The Burning of the American Fregate (sic) the Philadelphia in the Harbour of Tripoli

The Burning of the American Fregate (sic) the Philadelphia in the Harbour of Tripoli, John B. Guerazzi, Italian, working c. 1805

In 1776, the British, Spanish, French and Ottoman empires reigned from the Dardanelles to the West Indies and roamed the high seas in between with their vast navies. Even though General Cornwallis surrendered and the Thirteen Colonies became independent of Great Britain, they were by no means safe and secure on the high seas. The government was left fractured, bankrupt, and isolated from the rest of the world by the powerful British Royal Navy. Therefore, diplomacy with England, France and Spain became the only option for survival.

Decatur's Conflict with Barbary Pirates at Tripoli

Decatur's Conflict with Barbary Pirates at Tripoli, Chappel, Alonzo (American, 1829-1887)

Over the next fifteen years, American merchantmen became a prize, ripe for the picking, for pirates roaming the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Knowing retribution was not to come, Barbary corsairs captured American sailors and held them for ransom for years until unfathomable amounts of tributes were paid.11 Empires such as France and England enjoyed safe passage to the rich markets of the Mediterranean because they could afford to bribe Barbary beys (chieftains), whereas the United States could afford the exorbitant sums demanded and sailed the waters at its own risk. The fragile American economy was already under strain and being blockaded from the vibrant transcontinental Silk Road trade network would bankrupt the floundering United States.11

An Act Further to Protect the Commerce and Seamen of the United States, against the Barbary Powers

An act further to protect the commerce and seamen of the United States, against the Barbary powers.

With traditional diplomacy producing no results, Thomas Jefferson called upon the United States Navy to sail to war and keep American interests safe overseas, whatever the cost. Jefferson’s decision solidified gunboat diplomacy in the annals of American foreign policy.11 When diplomats could not safeguard American interests overseas, fire from the mouth of a cannon would demand and garner the respect Americans deserved as sovereign citizens. Hence another cornerstone was laid in the framework of the United States government foreign policy: negotiate with all guns loaded.6