Presidential War Powers and the First Barbary War (1801)

“…unauthorized by the Constitution, without sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.” President Thomas Jefferson, May, 1801 Letter to Congress on protection of American merchant ships against the Barbary pirates of Tripoli.

What are the President’s war powers? They are defined in the Constitution. “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,…” (Article II, Section 2). The President is in charge of the military, but no war powers are conferred directly on the President. Instead, the Constitution confers those powers on Congress, “The Congress shall have Power to declare war…” (Article I, Section 8).

What did the Founders mean when they assigned the war powers that way? The First Barbary War provides a clear picture of their intent.

No sooner had we gained our Independence and formed our Nation than the protection of Europe against the pirates of the Barbary Coast ended. We were on our own and the States of Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, and Tripoli knew it. For 15 years, all four States sanctioned pirates to capture our merchant ships and ransom our seamen or sell them into slavery.

Without a Navy capable of protecting our ships, the United States was forced into a treaty with the Sultan of each State. We paid up to $1 million to each as part of their protection racket. All but Tripoli observed their treaty. Tripoli accepted the tribute but continued their piracy.

Seeing the need for defense against France and the Barbary States, President John Adams built up the Navy and by 1798 Congress was able to authorize Adams to protect our merchant ships against French privateers.

Then, as one of its last acts before Jefferson took office as President, Congress passed a law authorizing six ships “officered and manned as the President of the United States may direct…in the event of a declaration of war by the Barbary powers to protect our commerce and chastise their insolence…”

Immediately upon Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded the next year’s ransom. Jefferson refused and the Pasha declared war on us.

Jefferson sent a naval force only sufficient to defend our merchant vessels. As he expressed in that May letter to Congress, he did not have the power to take action against Tripoli itself, stating further, “…this important function [is] confided by the Constitution in the Legislature exclusively…”

While Congress did not vote a formal declaration of war, it did authorize Jefferson “to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify.” Thus empowered, Jefferson ordered the attack on Tripoli and we prevailed.

Even for a strict act of self-defense, Jefferson relied on Congress to provide legislative authorization. He knew as did Congress (and John Adams, who waited for Congressional authorization to send ships against French privateers) that a President cannot exceed even a “line of defense.”

Over the years, Presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have inched past the “line of defense” going so far as to wage war in all but name, yet we know what the Founders intended. As shown by Jefferson, the Founders knew how a President could use executive power to wage war in his own interests and, in the Constitution, they designed a clear safeguard against it.

Jefferson understood and obeyed the Constitutional limits to his war powers. But, if another President does not, it is up to Congress to enforce those limits. Not all Congresses have exercised this responsibility. Let’s hope that this one will.

5 thoughts on “Presidential War Powers and the First Barbary War (1801)

  1. My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different page and thought I might check things
    out. I like what I see so noww i’m following you.
    Look forward to finding out about your web pagge again.

  2. Thank you, Ramonita! I don’t post as often as I should. I figure quality is better than quantity and a worthy subject doesn’t come up every day. Besides, I’ve been busy getting my new book ready. It’s titled “American Amazons: Colonial Women Who Changed History.” You can read a Sneak Preview of it here on my blog. Just go to the Home page and click on the tab for it at the top. I hope you like it. The book should be available later this month. If you would like to be on my email list for notification, just send me a private message with your email address. Thank you.

  3. Ӏ’m reaⅼly impressed ѡith yоur writing skills aѕ wеll
    ɑs wіtҺ thе layout ⲟn your weblog. Ⅰs this
    a paid theme or did you modify іt yoursᥱlf? Anyway
    keep uр the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog ⅼike tɦiѕ one tоdaү.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s