The Founders on a Standing Navy: American Military Action Abroad (1783-1860)
Marion Smith /
In 1794, President George Washington requested and Congress authorized the building of six frigates, a type of warship widely used at the time. The presence of a standing U.S. Navy was deemed necessary in order to defend American citizens and commerce from European wars and the Barbary Coast pirates.
By 1794, it had become clear that the ongoing wars between Revolutionary France and England would continue to place American ships in harm’s way. The United States needed to protect American commerce and enforce its neutrality in the European wars. But this was not the most immediate reason for building a navy.
For those who believed that the U.S. could do without active naval war ships in peacetime or that future conflict could be averted through diplomacy alone, the events of November 1793 proved them wrong. In that month, Algerian Pirates captured 10 American ships and 110 U.S. citizens who they took back to the Barbary State of Algiers. From accounts of the time, we know that the Barbary Pirates killed, tortured, or enslaved the American citizens. The only recourse offered by diplomatic tradition was tribute from the U.S. in order to placate the Barbary pirates. But this option compromised America’s hard won independence.
This was not the first incident between the Barbary Pirates and Americans abroad, but it was their boldest and deadliest attack on the United States. Prior contact between American diplomats and the Muslim States’ emissaries had alerted America to their new enemy. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote about their diplomatic encounter with the Barbary Ambassador from Tripoli, who demanded outrageous sums of payment as ransom for American citizens held captive. When Adams and Jefferson asked the Ambassador why the Barbary States would attack American ships without any justification and in violation of the Law of Nations, his answer was disturbing:
“The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Adams and Jefferson recognized this for what it was—a significant clash of understandings regarding justice and war—and saw little hope for diplomatic success. Any diplomatic resolution would be “buying peace” through tribute, Jefferson said. Jefferson preferred to obtain peace through war in order to defend American lives and property, and to more stalwartly uphold America’s political principles abroad. But in 1786, the Articles of Confederation thwarted this course, because the Articles did not invest sufficient authority in the national government.
Once the Constitution was adopted in 1788, the U.S. government could “provide for the common defense”. The idea that the United States would uphold its political principles abroad was also contained in the Constitution by giving Congress the power to “define and punish…Offenses against the Law of Nations” (Art. 1, Sec. 8). After the attack by Algerian pirates in 1793, Washington took the steps necessary to provide for the common defense. The new terror coming from the Barbary Coast had to be confronted on American terms, and that required military force. Washington’s request was granted in the Act to Provide a Naval Armament, which passed in Congress on March 27, 1794 by a vote of 50 to 39.
The threat from the Barbary Coast was the most immediate and urgent reason for building a U.S. Navy. This was evidenced by the fact that once the unsatisfactory Treaty of 1796 between the U.S. and Algiers was signed, Congress attempted to cut off funding for the six frigates which were still being constructed. Washington implored Congress to let the ships be built, in order to provide for future safety. Congress answered by giving Washington three of the six ships (USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution). Congress, however, was soon compelled to appropriate funds for many more ships, as the U.S. would soon fight two wars with the Barbary States in 1801 and 1815.
This episode during Washington’s administration reveals that the Founders, despite their minor disagreements over foreign policy, understood the “common defense” to encompass more than merely territorial defense in the face of immediate dangers. Washington’s wise procurement of these frigates enabled President Thomas Jefferson to dispatch them to the Mediterranean when diplomacy failed again in 1801. President James Madison did the same in 1815. They well understood that U.S. independence was directly related to America’s constant defense at home and its ability to uphold the principles of freedom abroad without coercion.
—Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. This post is the third in a series on the Founders’ understanding of military engagement.