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Barbary Pirates, Napoleonic Wars and Embargo of 1807

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  • 0:05 Napoleonic Wars
  • 1:03 First Barabry War
  • 3:54 Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
  • 5:00 Embargo Act of 1807
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Throughout President Jefferson's two terms in office, his foreign policy revolved around war in Europe. Despite his attempts to remain neutral, American ships were drawn into conflict that demanded the president's response.

The Napoleonic Wars

After the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France, and from 1799 to 1815, a series of wars erupted as Napoleon extended his empire to include most of Europe. Britain sought to destroy this pesky rival once and for all.

Do you remember being a small child and seeing your parents fight? What did you do? When America was caught in the middle of these two old European rivals, the young nation was a little scared to pick a side.

Soon, the Napoleonic Wars jumped from land to sea, keeping the nations busy in a war on commerce. Like a teenager who has seen her parents bicker now for years, America took advantage of their distraction and expanded its role in transatlantic commerce. In 15 years (between 1792 and 1807), American exports increased by 585%! Jefferson also took advantage of Napoleon's financial problems to purchase the Louisiana Territory.

Napoleon took control of France after the French Revolution
Napoleon Bonaparte Image

The First Barbary War

But it wasn't long before American merchant ships were being harassed by pirates from the North African Barbary coast. For centuries, Barbary pirates had terrorized the Mediterranean Sea, seizing goods and ships, kidnapping sailors to be sold into slavery if a ransom wasn't paid. But before the Revolution, American ships had been protected by the British Navy and, for a short time afterward, by the French. Now, they were on their own. George Washington initiated negotiations with the pirates, and in 1797 President Adams agreed to pay an annual tribute to secure safe passage for American ships.

When Jefferson took office in 1801, the Pasha (sort of like a British lord) of Tripoli demanded $225,000. Although it was significantly less than previous administrations had paid in tribute, Jefferson refused. So, the Pasha declared war on the United States. Congress never officially declared war in return, but it did authorize Jefferson to protect American interests. Jefferson sent Navy ships and Marines to the shores of Tripoli in the First Barbary War. They defeated Tripoli at sea, defending the merchant vessels and securing a more advantageous treaty in 1805.

If you're thinking, 'It's a good thing America finally stood up to the bullies,' you would have had plenty of company in 1805. But it wasn't without controversy, and it set a far-reaching precedent. Try to see things in a modern context. How do people today respond when their leaders take military action? Heads of state all over the world have faced very similar dilemmas. Is it Constitutional for the president to use the military if Congress hasn't declared war - even if Congress has given him or her the power to do so? Is it right to use the military to defend a nation's financial interests? Should the nation use federal resources to bail out civilians who have knowingly put themselves in harm's way for the sake of financial gain?

Map of the North African Barbary coast
Barbary Coast Map

Jefferson and Congress (and most of the population) decided that defending America's right to international commerce was a federal concern because there was more at stake than just the fortunes of the ships' owners and the lives of the crew. They argued that if they didn't stand up to the bully when they had the chance, things would only get worse. The First Barbary War set the precedent that military force could be used, even without a formal declaration of war. Once again, Jefferson had expanded the scope of the presidency.

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

Despite the successful engagement with the Barbary pirates (or maybe because of it), both England and France tried to provoke the United States into taking a side in the Napoleonic Wars. They began harassing American ships, stealing cargo, and the British often took the further step of pressing American sailors into service in the Royal Navy. Jefferson was still determined to stay neutral, but in 1807, the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair nearly drove America to war.

The British Navy had been blockading some French ships in the Chesapeake Bay. According to the British, some of their own crew had deserted and taken sanctuary on American ships. The British warship Leopard attacked the American Navy ship Chesapeake and carried off four men. All of them had, in fact, served on British ships, but only one of them was an Englishman. The other three were Americans who had been pressed into service.

American citizens demanded a declaration of war in response to the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, noting that it wasn't just an attack on American commerce or a violation of neutrality. It was an act of war against a military installation in which men had died and prisoners were captured.

President Jefferson tried to use economic means to punish France and Britain
Thomas Jefferson Image

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