Other threats came from a loose alliance of Muslims states known collectively as the ‘Barbary Coast.’ Libya, Tunisia, Algiers, and Morocco engaged in an extensive seafaring piracy operation, which seized ships, confiscated cargo, and either sold the crews into slavery or executed them.
Under President George Washington, the United States began to develop its naval power to meet this threat, as Russell Weigley writes:
In response to the European part of these threats, Congress voted in 1794 to rehabilitate coastal fortifications of the Revolutionary era and to erect new ones to protect sixteen principal ports and harbors. Explicitly in response to the Barbary pirates, Congress voted a navy of six frigates, but with the proviso that the building of the frigates should be suspended if the United States made peace with the Regency of Algiers. The Federalist Congressmen who sponsored the latter measure and the Federalist War Department which administered it may have had more than the Algerines in mind, however, for the Washington administration laid down six cruisers designed to meet in more than equal combat the best British or French vessels of their class, including three frigates rated at forty-four guns which would be superior to any European warships save line-of-battle ships. On March 15, 1796, President Washington had to inform Congress that the peace with Algiers contemplated by the Naval Act of 1794 had been attained - the United States having consented to pay a satisfactory amount of tribute - but Federalist advocates of a strong government and respectable armed forces were able to win Congressional approval for completing three of the frigates anyway, United States and Constitution, 44 guns, and Constellation, 38.
The treaty with Algiers, however, proved to be a sham. As soon as it was signed, the Algerians developed clear and deliberate plans to violate the treaty and resume the enslavement and execution of United States citizens.
It would fall to Washington’s successors - Adams and Jefferson - to confront the Barbary Coast attackers. The U.S. government was alarmed that Americans were still dying in ritualized Islamic beheadings.
A flexible response - the ability to change the plans and deployments of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps - was needed to face these dangers, as Mark Levin writes:
The Founders recognized that America had to be strong politically, economically, culturally, and militarily to survive and thrive in a complex, ever-changing global environment not only in their time but for all time. History bears this out. After the Revolutionary War, the Founders realized that the Confederation was inadequate to conduct foreign affairs, since each state was free to act on its own. There could be no coherent national security policy, because there was no standing army and each state ultimately was responsible for its own defense. The nation’s economy was vulnerable to pirates who were terrorizing transatlantic shipping routes and thereby inhibiting trade and commerce. And the British and Spanish empires were looming threats.
Jefferson and Adams had extensive experience in diplomacy, and had met ambassadors from Muslim states before becoming presidents. They understood that negotiating with the Barbary Coast states would be a general waste of effort.
Adams and Jefferson knew to ignore the words of the Barbary Coast diplomats; they would say whatever it took to achieve their interests, with no intention of abiding by any agreement, written or spoken. The Americans studied the history and culture of these states, even the Qur’an, to better understand their attackers.
The American leaders had studied enough to ‘get inside’ the thought processes of the Islamic governments, as Dennis Prager writes:
The primary, if not only, reason Jefferson had a copy of the Koran was to try to understand the Koran and Islam in light of what the Muslim ambassador from Tripoli had told him and John Adams. When asked why Tripoli pirates were attacking American ships and enslaving Americans, the Muslim ambassador explained that Muslims are commanded to do so by the Koran.
Jefferson wrote that the Tripoli ambassador told him that “it was written in their Koran that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman [Muslim] who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to Paradise.”
Under the presidency of Jefferson, then, the United States negotiated by a show of military force. This proved to be the only way to stop the butchering of American sailors, and the sale of American sailors into slavery.