] influencing
the writers of the Articles of Confederation. As John Adams
wrote in a letter to the president of Congress on April 18, 1780, "Let
Us above all things avoid as much as possible Entangling ourselves
with [Europe's] Wars or Politicks [sic] . . . America has
been the Sport of European Wars and Politicks [sic] long
Articles of Confederation formed a "league of friendship" relying
on voluntary cooperation, with no reliable revenue source, and
no standing army or navy. While the writers of the Articles
had understandable rationale for forming such a government, the
Confederacy encountered foreign enemies who took advantage of the
weak central government of the United States.
was the situation into which the Barbary corsairs of North Africa
entered. The word "corsair" comes from the Latin
word for "run" or "course,"[xviii] and
is simply a pirate based in the Mediterranean Sea region.[xix] Tucker
describes the typical corsair as having been "decked out in
a broad crimson sash worn over the left shoulder, and display[ing]
a heavy gold chain. He [or she] wore a lace cap, ornate jacket,
and white knickerbockers, and carried three or four handy pistols
around his belt."[xx] To
frighten their intended victims, these corsairs flew flags from
the mainmasts of their ships, which depicted the familiar skull
and crossbones, bleeding hearts, hourglasses, cutlasses, and whole
attacking, the pirates boarded the European ships to kidnap the
crew and/or commandeer the vessel.
term "Barbary" derives either from the ancient Berbers,
or from the references to "barbarians" by the ancient
either event, the term applied to a 2,000 mile geographical area,
stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Egypt in the
East, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the North to the Sahara
in the South. The region is also known as the Levant because
of the easterly winds known as "levanters."[xxiii] The
four principle Barbary states during the late 1700's were Morocco,
Algiers (present day Algeria,) Tunis (present day Tunisia,) and
Tripoli (present day Libya.)[xxiv] Morocco
was ruled by a sultan or emperor, Algiers by a dey, Tunis by a
bey, and Tripoli by a pasha (also "basha" or "bashaw".)[xxv]
rulers were very loosely controlled, if at all, by the Ottoman
Empire, and they practiced the religion of Islam. This religious
practice greatly affected their foreign relations with other nations,
especially Christian nations. Through the guise of a jihad,
and to make a hefty profit on the side, the Barbary potentates
sent vessels to capture and to loot Christian ships. Muslim-owned
ships were spared, of course.[xxvi] In
a June 8, 1786 letter from Richard O'Brien in Algiers to Thomas
Jefferson in Paris, O'Brien reported that the Barbary states did
not have their own merchant vessels, but made money by attacking
the vessels of Christian countries.[xxvii] Using
fast, maneuverable, oar-powered galley ships, which were rowed
by slaves captured during their attacks, the corsairs preyed on
the wind-driven ships of the Christian Europeans.[xxviii] The
captives were either ransomed or enslaved, depending on their "value." High
ranking officers and diplomats were well treated and held for a
high ransom, while common sailors were ill treated and forced into
form of "controlled" piracy[xxx] netted
the Barbary powers a great deal of income. They gained from
the increased labor force due to the capturing of slaves, they
received money from concerned family members who paid ransom for
the captives, and they collected tribute or protection money from
those countries that could afford the high price of freedom of
the seas.[xxxi] Like
a bully collecting milk money, the Barbary corsairs became "blackmailers
on an international scale," declaring war on anyone who tried
to use the Mediterranean without paying tribute.[xxxii]
Depredations of the
free from British rule, the American colonies, now states, were
no longer protected under England's peace treaties with the Barbary
rulers. Essentially, the United States, under the Articles
of Confederation, "was at the mercy of any power which might
choose to rob it."[xxxiii] Taking
advantage of the critical position of the weak Confederacy, the
Barbary corsairs followed the "laws of prey, as practiced
by wild animals,"[xxxiv] and
devastated the Mediterranean commerce of the young nation. One
example of this occurred in March of 1783, when corsairs from Algiers
attacked United States ships sailing out of Marseilles.[xxxv] Then
in 1784, the emperor of Morocco ordered the capture of USS Betsey,
and detained the crew. This was a pivotal moment for the
Confederacy, because the Moroccan potentate officially recognized
the United States and requested an envoy. The crew was then
promptly released.[xxxvi] However,
three months later, the less cooperative state of Algiers captured
the crews of USS Maria and USS Dauphin, enslaving
the crews and holding them for ransom.[xxxvii] By
1788, the number of American slaves in the Barbary states had risen
to twenty-one.[xxxviii] However,
as Naval Historian Michael Palmer notes, "Although the number
of ships and seamen actually lost were few, the psychological effect
on Americans was marked."[xxxix] Thus,
the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was forced
into a precarious position--the first diplomatic crisis of its
Crisis Caused by the
depredations of the Barbary corsairs on American commerce devastated
the Confederacy and thrust it into a crisis. The new nation,
with its weak central government, faced grave danger at the hands
of the corsairs.
trade was a primary source of revenue for the thirteen colonies,[xl] and
continued to be a primary revenue source after the United States
was established as an independent nation. Furthermore, as
Thomas Jefferson pointed out to Congress on December 28, 1790,
most of the United States’ trade was with ports along the
Mediterranean Sea.[xli] During
that year, nearly one-sixth of the United States’ wheat and
flour exports and one-fourth of dried and pickled fish exports
went to countries in and around the Mediterranean Sea region.[xlii]
after the Revolutionary War, however, the states were not so successful
with overseas trade. Most of their trade had been the result
of British contacts with foreign countries. After the war,
however, the British shield of protection and clout had vanished,
and the Confederacy faced the daunting task of reclaiming the lost
foreign trade.[xliii] This
task was complicated by a 1783 British Order in Council, which
banned United States trade with the West Indies. Because
the West Indies had been a profitable avenue of trade, the United
States was forced to seek other markets. The region of the
Mediterranean became increasingly popular and profitable.[xliv]
1783 Order in Council was not the only example of European hostility
to United States commerce. In his letter to Thomas Jefferson,
Richard O'Brien stated that no "commercial nation" was
interested in assisting the United States with its trade problems. The
Europeans were much more interested in securing commercial wealth
for themselves,[xlv] even
at the expense of the United States. The result was a diplomatic
crisis in which the United States, under the Articles of Confederation,
was at the mercy of both the Barbary corsairs and many of the countries
of Europe. In a July 25, 1783 letter from Benjamin Franklin
to Secretary of Foreign Affairs, R. R. Livingston, Franklin summed
up European thoughts concerning the Barbary corsairs. He
I think it not improbable that those rovers may be privately encouraged
by the English to fall upon us and to prevent our interfering in
the carrying of trade; for I have in London heard it is a maxim
among the merchants, that if there were no Algiers, it would
be worth England's while to build one.[xlvi]
Lord Sheffield of England would probably
have concurred with Franklin's assessment. In 1783, He spoke
rather highly of the ability of the Barbary corsairs to injure
United States commerce. In his work, Observations on the
Commerce of the American States, Sheffield noted, "The
Barbary states are useful."[xlvii]
diplomatic crisis with the Barbary powers caused many problems
for the Confederacy. In December of 1777, the sultan of Morocco
declared peace with the English people, except for the Americans. He
felt that the Americans were rebels, and did not want to treat
with them.[xlviii] Likewise,
Algiers was uninterested in treating with the Confederacy. According
to Tucker, Algiers always kept one or two enemies with which it
would not make peace. This insured that Algiers would always
have someone to plunder.[xlix] So,
after having secured treaties with several European powers, Algiers
sought out United States commerce to generate revenue.[l]
of the Crisis
crisis caused by the depredations of the Barbary corsairs humiliated
the United States under the Articles of Confederation. In "Federalist
15," Alexander Hamilton commented that the United States may "be
said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation."[li] This
national humiliation was amplified by Europe's dim view of the
new Confederacy, and by the inability of the United States to mount
effective opposition to the corsairs.
the humiliation regarding Europe, the Confederacy also faced internal
humiliation due to the crisis posed by the corsairs. Saying, "It
is humiliating to treat with these enemies of the human race,"[lii] Thomas
Jefferson summed up the national feeling concerning United States-Barbary
relations. One particularly humiliating episode of treaty
negotiations occurred in 1785 when Jefferson and John Adams authorized
John Lamb to treat with Algiers for the release of the crews of
USS Dauphin and USS Maria. The negotiations
failed miserably because of Lamb's inexperience in diplomacy, and
because he could speak neither Arabic nor French (a language often
spoken in the Barbary states.)[liii] This
diplomatic disaster caused the Confederacy to "fall into despair;
a despair aggravated by the humiliatingly foolish figure the first
United States diplomat had cut in Algiers."[liv] The
reputation for weak diplomacy stuck with the United States, and
of the twenty-one American hostages in Algiers, six died before
effective negotiations secured their release.[lv] Frustrated
with the failed diplomacy, the American people resorted to forming
private organizations to raise money to ransom the hostages.[lvi] These
humiliating circumstances continued until "General" William
Eaton, who had studied the Islamic people and could speak Arabic,[lvii] and
Joel Barlow, who negotiated the release of American captives in
Algiers in 1796,[lviii] improved
the reputation of the United States under the Constitution of 1787.
diplomacy, the United States, under the Articles of Confederation,
was humiliated by the ineptness of its government. In a July
31, 1786 letter from John Adams in London to Thomas Jefferson in
Paris, Adams said that he did not foresee a remedy to the humiliating
situation, because the states were so "backward."[lix] This
backwardness forced Thomas Barclay, in 1786, to offer only "the
Friendship of the United States" to the sultan of Morocco,
instead of a treaty. Needless to say, the sultan was not
lamented the humiliating feebleness of the Confederacy, saying
that if nothing was done to remedy the situation, "the miserable
depression of the reputation of the United States, the cruel embarrassment
of all our commerce, and the intolerable burthen [sic] of
insurance, added to the cries of our countrymen in captivity," would
having defined the terms of the thesis of this paper, it is now
apropos to examine the thesis itself. This chapter will evaluate
the United States’ response to the Barbary crisis against
the criteria for an effective response, showing that the response
failed the criteria. Furthermore, this chapter will show
that the criteria for an effective response were not met due to
the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Finally,
this chapter will show that the United States’ response to
the Barbary crisis failed due to the weaknesses of the Articles.
Criteria for an Effective
this paper has already begun to show, the Barbary crisis forced
the United States to respond to the depredations in order to protect
its commerce and its national dignity. However, was this
response effective? What standard of comparison is used to
judge the effectiveness of a response to a national crisis? The
former cannot be answered without first answering the latter. So,
this section will endeavor to show the standard by which to evaluate
the effectiveness of the United States’ response to the Barbary
first criterion for an effective response to a national crisis
is good government. Without good government, the other criteria
become rather academic. According to James Madison in "Federalist
62," good government has two components. The first is "fidelity
to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people." The
second component is "a knowledge of the means by which that
object can be best attained."[lxii] Without
these two components, a government does not fulfill the needs of
its citizens, and is therefore ineffective. Conversely, however,
a government that seeks the happiness of its people and knows how
to attain this happiness, is an effective one.
second criterion for an effective response is a clear knowledge
of what is to be gained by the response. There are many different
types of responses, ranging from diplomacy to war. Regarding
war, military theorist, Karl von Clausewitz, states, "No war
should be begun . . . without first finding an answer to the question:
what is to be attained by and in war?"[lxiii] Whether
conquest or defense is the goal of the response, it is necessary
to reconcile this second criterion with the first. Is the
goal of the response true to the object of government--happiness
of the people? If so, then the goal is an expression of the
second component of the first criterion--having knowledge of what
the response is to attain.
meeting the first two criteria for an effective response to a national
crisis, one must employ the response in order to reach a successful
end. What are the ends of a successful response? When
is a response successful? Clausewitz offers three answers
to these questions, comprising the third criterion for an effective
response. According to Clausewitz, the first end of a successful
war is the "destruction of the enemy's military forces." The
second is the capture of the enemy's country to prevent it from
raising new forces. Finally, the third end of a successful
war is to destroy the enemy's will to fight.[lxiv] The
successful accomplishment of these ends is critical.
it is important to reach the ends of a successful and effective
response, it is impossible to do so without effective means to
those ends. According to Drew Barrett, an effective response
to a crisis is composed of three main avenues to the successful
ends. The first is "a clearly defined political purpose
or objective for the operation.” This is similar to
Clausewitz's notion of a goal for what is to be gained through
the response. The second avenue or means is "credibility
for the show of force that is being undertaken.” There
are two requirements for credibility that must be satisfied. First,
the country employing the show of force or response must have a
force adequate to accomplish the "political purpose or objective.” Second,
the enemy needs to know that the force will actually be used. Hence,
national character is important. A country has no credibility
if it threatens force, but is unable or unwilling to carry out
the threat. The track record of a country is also an important
component of credibility. Barrett states, "The customary
behavior of the nation initiating action, and its actions just
preceding a period of tension, can serve as a valid indication
of its resolution and intent.” The third avenue or
means to the ends of an effective response is "the requirement
for close coordination of military and political activities in
the conduct of show of force actions.”[lxv]
following the criteria for an effective response to a national
crisis, it is possible to outline an effective response. An
effective response is a response that is initiated by a good government,
dedicated to the happiness of the people, and aware of how to make
the people happy. This government, acting with regard to
public happiness, has a clear goal or objective for the response. To
reach its goal, it seeks to destroy its enemy's forces, destroy
the enemy's capacity to raise new forces, and ultimately destroy
the enemy's will to fight. These ends are achieved through
the credibility of the country initiating the response to apply
an adequate force, and to make sure the enemy knows that the force
will be used. Finally, the successful ends are achieved through
close coordination of military and political activities.
Response Failed Criteria
the criteria for an effective response to a national crisis, it
quickly becomes apparent that the United States’ response
to the Barbary depredations was inadequate, given the criteria.
the first criterion, good government, the inability of the United
States under the Articles of Confederation to free the enslaved
Americans "testified to the diplomatic weakness of the confederation."[lxvi] It
also testified to the fact that the government was unable to provide
for the happiness of its citizens. After the establishment
of the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1781,[lxvii] there
was, however, a great deal of effort expended individually by Thomas
Jefferson to free the captives, but to no avail.[lxviii] For
example, Jefferson contacted the Order of the Holy Trinity and
Redemption of Captives.[lxix] This
French religious order existed solely to ransom and rescue captives,
especially from the hands of the Barbary powers.[lxx] Although
Jefferson's efforts failed to produce freedom for the captives,
the stalemated government of the United States under the Articles
of Confederation did not know how to free the captives either.
the second criterion for an effective response to a national crisis,
that of a clear objective or goal for the response, the government
of the Articles of Confederation again failed. In the mid-1780's,
the primary concerns of the Confederacy were along the western
North Africa was not considered to be the Confederacy’s top
priority. As the piratical depredations intensified, however,
the nation turned its focus to the Barbary problem. Some
Americans, including John Adams, preferred to pay tribute as opposed
to declaring war on the corsairs. Adams, in particular, thought
war would be unwise since the Barbary powers had no commerce to
risk, but the United States had a great deal to lose.[lxxii] Tribute
seemed to be a safe and guaranteed alternative to war. Alexander
Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson did not agree with Adams' assessment. Hamilton
calculated that the inflation of the cost of goods due to piracy
totaled six times the cost of a Mediterranean squadron.[lxxiii] Jefferson
concurred, and said, "When peace becomes more losing than
war, we may prefer the latter on principles of pecuniary calculation."[lxxiv] So,
there was a disparity in the ranks of the Articles government leadership,
and there was no clear political purpose, objective, or goal.
third criterion for an effective response is composed of three
components. These components are, the destruction of the
enemy’s forces, the destruction of the enemy's capacity to
raise new forces, and the destruction of the enemy's will to fight.[lxxv] These
ends of a successful response were certainly not met by the Articles
government. John Paul Jones sought to destroy the forces
of the corsairs, but Congress would not requisition funds for his
was not until 1794 that Congress, under the Constitution of 1787,
passed the first Navy bill, leading to the construction of USS Constitution.[lxxvii]
as for the Confederacy, there was no possibility of destroying
the Barbary forces, much less destroying the capacity of the corsairs
to raise new forces. All that was left of the third criterion
was the destruction of the enemy's will to fight. Here was
perhaps the greatest failure of the United States’ response. Despite
Jefferson's call for war, Congress decided to pay tribute to the
seemed, however, that despite the amount that the United States
offered, the Barbary corsairs requested more.[lxxix] On
May 12, 1784, Congress appropriated $80,000 for tribute money.[lxxx] A
few years later, Thomas Barclay reached an agreement with Morocco,
the first United States treaty with a non-European power,[lxxxi] for
$30,000 to secure the release of the captives of USS Betsey.[lxxxii] Thus,
it is quite clear that the United States did not destroy the Barbary
powers' will to fight. Actually, the Confederacy fueled the
corsairs' will by offering so much tribute money.
failed all three criteria to this point, the United States’ response
to the Barbary crisis must now face the last of the four criteria. This
criterion is composed of two components, credibility and close
coordination of military and political activities.[lxxxiii] The
criterion of credibility is composed of two components, "adequate
force" and "national character."[lxxxiv] At
this point in our nation's history, the United States had neither. In
1786, Jefferson had underestimated the naval force that would be
needed to take care of the Barbary problem.[lxxxv] The
small force of naval vessels that the United States did have was
used almost exclusively to attack British transport ships during
the Revolutionary War.[lxxxvi] After
the war, however, and even after the inception of the Department
of the Navy in 1799, the United States had every intention of abolishing
the Navy until the Barbary problems became increasingly severe
after the turn of the century.[lxxxvii] Regarding
the issue of national character, the Confederacy failed just as
miserably. After independence from England, the United States
sought assistance from England and France, but was stymied on both
1782, John Adams negotiated a treaty with the Netherlands, but
this offered little relief from the Barbary crisis.[lxxxix] Hence,
the United States had no adequate force and no credible national
character to convince the Barbary powers that it would use a force
if it had one to use.
final component of the fourth criterion of an effective response
was another miserable failure for the Confederacy. This component
deals with the necessity that the military and political bodies
coordinate their activities. Jefferson petitioned Congress
to subscribe to his idea of joining forces with the European countries
to assemble a unified assault against the Barbary corsairs. Despite
Jefferson's efforts, the United States did not join his “convention” of
Jefferson petitioned Congress again, this time to install a separate
tax on European commerce to defray the Confederacy's expenses in
combating the pirates. As before, Congress did not assist
Jefferson in his efforts.[xci] A
final example of the lack of coordination between the military
and the United States Congress occurred in 1783, when the Moroccan
sultan petitioned Congress for an ambassador. Because of
Congress' procrastination and lack of coordination, the sultan
ordered the capture of USS Betsey in 1784, holding it for
ransom until the arrival of a United States ambassador.[xcii]
Criteria Were Not
Met Due to Weaknesses of Articles
crisis of the Barbary depredations not only humiliated the young
Confederacy, but also showcased some of the prime weaknesses of
the Articles. These weaknesses profoundly affected the United
States’ response to the humiliating crisis, making it difficult,
if not impossible, to follow the criteria for an effective response.
properly examine the Articles of Confederation, one must consider
the time in which it was written. Looking back on post-Revolutionary
War America, some of the framers of the 1787 Constitution felt
that the Articles were a "defective instrument of a preexisting
Hamilton, in particular, believed that the Articles were thrown
together quickly during the war by "men of intelligence," who, "when
the dangers of war were removed, . . . saw clearly what they had
suffered, and what they had yet to suffer from a feeble form of
problem that the "men of intelligence" did not consider
was the inability of the Articles to uphold treaties with foreign
countries. In the "Virginia Plan," Edmund Randolph
expressed the fact that treaties had always been upheld at the
time the Articles were written.[xcv] Hence,
the writers did not build safeguards into the Articles to insure
that they would continue to be upheld. This was a serious
concern for Americans, for as Madison pointed out in a speech at
the Constitutional Convention on June 19, 1787, "A rupture
with other powers is among the greatest of national calamities."[xcvi]
inability to uphold treaties was not the only flaw of the Articles. Besides
not permitting a standing army or navy, the Confederation under
the Articles could not afford to pay or supply the soldiers in
the militia that it did permit. It could not raise adequate
revenue for war due to the voluntary nature of the Confederacy.[xcvii] The
military, weak and virtually ineffective under these paltry conditions,
suffered miserably in 1780. In a few weeks’ time during
that year, General Gates was soundly defeated in Canada, and word
of Benedict Arnold's treason rocked the states. In "Federalist
15," Hamilton expressed the dilapidated state of the Confederacy
by writing that the United States needed to make "requisitions
for men and money," but the Articles had "no authority
to raise either."[xcviii] In
fact, only one-fifth of the Continental taxes that had been assessed
in 1783 had been received into the national treasury by mid-1785.[xcix] The
young United States was without a steady source of revenue and
the states did not often volunteer money for the national treasury
as the Articles expected.[c]
addition to the financial and military weaknesses of the Articles
of Confederation, there were other problems plaguing the "league
of friendship." States disputed boundary lines, and
the specter of unrest loomed over the country due to Shays's rebellion.[ci] Furthermore,
in "Federalist 6," Hamilton points out revolts in North
Carolina, and "menacing disturbances" in Pennsylvania,
which contributed to the "extreme depression to which [the]
national dignity and credit [had] sunk."[cii]
and other weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation made it virtually
impossible for the United States to mount an effective response
to the Barbary crisis. The American people were unhappy,
and the government exercised little "fidelity" to the
happiness of the people, and possessed little knowledge of what
would make the people happy. Lack of funds made it impossible
to ransom captives, and American citizens were forced to "languish
in slavery."[ciii] With
such an ineffective and unstable method of gathering revenue, the
states were financially "backward."[civ] The
nation was also politically backward. For months at a time,
the Congress of the Confederacy could not assemble the quorum of
seven states necessary to conduct its business,[cv] making
it impossible for Congress to exercise on "good government."
the second criterion, the Articles prevented the United States
from developing a clearly defined political purpose or objective. In
the loosely connected Confederacy, the Articles served as merely "a
treaty of amity, of commerce, and of alliance, between independent
and sovereign states," according to Madison.[cvi] Madison
saw this as a fundamental flaw of the Articles, because it placed "ultimate
sovereign power" in thirteen individual states, and not in
one unified nation.[cvii] This
allowed American "trade and honor" to suffer "beyond
the government responded to the Barbary corsairs without a clear
goal or objective.
the Constitutional Convention on May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph
presented the "Virginia Plan," and said that the Articles
Congress was not "permitted to prevent a war nor to support
it by [its] own authority."[cix] This
not only made it impossible to destroy the forces of the Barbary
powers, but made it impossible to destroy their capacity to raise
new forces as well. Further, by 1793, the United States was
spending one-sixth of its annual budget on tribute to the dey of
the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation completely hindered
the United States’ response from meeting the third criterion,
that of the ends of a successful response.
Articles hindered the Confederacy's response from meeting the fourth
criterion as well. Regarding credibility and its two components
of "adequate force" and "national character,"[cxi] it
is not difficult to see the harmful effects of the Articles of
Confederation on the United States’ response to the Barbary
crisis. Because of the Confederacy's unstable, voluntary
revenue source, it amassed a huge debt following the Revolutionary
War. The debt grew so large, that Congress was forced to
dismantle the Continental Navy in 1784.[cxii] Thus,
the United States was without an adequate force due to the weak
Articles. The Articles also hindered the United States from
upholding treaties with foreign powers. Madison, during a
June 19, 1787 speech at the Constitutional Convention, said that
the inability to follow treaties causes friction between the United
States and foreign powers. He said, "The existing Confederacy
does not sufficiently provide against this evil."[cxiii] The
inability to follow treaties, not to mention the other diplomatic
flaws of the Articles of Confederation, weakened the national character
of the Confederacy, exposing the country's weakness and inability
to carry out its threats against the corsairs. After all,
no enemy would feel threatened by "the lowest and most obscure
of the diplomatic tribe."[cxiv]
regarding the criterion of close coordination of military and political
noted in his first Annual Address on December 8, 1801, that a military
build-up would put the United States on “an equal footing
with that of its adversaries.”[cxvi] Jefferson’s
words were equally applicable in the 1780’s, but Congress
opposed a navy. John Jay said of the Articles Congress on
September 17, 1787:
may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry
it on. They may make peace, but without power to see the
terms of it observed--They may form alliances, but without ability
to comply with the stipulations on their part--They may enter into
treaties of commerce, but without power to enforce them at home
or abroad--They may borrow money, but without having the means
of repayment--They may partly regulate commerce, but without authority
to execute their ordinances.[cxvii]
His words not only sum up the hindering
effects of the Articles on coordination of military and political
activities, but also sum up the reasons why the criteria for an
effective response were not met due to the weaknesses of the Articles
Response Failed Due to Weaknesses of Articles
the Articles of Confederation, the Barbary corsairs inflicted many
depredations on United States commerce in the Mediterranean Sea
region. These depredations caused a national crisis, which
humiliated the Confederacy because of its inability to deal with
the pirates. Suffering in the world theater because of the
humiliation, not to mention the internal economic suffering, the
United States responded to the crisis in a number of ways. While
the responses may have seemed logical or appropriate at the time,
they proved to be ineffective against the corsairs, who continued
their plunder of United States commerce in the Mediterranean.
assembled several criteria for an effective response to a national
crisis, this paper has examined the United States’ response
to the depredations of the Barbary corsairs. It has also
examined the response in the light of the criteria. In so
doing, this paper has shown that the reason for the failure of
the United States’ response stemmed from the failure of the
response to follow the criteria. That being the case, this
paper then examined the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Having
been made intentionally weak by their writers, the Articles made
it difficult, if not impossible, to follow the criteria for an
effective response. Not being able to follow the criteria,
the response failed due to the weaknesses of the Articles. This
failed response left the Confederacy "a prey to every nation
which [had] an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils
and embarrassed affairs."[cxviii] The
Barbary corsairs were certainly no exception.
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