Piracy – the Midwife to the Rebirth of the U.S. Navy

The United States has always has been a maritime nation. Geography dictates it. Our western border is the Pacific; our eastern one is the Atlantic; we have the Gulf of Mexico in the south; and the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River to our north. The Thirteen Colonies depended on trade with the world before, during and after the American Revolution.

When the war ended, we were deep in debt to our own citizens and to the French. The war left the economy in shambles. Under the Articles of Confederation the government could not levy taxes, it could only request funds from the states who rarely paid what was asked. Without money to support an Army and Navy, they were disbanded within months after the war. Our founding fathers recognized that the military, monetary and foreign policy situation was unworkable. By March 4th, 1789, the Constitution that governs us today was ratified by all 13 states.

The constitution was (and still is) not a magic wand that solved all our governmental problems. It was merely the framework that allowed us, as a country to deal with them.

High on the agenda was protecting our merchant ships that were vital to the nation’s economy. The protection the French provided in the Mediterranean evaporated in 1783 the moment the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Since we were no longer a British colony, our ships were no longer covered by British treaties with the rulers along the North African coast.

Morocco recognized us in 1777 and in 1786, we signed the Treaty of Friendship. It is still in force in 2019 and is the U.S.’s longest unbroken treaty of friendship.

By 1792, Louis XVI had lost his head – literally – in the French Revolution and the new government was demanding that we repay our debt. President John Adams refused reasoning that we owed it to a government that was no longer in existence.

In the Mediterranean, there was another threat. The Barbary Pirates operating from ports in what is now Algeria, Tunisia and Libya – were seizing our ships and demanding ransoms. At first, we tried to buy them off but the demands kept increasing. Without the hammer of a viable navy, we had little leverage. By 1794, tribute to these nation states amounted to almost 20% of the Federal budget.

Congress got the message and on March 27th, 1794, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 that authorized and funded a Navy as well as the construction of six frigates. The first three ships – Constellation, Constitution and United States – came down the ways in 1797. Chesapeake and Congress were at sea by the end of 1799 and the President was launched in 1800.

So, in a perverse way, we can thank Muslim pirates (terrorists?) for the birth or the rebirth of the United States Navy!

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