As early as the American Revolution, the establishment of an official U.S. navy was a matter of debate for the newly formed Continental Congress. Supporters of the idea of a naval service argued that the United States needed sea power to defend the coast and make it easier to seek support from foreign countries by becoming part of the international seafaring group. Detractors pointed out that, at the time, Great Britain's Royal Navy was the preeminent naval power, and the new country had neither the funds nor expertise to match British naval might (Palmer 2004). Of course, once the war was over and the United States began to assert itself into world trade affairs the issue of protecting American merchant ships became an important part of international commerce. This actually came to a head in the area near present day Libya, the southwest Mediterranean with the two wars between the United States and the Barbary States of North Africa. The central issue was the Barbary pirates demand of tribute from American vessels sailing in the Mediterranean, leading to the famous phrase first used during the XYZ Affair with France, then echoed when dealing with the Barbary pirates: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute," and the establishment of America as a nation that would not be bullied (Fremont-Barnes 2006).
Background- The Barbary Pirates -- The Barbary Pirates, or Barbary Corsairs, were Muslim privateers who operated from North Africa, primarily based around the ports of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis -- in an area known as the Barbary Coast. This was a historical activity, dating back to the 16th century in which between the 16th and 19th century about 1.25 million people were captured as slaves, large stretches of Spanish, French and Italian coastal areas were left barren of habitation, and millions of dollars (in contemporary currency) extricated from captured booty, hostages, and tribute to trade in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas. In addition, advances in shipbuilding techniques also allowed the pirates to extend their range up and down the coast of Africa and occasionally into the New World. While their main purpose was, of course, profit, they also wished to capture Christian slaves for the Islamic markets in North Africa and the Middle East (Davis 2010; Clark 1944)).
As long as American ships were under the colonial protection of Great Britain they were protected from the Barbary pirates. However, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1777 Morocco was the first independent nation to recognize the United States, and ironically in 1784 was also the first Barbary client state to seize an American vessel. Initial, the U.S. secured peace treaties that required payment of tribute as protection from attack which, in 1800, amounted to 20% of the U.S. annual expenditures; egregious for a new nation to absorb (Oren 2005).
This tribute was done almost out of desperation in order to benefit from the opening of new European markets, so vital for the newly formed American interests. However, as early as 1785, the U.S. merchant ship Betsey was captured to prod the new nation into serious negotiations with the reigning Pasha. While the Betsey was released, and a treated negotiated in 1786 ostensibly to allow American ships free passage into the Mediterranean, harassment continued. One of the major issues was that the new country had no strong centralized government, nor excess funds, nor a military that could back up any potential warlike actions. Other political considerations; problems with France after her revolution, increased tensions with Great Britain, and the complexities arising from developing a central bank along with the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates placed the issues with the Muslims on a lower priority. By 1794, however, the continued pressures of tribute, more American sailors captured into slavery, and international concerns about American sovereignty resulted in a 1794 vote by Congress to construct six frigates and begin the formation of an American Navy. However, by September 1795, negotiators agreed to pay about 1/3 of the original duty requested by the Barbary States, or approximately $600,000 and a humiliating Treaty (the Treaty of Algiers). America felt forced into this action due to needing more time to complete the frigates (at least two more years) and the extreme need to spur economic development in trade (Fremont-Barnes; Folayan 1972).
The U.S. Navy and the Barbary Wars -- There were areas in which American ships were safe because of Portugese or British patrols, but the number of merchant ships willing to brave the west Mediterranean dwindled, even after the Treaty of Algiers. The focal issue was the Barbary states were neither a single unit nor a single government, and a number of the privateers operated independently and without allegiance to any negotiated treaty. Due to fiscal pressures, many in Congress attempted to cancel the frigates under construction, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, in a rare unified agreement, convinced members of Congress that the U.S. could never hope to become a legitimate state without a navy. In the election of 1800 the issue of the naval expenditures loomed heavy upon newly elected Thomas Jefferson, within days of his innaguaration, Jefferson was faced with clear violations of the Algerian Treaty and more demands of tribute. This resulted in the First Barbary War (1801-05), also America's first foreign war (Folayan).
America's first war was more a war of attrition than actual combat expertise. American ships blockaged Tunis, attacked Tripoli, and decided to land soldiers on the Coast and press the attacks by land. This approach prevented the Corsairs from making money and resulted in a peace settlement on June 3, 1805. For many Americans, the result of this conflict legitimized the formation of the American state. It certainly sent a signal to Europe that despite fiscal difficulties, the United States was committed to sovereignty. Converseley, this rampant nationalism and sense of national arrogance, combined with British harassement, led to the war of 1812. More important than anything else, though, the end of the first Barbary War increased the larger debate of America's place in the world -- even between the Federalists and Republicans (Toll 2006).
Once America and Britain engaged in public conflict the Barbary pirates took advantage of the conflict by again preying upon American merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. In fact, they assumed that Britain would destory any semblance of the new American Navy and there would be no worry for any future apprisal. The pirates imprisoned hundreds of Americans and captured numerous ships. However, through some brilliant strategic ploys and a good deal of luck, as well as a negative turn of events for Britain in European affairs, American finally triumphed over the British Navy, becoming the only power to challenge British sea power until World War I (Ibid). Once the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814; ratified in Feburary of that year by both governments, the American navy was once again free to engage the Corsairs. President James Madison, already known for his views of extending American influence throughout the world, counted on negotiations of trading agreements with major European powers to solve some of the Barbary incidents. Thinking Britain would triumph, the Barbary pirates did nothing to improve their navies during this time, and were thus unprepared for experienced commanders (from the first war), renewed enthusiasm, and fairly new military equipment. Very little fighting occurred in this second of Barbary Wars (1815) and due to the overwhelming military superiority and backing of a number of European powers (now that America had fought and won over the British), the Barbary rulers backed down and eliminated any further payment of duties. This, in combination with the end of Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the reorganization of Europe, effectively ended the rule of the Corsairs and resulted in…