Alexander T. Jennette
CONSULS AND COMMODORES: THE INITIAL UNSUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE BARBARY PIRATES, 1801 -1803.
(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, November 1985.
The purpose of this study is to investigate the initial attempt of the United States government to eliminate the threat of the Barbary pirates to its Mediterranean commerce. It will concentrate attention on how naval and consular authorities in the region failed to coordinate the application of seapower with diplomatic effort and the consequences of this failure. The study will closely consider the ineptitude and lack of fighting spirit of the naval leaders. The period of concern is the first two years of the nation's naval commitment in the Mediterranean.
When Jefferson took office in early 1801, the United States had a large merchant fleet taking full advantage of Europe's maritime incapacity stemming from the Napoleonic conflict. In the Mediterranean, the pirate navies of the southern Mediterranean coast, the so-called Barbay pirates, had sorely afflicted this commerce. The United States had signed treaties with the sponsors of the piracy, but their terms were demeaning, and the territorial chieftans were ever alert to use transient advantages to extract further concessions. Moreover, they violated the treaties frequently and casually. By 1801, Tripoli had become the most insistent in the clamor for higher tribute and the most flagrantly insulting of the petty states. Jefferson had earlier concluded that the application of naval force was a cheaper and far more honorable way to solve the problem. Accordingly, he dispatched the bulk of the fledgling navy on a show of force and diplomatic mission to the area. Before it arrived, Tripoli had declared war and altered the character of the task.
There were four experienced United States consuls operating in the territorial states along the North African coast. Armed with the requisite diplomatic authority, they were well suited to lead the naval diplomatic foray. James Madison, the Secretary of State, elected to confer primary authority for the undertaking upon the leaders of the naval squadron, the commodores. Not only did they prove inadequate for the diplomatic work, their heart for naval combat was also wanting. To further compound these difficulties, the interaction between the consuls and the commodores was abrasive and divisive.
The consequences of inaction, blundering, and uncoordinated effort were catastrophic for American policy, After dedicating the greatest portion of its available seapower to suppressing the Barbary pirates, the United States, after two years, could show no evidence of progress.