Friday, April 24, 2009

Piracy and the United States

Piracy is “The action of committing robbery, kidnap, or violence at sea or from the sea without lawful authority” (OED). The essentials are that piracy takes place on the high seas or along the coast, and that the pirates are acting without government authorization.

For centuries piracy has been considered a crime against mankind, and any nation has had the right to pursue pirates and kill them in battle. Since the proper function of a government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens, it is perfectly justifiable for government whose citizens are threatened by pirates to send naval forces to suppress piracy in international waters, or to attack pirates’ safe havens in any country that permits such havens to exist.


Piracy after the Revolutionary War, ca. 1783-1797

Ships sailing to and from America have been subject to piracy ever since the British colonies began importing and exporting goods. Before the Revolutionary War, the British navy kept piracy under control. After the peace treaty was signed with Great Britain in 1783, the United States chose not to maintain any standing military forces. After all, the presence of a standing army had been one of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence. The newly formed U.S. government, deeply in debt and with little revenue, disbanded the Continental Navy and the Continental Marines as well as the Continental Army.

However, the lack of a navy made American shipping vulnerable to attack. At the urgent request of New England merchants, the U.S. Navy was reestablished in 1794, and six ships were commissioned to operate in the Mediterranean. Three ships were completed by 1797. The following year, the Marine Corps was reestablished.

Meanwhile, American ships were being attacked by two of her best trading partners, France and Britain, who were engaged in the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). The U.S. tried to negotiate peace with France so that French privateers would stop attacking American ships. (Privateers are armed vessels - often former pirate ships - that in time of war are given government authorization to attack enemy ships.) French foreign minister Talleyrand refused to negotiate unless he was given an enormous bribe and a huge loan (the infamous XYZ Affair, 1797). Apprised of Talleyrand’s demands, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Robert Goodloe Harper declared that the U.S. would pay “millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute” - a line often mistakenly attributed to Jefferson. Attacks on American ships by the French and British continued sporadically throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and helped provoke the War of 1812 between Britain and the U.S.


Barbary Pirates, ca. 1801-1815

The Barbary Coast included the north coast of Africa from Gibraltar to Egypt: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli. During the 19th century these territories were nominally under the rule of the Turkish Empire. In fact, they were fiefdoms run by military strongmen, and their inhabitants practiced piracy as a way of life, as they had for centuries. The pirates preyed on merchant ships, selling the cargoes and ransoming or enslaving the passengers and crew. They also raided coastal towns in Italy, Portugal and Spain, capturing and enslaving thousands of inhabitants. At least as early as the 17th century, European powers had paid tributes - i.e., protection money - to keep pirates from attacking them. The newly forged U.S. began paying protection money as early as 1795, by a treaty with Algiers.

Criminals being … well, criminals, the pirates did not always abide by their agreements. American shipping continued to be attacked by one or the other of the military fiefdoms along the Barbary Coast. In 1801 Tripoli declared war on the U.S. and seized several American vessels - the beginning of the First Barbary War, or Tripolitan War (1801-1805). In response, an American naval force blockaded Tripoli and damaged some pirate ships in the harbor. The landing by Marines at nearby Derna (hence “to the shores of Tripoli” in the “Marines’ Hymn”) frightened the ruler of Tripoli into signing a peace treaty. The treaty abolished protection payments, although the U.S. agreed to pay $60,000 to ransom captured Americans.

Protection money continued to be paid to thugs elsewhere along the Barbary Coast, and the thugs continued to attack American ships. In 1815, the U.S. declared war on the worst offender, Algiers, beginning the Second Barbary War (Algerian War). An American naval force dispatched from New York “persuaded” the ruler of Algiers to sign a treaty by which American property would be restored and protection payments would cease. A U.S. squadron remained in the Mediterranean to ensure the safety of American ships.

After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Europeans, too, turned their attention to suppressing pirates. Piracy on the Barbary Coast was finally eradicated after France conquered Algiers in 1830. By that time, the increasing technological sophistication of American and European fleets (steam-powered ships, advanced weaponry) made had made it very difficult for pirates to attack more civilized nations and survive.


Latin American Pirates, ca. 1800-1827

During the Napoleonic Wars, while the Spanish crown was preoccupied with battling the French, its colonists in America saw a chance to achieve independence. In many of the colonies, the battles between rebels and authorities led to near anarchy.

Not surprisingly, there was an explosion of piracy, particularly in the West Indies, which offered a multitude of havens on islands with many harbors and little government control. Often under the pretense that they were part of “patriot navies,” pirates repeatedly attacked American ships and murdered their crews. In 1823-1824, Congress dispatched a naval squadron to suppress the pirates, which was accomplished by 1827. At that point most of the Spanish colonies had achieved independence, and their new governments were beginning to exert some control over their coastlines.


Historical Lessons

Merchant vessels are the natural prey of pirates, but pirates seldom want the exact goods they capture. Hence pirates require not only ships, but havens on shore where they can exchange stolen goods for money or other goods.

From this brief survey of U.S. dealings with pirates, several points are clear:

1) Piracy flourishes when nearby governments either encourage piracy or are too weak to suppress it. In either case, diplomatic negotiations with the government in whose waters the pirates operate are ineffective at eliminating piracy.

2) Suppressing piracy requires not only capturing or destroying pirate ships, but denying the pirates havens where they can sell stolen goods and resupply their ships.

The proper function of a government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens. It is perfectly justifiable for government to send naval forces to suppress pirates in international waters, or to attack pirates’ safe havens in any country that permits such havens to exist.


Modern Piracy: Somalia

Somalia has a 2000-mile shoreline along the Gulf of Aden, part of the shipping route from the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Somalia follows the same pattern for piracy that we have seen in Barbary and the West Indies. The Somali government is for practical purposes nonexistent, and has been for many years: see my background report on the history and present condition of Somalia. Judging from the CIA Factbook entry on Somalia, the situation there has not changed much in the years since 1994, when President George H.W. Bush’s decision to send troops to Somalia prompted me to research the state of that country.

As in the 19th century, the nations whose shipping is at risk have the right to protect their citizens by dispatching ships and troops to suppress pirate activity.


Relevant Writings by Ayn Rand and Objectivist Scholars

On the proper role of government as a protector of rights and property, see Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

On the development and implementation of American foreign policy immediately following the Revolutionary War, with comments on French privateers, the XYZ Affair, the Napoleonic Wars and the Barbary pirates, listen to Eric Daniels, “The History of America – Part 2, Making a New Republic (1763-1836),” Lecture 4 (available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore).

Ayn Rand’s moving tribute to the U.S. military - directed at the cadets at West Point, but equally applicable to the Navy and Marines - is the title essay in Philosophy: Who Needs It (Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), pp. 12-13.


Sources consulted

“Barbary Wars” and “Pirate and Piracy,” 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, and

Norris, Walter B., “Barbary Wars,” and Honor Sachs & George Wycherley, “Piracy,” in Dictionary of American History (3rd ed., Thomson Gale, 2003), 1: 415 and 6: 359-60.

Weeks, William Earl. “Barbary Wars”; ; The Oxford Companion to United States History, Paul Boyer, ed., 2001. Access Date: Fri Apr 24 2009 09:34:52 GMT-0400 (Eastern Daylight Time) 

Re American laws on piracy of 1790, 1819, and 1847, see

Scholarly works cited by the above

Note: I can’t vouch for the content of these.

Bromley, John S. Corsairs & Navies, 1660-1760. History Series. London: Hambledon Press, 1987.

Chidsey, Donald Barr. The Wars in Barbary: Arab Piracy and the Birth of the United States Navy. NY: Crown, 1971.

Kitzen, Michael L. S. Tripoli and the United States at War: A History of American Relations with the Barbary States: 1785-1805.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1998.

Marley, David. Pirates & Privateers of the Americas. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Nash, Howard Pervear. The Forgotten Wars: The Role of the U.S. Navy in the Quasi War with France and the Barbary Wars 1798-1805. South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1968.

Swanson, Carl E. Predators & Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739-1748. Studies in Maritime History. Columbia: U. of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Tucker, Glenn. Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.



  1. Nicely done! I'll be back.

  2. What a great idea relating history with current events and identfying the philosophical principles involved. This is a site I welcome with enthusiasm. Thank you.

    Robert Cons

  3. Without an income tax, how did the U.S. get the "millions for defense"?

  4. Revenue in the early Republic was mostly from import & export duties - hence the distress over piracy, which hurt the government as well as merchants. The budget in 1797 (year of the XYZ Affair) was $6.134 million, with revenues of $8.6 million. I suspect that Harper's use of "millions" was for effect, the way we used to say "trillion." Incidentally, the first year the budget topped $1 billion was 1917, just after the income tax was imposed. All stats are from Historical Statistics of the United States (online edition).

  5. An impressive combination of teaching with contemporary implications. In all, a great debut.