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The Barbary Wars (1801-1805)

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Noah Brown

H241 U.S. History 1

Dr. Dan Roland

March 12, 2017

       The Barbary Wars (1801-1805)

                    And Their Effect Upon American Geographical Power

Throughout the course of American history, perhaps no other conflict has been overlooked by historians than the Barbary Pirate War. The Barbary War seems like a perfect Hollywood movie, complete with pitched naval battles, marine landings, and gallant charges against the enemy. The conflict is also referred to as the First Tripolitan War; the conflict spanned the years of 1801 to 1805. This war marked the first time that American military power was projected across the world. The main cause of this conflict was the Barbary pirates, who preyed upon merchant shipping traffic in the Mediterranean, especially American vessels. After the American Revolution, the United States could no longer rely upon the massive British navy to protect its commercial interests. As a result, it had to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates, to ensure that its ships were not attacked. This situation invariably led to a detrimental situation for America, as the pirates continued to attack its merchant shipping, even with the payment of tribute. Eventually, the United States went to war with the Barbary States, an unprecedented event in American history for that time. The war itself represented the first time that American forces were sent overseas to deal with an enemy. The first war was far from conclusive, and further action was required in 1815 to finally root out the pirates. The initial causes of the war, though, directly related to America’s inability to use naval force to protect its commerce.

     Consequently, the causes of the Barbary wars rested upon issues of economics, American political considerations and cultural mores. The Barbary pirates were a miniscule force in comparison to the massive European navies of the time. However, the European powers saw fit to leave the pirates alone and pay them a nominal tribute in exchange for peace. The reasons for these actions directly relate to the economic realities of the time. The Europeans saw unfettered American shipping as a threat, and saw the pirates as a good way to subtly hurt American shipping traffic. As a result, the war’s causes were not merely bilateral, but also involved other foreign policy considerations, particularly those of European powers. Another cause was the simple fact that American political realities prevented the building of a standing navy. Many politicians viewed any standing army as a threat. The fledging nation also lacked the funds to outfit a large navy. The final cause of the conflict, cultural mores, relates directly to the perceptions of the American public towards the capture of sailors and merchants. There are many accounts of how American sailors were mistreated by their captors. This abuse was one of the major causes of the conflict in the first place, as many viewed their captivity as barbarous and unjust. These causes, overall, though, are extremely important in regards to understanding how the Barbary wars affected American naval power. Before this conflict, as these causes show, America was reluctant and unable to utilize or even build naval forces. The causes of the conflict were so drastic and targeted, that they resulted in an impetus for naval power. America could not sit idly by while her commerce was whittled away by pirates. These causes eventually led to drastic changes in the way American naval power was viewed and utilized.

     Therefore, the effects of this war had a great impact upon American naval power by: improving its physical fighting status, its public perception, and allowing America to assert itself worldwide. The Barbary wars required America to rapidly build a naval force capable of defending its commercial interests. Both before and after the war, America built new frigates, schooners and gunboats, for this purpose. The war also produced new, more capable officers to man its ships, and an increased number of captains. Also, the perception of the American navy was greatly strengthened by this conflict. Before the war, the American navy was not viewed as a serious force by European powers. After the war, even Admiral Nelson praised the fledging navy for its daring tactics and resourcefulness. The navy was also viewed by both the Congress and the public as a useful and valuable military asset. The final effect of the war was the assertion of American power worldwide. The development of a navy changed the way in which America viewed the world, and how it operated on the word stage. The development of naval “hard power,” was the most consequential result of the Barbary wars. “Hard power” is defined as the use of military force to influence another state or non-state entity.[1] Before the war, America had little hard power, and had virtually no experience utilizing it overseas. After the war, the effects of the war were so profound, that they helped develop and eventually mature American hard power. Both the causes and effects of the Barbary Pirate wars related to, and improved America’s naval “hard power” in the world.

     Indeed, economic reasons were one of the major causes of the Barbary wars. The lack of a true naval capability in the early 18th century left the United States almost defenseless. Before the Revolution, American merchant ships were protected by the British navy, which had the largest fleet in the world. After the Revolution, however, that protection vanished, essentially overnight, and America had to defend her own vessels. America was heavily dependent upon foreign trade, and any disruptions to that trade would have had disastrous effects upon its economy.[2] Almost one-fifth of American exports were sent to the Mediterranean, on about one hundred merchant ships. Most of the European powers paid the pirates tribute, and their naval power was strong enough that the pirates left their shipping alone. However, they realized that American shipping was vulnerable, and essentially defenseless. America attempted to rectify the situation by signing a treaty with France in 1778. The treaty stated that France would “use its best offices…to…obtain…the immunity of the ships, citizens, and goods of the United States, against any attack, violence, or depredation of…the States of Barbary.”[3] However, France did not honor this treaty, fearing American merchant competition. Both France and England acted upon, according to Frank Lambert, mercantilist strategies, in contrast to the free-trading Americans.[4] Lambert is supported by statements from European leaders of the time. For example, Lord Sheffield, a member of the House of Commons, stated that “It is now to be decided whether we are to be ruined by the independence of America, or not.”[5] Sheffield, and other members, believed that the pirates could act as a check upon American commerce. The American Consul to Algiers also said that “The conduct of the British in this business leaves no room to doubt, or mistake their object, which was evidently aimed at us.”[6] Therefore, the essence of Lambert’s argument, that the Europeans refused to help the Americans in order to gain a positive advantage, appears to be a correct interpretation.



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