The Constitution and War Powers: Jefferson vs the Barbary Pirates
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The Constitution and War Powers: Jefferson vs the Barbary Pirates


Some people want you to believe that Thomas Jefferson waged war on the Barbary pirates without congressional approval – but they’re either ignorant or lying. Whenever we point out that the president is not constitutionally authorized to initiate offensive military action, we get a response like this – “Thomas Jefferson sent ships and Marines to kick some pirate butt without even telling Congress, let alone get their approval. Are you saying Jefferson was wrong?” But this isn’t the whole story. In fact, it’s missing so much, it’s not even true. Aggression against US shipping had been going on for decades. Barbary pirates captured a number of American sailors and demanded ransom soon after Jefferson took office. The president refused to pay. In response, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. As historian Dave Benner wrote, Congress had previously authorized the Navy to take action and destroy Barbary pirate ships in order to protect American commerce. Even before the pasha’s declaration of war, Jefferson used this congressional authorization to send four ships to the area to maintain peace and even engage in diplomacy with the Barbary states. The commander of the small fleet was instructed to protect the ships and their crew from hostility by taking responsive action against the pirates. After the declaration of war, Jefferson remained steadfast in his pledge to demonstrate America’s commitment in the matter, but refused to take offensive action against Tripoli, insisting that he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.” In the following years, Congress passed at least ten different statutes that authorized additional action. In 1802, Congress authorized the president to equip armed vessels to protect commerce and seamen in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and adjoining seas. Additionally, the president was empowered to “subdue, seize, and make prize of all vessels, goods, and effects belonging to the Bey of Tripoli.” Additional legislation in 1804 gave explicit support for “warlike operations against the regency of Tripoli, or any other of the Barbary powers.” But President Jefferson kept his word and always deferred to Congress in matters concerning the Barbary pirates. By doing so, he proved that American interests can be protected while still following the Constitution.

3 Comments

  • Liberty4Ever

    Thank you! I've been looking for a good refutation to smack down the people claiming that Jefferson used unconstitutional war powers. This was perfect. Fact filled, short and to the point.

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