THOMAS JEFFERSON FIRST FOUGHT MUSLIM TERRORISTS
In the earliest days of our Republic, without a formal declaration of war from Congress, Thomas Jefferson created the United States Navy and Marines and went to war against Muslim terrorists who were attacking American vessels, enslaving American seamen, and holding those seamen and American property hostage until ransom was paid. Our history thus provides a clear, illustrative example of how the President as Commander in Chief may direct the American military to destroy terrorists intent on taking American lives and property.
The President’s supreme power as Commander in Chief to direct American military forces against terrorist foes has long constitutional roots stemming from the Constitution’s Article II, Section 2. While in the foreign realm the President’s power to command American military forces is paramount; in the domestic realm he functions as a civilian in all but the rarest of circumstances when, pursuant to the Constitution’s Article I, Section 9, the Congress of the United States suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion” when “the public Safety . . . require[s] it.” In his civilian role as chief executive officer, the President may not constitutionally put the instrumentalities of war to use against the people of the United States except in a limited and rare circumstance. Congress may invoke Article I, Section 9 writ suspension only in the midst of a rebellion in the theater of conflict (such as the Civil War) and only for so long as is necessary to quell the Rebellion.
While I respect those who fear misuse of America’s military might against our own people, that might and those technologies are indispensable to protect the nation against invasion and to destroy those intent on destroying us. Thomas Jefferson well understood this, as did all of the Founding Fathers, and they made way for use of force to achieve those ends in the Constitution.
In his time President Jefferson assembled the best military armaments the nation could afford to defeat Muslim terrorists. In our time, we are doing, and must do, the same. Yet, then as now, we must be ever vigilant to keep the military under civilian control and to keep the Constitution’s defenses for civil liberties in place so that domestically we do not suffer a loss in liberty. Unfortunately, so long as terrorists dwell in foreign lands among civilian populations, and there conspire to destroy us, we will be faced with unavoidable risks of civilian casualties, yet we must ensure the security of the American people first and foremost, as Jefferson did, through offensive military power.
It is wise to recall the example set by President Jefferson, an anti-Federalist who deplored the exercise of power to invade the people’s liberties. While an enemy to an energetic government at home, Jefferson would not tolerate acts of terrorism against Americans abroad and used his power as Commander in Chief to create the U.S. Navy and Marines for the purpose of seeking and destroying the terrorists.
From 1785 to 1800, our country possessed a woefully inadequate military capability. During that time it was the policy of the United States to pay ransom to the leaders of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers in response to obtain the release of merchantmen and their property victimized by terrorist acts. Pirate ships from those countries operated on the Barbary Coast, capturing merchant ships, enslaving their crews, and then demanding ransom for their release.
In March 1785 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with Tripoli’s Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja. They asked the Ambassador why his nation waged war on American shipping. In a response that could have been given by Osama bin Laden, the Ambassador stated: “It was written in the Qu’ran that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet [Mohammed] were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave, and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise . . .”
In 1800, the U.S. paid the terrorists’ ransom, amounting to 20% of the U.S. government’s purse for that year. Thomas Jefferson was an outspoken critic of the payments and persuaded George Washington that it would be better to build an American Navy and Marine Corps than to suffer this humiliation. Following his 1801 inauguration, President Jefferson refused the ransom demands. He commissioned a group of frigates to go to the Mediterranean and defend America’s interests. He informed Congress of his actions but did not seek, and was not given, a formal declaration of war. Congress did authorize Jefferson “to cause to be done all such . . . acts of . . . hostility as the State of war will justify.” The USS Enterprise defeated the fourteen gun Tripoli in the first major engagement called for by Jefferson in August of 1801.
In 1802, President Jefferson upped the ante against the terrorists with the support of Congress to “. . . employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite . . . for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and adjoining seas.” Jefferson gave it all the young nation had, dispatching the USS Argus, the USS Chesapeake, the USS Constellation, the USS Constitution, the USS Enterprise, the USS Intrepid, the USS Philadelphia, and the USS Syren to the Mediterranean for sustained combat operations. He appointed Commodore Edward Prebble to overall command of the forces dispatched. Following orders from the Commander in Chief, Prebble blockaded ports, raided coastal cities in search and destroy missions, and attacked the pirates relentlessly. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a successful Marine assault on Tripolitan captors of the USS Philadelphia, leading to fame for him in the United States.
In a final engagement in April and May 1805, U.S. Marines led by General William Eaton sacked the Tripolitan city of Derma. The American conquest of that town is praised in the Marines’ Hymn: “. . . to the shores of Tripoli.” By employing the best military armaments the United States could marshal at the time, Jefferson achieved an end to the terrorist menace and a return to secure passage for our vessels in the Mediterranean. He created by his actions a precedent for all future chief executives, ensuring that America could promptly and with overwhelming force destroy any who would harm innocent Americans anywhere in the world.
There is thus early and profound precedent for the President to initiate aggression against those who attack American lives and confiscate American property. This power is plenary in the foreign realm and cannot constitutionally be replicated in the domestic realm. The threat to America, then as now, from foreign terrorists is considerable. The foremost duty of government is to protect the lives of its citizens. Because of modern communications, the time between a terrorist’s plot to kill innocents and execution of that plot can be seconds and, so, interdiction before execution becomes imperative.
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By ferreting out and destroying those identified as terrorists who seek our destruction wherever they are in the world, the President performs the quintessential and indispensable role of a Commander in Chief. Had Jefferson not done that very thing from 1801 to 1805, and had our modern Presidents not done so repeatedly in the face of new challenges, our country could not have survived and our people would have been enslaved. Freedom depends on a vigilant defense of liberty at home and an equally vigilant attack upon those dedicated to destroy our freedoms abroad. There can be no security for a republic without a strong and decisive military.
© 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved