Jefferson’s Undeclared War

Wars start when one side attacks the other and the country now on the defense, declares war. Or one side declares war and attacks, and the country attacked reciprocates with its own declaration. However, the war against the Barbary Pirates started differently.

Relations between Pasha Yusuf Karamanli, the leader of Tripoli, and the U.S. had been deteriorating for years. We had agreed to pay the three primary states – Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli – one million a year ($24,926,111 in July 2024). In turn, their pirates would stop seizing ships registered in the U.S. and enslaving their crews. By 1800, payments to the Barbary States amounted to more than 20% of the Federal budget!

Karamanli was unhappy and wanted more money and he greeted newly elected President Jefferson with a note demanding an increase in the annual tribute payments.

When the payments were first approved in 1794, Washington was president, and the U.S. did not have an army or navy. Both had been disbanded in 1783, and the country could not protect its merchant ships anywhere in the world.

In 1794, Congress appropriated $800,000 in July 1794 ($22,841,382 in July 2024) to ransom sailors held in Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. On September 5, 1795, Joseph Donaldson negotiated a peace treaty with the Dey of Algiers a payment of $642,000 in silver coins ($18,330,208 in July 2024) plus $21,600 ($616,717 in July 2024) every year. Payments made to the Dey of Algiers were similar to those made to Tripoli and Tunis, and the coinage given did not include the cost of gifts made to the three Barbary states.

This treaty and other payments did not stop the piracy. Karamanli’s note to Jefferson demanded an additional $225,000 ($6,424,139 in July 2024).

By now we had a navy that had proved itself against the French during the Quasi War and a small squadron of three frigates and a schooner was dispatched to the Mediterranean to blockade Tripoli to prevent the pirate ships from leaving.

On May 10th (some sources say May 14th), Karamanli ordered his soldiers to cut down the flagpole at the U.S. Consul and deliver a note saying he was declaring war on the U.S.

Jefferson didn’t know about Karamanli’s declaration of war until about six weeks later. He then ordered much larger naval task force to the Mediterranean. At the same time, he went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Tripoli.

After the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans held solid majorities in both houses but refused to give Jefferson his declaration of war. Instead, Jefferson received an authorization to use force that authorized the Navy to seize Tripolitan ships and cargoes and to commission privateers.

The U.S. had allies in this fight. Sweden sent three frigates because many of its ships had been taken by the pirates and their sailors enslaved. The Kingdom of Sicily offered port facilities, food and naval stores in Palermo, Syracusa and Messina because it was tired of its towns being raided by pirates based in North Africa. It took until 1805 before the Tripolitans and the other Barbary States saw the error of their ways and negotiated an end to their piracy.

Note, in the 20th and 21st Century, Congressional authorizations to use force have been used in lieu of a declarations of war. Since 1945, American servicemen and women were sent into battle in conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Libyan Civil War to unseat Ghaddafi, supporting rebels against Assad in the Syrian civil war, the Tanker Wars of the 80s, the fight against ISIS, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lesson here is that a formal Declaration of War is a statement of national will by We the People that we as a nation intend to do what is needed to fight and defeat the enemy politically and on the battlefield. Without the consensus needed to pass a declaration of war, our politicians and military leaders follow risk-averse policies and strategies that get members of the U.S. Armed Forces killed and wounded unnecessarily.

1878 drawing by CAPT William Bainbridge Doff’s of Enterprise defeating the Tripolitan ship Tripoli.

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