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The Barbary Pirates Case

At a time when one of the chief modes of generating revenue was Sea trade, the
Barbary Pirates posed a very serious threat to the exchequer of the United States
Government. The European Monarchies had all accepted the fact that paying a
bribe was the only way out of this situation. They did not want to enter into a
conflict which would only cost more and whose end was unpredictable. Also, they
found a way to sabotage the trading relationships of other European nations
because this way competition can be avoided. Till such time that US was a colony of
the Britain, the Empire took care of the trading route and entered into an
agreement wherein “protection money” was paid for US merchant ships too.
However, after the revolutionary war US had to pitch for itself.
The dilemma was to arrive at a decision from various options in front of them. The
power to take such a decision rested upon two of the greatest thinkers and
statesmen of the 18th Century, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The case follows
a discussion between the two of them about the situation in the Barbary States.

Mr. John Adams in his letter to Mr. Jefferson lists three options that the US can
choose from in order to achieve safe trading. They are (a) Pay the Pirates a bribe,
(b) Not do anything at all and (c) Wage a war against the pirates.
(a) Pay the Pirates a bribe: Mr. Adams advises here to pay a bribe of £500,000 to
the pirates for a permanent peace brokering. However, he does opine that
the same can be achieved if negotiations are done and the amount fixed at
either £200,000 or £300,000.
(b) Not to do anything: To continue with the current status quo would again sum
up to £500,000 according to Mr. Adams.
(c) Wage a war: Mr. Adams states that a fully fledged war would cost £500,000 a
year and thereafter, a failure would threaten the US to pay “protection
money”.
He concludes by saying that the interest paid on the bribe amount would be
peanuts considering the financial loss a war would attract.

However, Mr. Jefferson is of the idea that since building a Navy is priority the initial
investment in building a fleet should be considered unavoidable. He then goes on to
say that the cost involved in maintaining the fleet is £45,000 per year. If the fleet is
in anchorage then the cost of maintenance is half i.e. £22,500. Hence, in effect the
cost of waging a war against the Barbary Pirates amounts to just £22,500 per year
because we have established the fact that a Navy is essentially required.

Now History does tell us what course of action the US took against this problem,
however, let us evaluate all the options given by Mr. Adams. The 1 st option would
make US exchequer weak by £500,000 with immediate effect and give the Barbary
Pirates leverage to arm twist the US government for more. The peace treaty can be
signed with nations of mutual understandings. A treaty signed with upper hand to
one party does not have a logical standing. The Barbary Pirates can come back and
ask for another ransom within 6 months of the treaty. In the 2nd option, the looting
and slave trading will only strengthen the Pirates more and make them more
combat ready as and when the US decides to go on a war with them. Also, the trade
between countries was substantially increasing every year. So, what then is the cost
of not treating the problem for the following year? Now, the 3 rd option from Mr.
Adams view is a much costlier affair. However, Mr. Jefferson’s point is completely
warranted when he says that since US needs to build a Navy fleet, the actual cost of
fighting the war is miniscule compared to the earlier 2 options.
Anyways, US ratified a constitution which clearly forbade any negotiation with
Pirates. Hence, politically the 1st option becomes invalid straightaway. The 2nd
option is based on too many assumptions and cannot be an answer to the problem.
I completely agree with Mr. Jefferson’s view wherein a war with Barbary Pirates
would solve the problem. A war would cost the US the same or lower than the other
2 options and also render the Pirates depleted of resources for many years to come.
Moreover, the changes in the Federal structure because of the ratification of the
constitution combined with a surging economy after 1790 gave a boost to the US
government financially. As US ambitions grew to make a stronger country so did its
resolve to build a Navy for defense. Also, Mr. Thomas Jefferson was elected
President of the US in 1801.