The Set Up

The Articles of Confederation created a “firm league of friendship” between the newly established states. Article III explains that this new confederation would provide for “their common defense” and ensure “their mutual and general welfare.” However, after establishing this new nation, United States merchant ships were under constant attacks from pirates along the coast of the Barbary States. The Continental Congress was unable to sufficiently address these attacks. It became clear that under the Articles of Confederation the states were unable to defend themselves and ensure their general welfare.

Problem with the Prirates


Piracy was critical to the Barbary States economies.1 The Barbary states used both the labor of captive slaves and the money from ransoms and tributesTribute noun money or goods that a ruler or country gives to another ruler or country especially for protection., as means of commerce.2 Once captured or stolen, the Barbary States would then sell slaves and or goods to other countries after capture. The most powerful nations, including England, were able to adapt to these threats to their merchant ships.

During the 18th century the British Empire was arguably the most powerful. Its military, namely it naval forces, protected British and American merchant ships from privateering when traveling to and from the colonies. Moreover, the British Empire had the monetary means to pay tribute to pirates or ransom for captured ships and sailors.3

The American revolution was fought to end British Rule within the colonies. However, the colonial system protected the American colonies through the diplomatic and military might of the British. However, the Treaty of Paris of 1783 not only brought the American Revolution to an end, but it also ended all protection the British provided to American merchant ships. American representatives attempted to ensure continued protection by Britain of American merchant ships, but the British refused.4 Thomas Jefferson claimed that one of the best markets for American exports were the Mediterranean Ports.5 Thus, ships from the United States continued to trade in the Mediterranean following the signing of the Treaty. Trade in the Mediterranean was in part retaliation against restrictions on foreign trade.6 However, he new nation had to face the threats of the Barbary pirates directly and without protection provided by its former colonial power.

Problem with the Articles

Much like the representatives at the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Continental Congress was aware of the threat the Barbary pirates posed to United States merchant ships. However, Congress' powers were limited under the Articles of Confederation. Congress did not have the power to tax, rather individual states held that power. Therefore, if the United States needed to raise funds for tribute or ransom, the states would need to contribute voluntarily.7 In addition, the Continental Navy was incredibly expensive to maintain and was subsequently disbanded in 1784 to help pay off the nation's debt following the Revolution.8 Although Congress had the authority to re-establish and maintain a navy, the individual states held the authority to enlist sailors and pay for it.9 Thus, under the Articles, Congress was unable to provide adequate tribute and maintain a navy, which subjected merchant ships to threats from Barbary pirates.


The then US Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, wrote to John Adams on July 11, 1786 with his recommendations for Congress to address concerns about the Barbary pirates. Jefferson believed that a Continental Navy was necessary in order to protect US merchant ships. In response, Thomas Barclay was sent to Morocco to establish a treaty between the United States and the Sultan of Morocco. Barclay wrote to Jefferson on March 23, 1786. The subsequent treaty protected merchant ships with a tribute of 5,000 pounds sterling.10

On July 25, 1785 the schooner Maria was captured by Algerian pirates. Just five days later the ship Dauphin was also captured by Algerian pirates along with its twenty-one person crew.11 The crew was taken hostage and remained captive in Algiers until the United States Constitution was ratified. Only after the ratification, when the United States was able to provided a large enough ransom through collecting taxes and borrowing from foreign states, was the piracy problem addressed. However, both powers were only granted to the federal government after the ratification of the Constitution.


Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress was unable to fully address the threats posed by the Barbary States. After the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the government was able to provide for the "common defense" and ensure the "general welfare" of the states. Moreover, with a naval force, the United States would engage in a full maritime campaign against the Barbary States during the First Barbary War (1801-1805).

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