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Commander in Chief: Barbary Pirates


As soon as it became an independent nation, the US faced an “unconventional enemy” in the Barbary Pirates who had controlled the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all exercised their power as Commander in Chief in various ways to deal with the threat posed by the pirates before Madison was eventually able to declare victory against them.


It was the end of the eighteenth century, and for hundreds of years, pirates from the Islamic countries on the coast of North Africa had controlled the Mediterranean Sea. They plundered and looted ships. They captured sailors, holding them for ransom or selling them into the Ottoman (Turkish) slave trade. These pirates considered themselves at war with any nation with which they did not have a “treaty.” In fact, these “treaties” were demands for “tributes:” payments to prevent attacks.

The British fleet had defended American ships from the Barbary pirates while it was part of England. Once the US won its independence, however, US ships were on their own. Congress appropriated money for “tributes,” but the attacks continued. By 1794, the pirates were holding dozens of US citizens for ransom. Thomas Jefferson, who was then President George Washington’s Secretary of State, advised Congress to declare war on the pirates. Congress did not heed his advice. Washington sent diplomats to negotiate for the prisoners’ release, but with no success. When John Adams became President in 1797, he continued paying the pirates. Congress continued to authorize payments. By the turn of the century, Congress was paying twenty percent of the US’s annual revenue to the pirates.

President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801. Jefferson, who believed that paying off the pirates only led to more demands, announced that there would be no more tributes paid. Tripoli demanded a payment of $225,000 on top of annual payments of $25,000. Jefferson refused to pay, and Tripoli declared war on the US.

Jefferson announced in his First Annual Message to Congress, “Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had [threatened] 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. . . .”

Jefferson took this defensive military action without seeking a declaration of war from Congress. He believed that a more decisive response would be needed, and so he asked Congress for formal action. In response, Congress passed the “Act for Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan Corsairs.” This act authorized an expanded force to “subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, or to his subjects.”

Years later in 1815, President James Madison sent the navy to the Barbary Coast once again. (The phrase “to the shores of Tripoli” from the Marine Hymn refers to this historic battle.) Madison eventually declared victory against the pirates in his Seventh Annual Message to Congress.


  1. Who were the Barbary Pirates?
  2. How did Presidents Washington and Adams deal with them?
  3. Why did Jefferson not wish to continue with that response?
  4. Why do you think Presidents Washington and Adams paid off the pirates? Why do you think Jefferson and Madison did not?
  5. Does this history have any lessons for Commanders In Chief today in dealing with the U.S.’s “unconventional enemies”?