The situation today between the United States and Libya is tenuous at best, but a look back at our Libyan invasion in 1805 shows a president and Congress who authorized military activities without a war declaration.
In modern times, the “shores of Tripoli” are best known as a verse in the Marine anthem. Today, Tripoli is the biggest city in Libya, with 2.2 million people.
But Tripoli back in 1805 was literally a pirates’ den that was a huge thorn in the side of three U.S. presidents: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
It took actions started by Jefferson, and then later by James Madison, to send U.S. military forces to the region, without a Declaration of War from Congress. The legislature did approve the military actions by statute, in a manner similar to some recent U.S. actions.
Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. But it specifies little else in the process. The War of 1812 was the first one that saw a Declaration of War approved by Congress.
Before that 1812 declaration, three U.S. military actions were sanctioned by the president and Congress without a war declaration: the Quasi-War with France, and two military campaigns in North Africa.
The rulers of Tripoli had a long history of raiding and capturing ships. It was part of what was called the Barbary Coast in North Africa, which also contained Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Merchant ships from the United States had received protection from pirates from the British navy during the Revolutionary War era, but that ended in the 1780s, and the Barbary pirates started capturing American ships in the Mediterranean Sea, asking for ransom or tribute.
The first attack in 1784 resulted in American sailors being held in slavery for ransom. Eight years later, the U.S. Congress agreed to pay $1 million to the Barbary States in exchange for peace.
The crisis led to the United States creating its first Navy, even though Presidents Washington and Adams continued to send payments to North Africa for safe passage.
One Founding Father who was opposed to the payments was Thomas Jefferson, who stopped the policy when he replaced Adams as president in 1801.
Tripoli then started capturing American ships again, but Jefferson sent the U.S. Navy, instead of tribute, to the Mediterranean. The Navy blockaded the port of Tripoli as hostilities started.
However, neither Jefferson or Congress declared war on Tripoli, even though the Pasha of Tripoli made his own war declaration, after Jefferson refused to pay an annual $225,000 tribute to him.
At first, Jefferson sent naval forces to the Mediterranean to defend American interests, without asking Congress for a war declaration. He then asked Congress to expand the powers of these forces to take the attack to the pirates.
Congress didn’t declare war either, but it passed the Act for Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States Against the Tripolitian Corsairs, which gave the Navy and the Marines the power to “subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, or to his subjects.”
After several historic battles, which included a coordinated land-sea attack by the U.S. Navy and Marines on the city of Derna, Tripoli signed a peace treaty with the United States in 1805.
Full hostilities wouldn’t end in the region for another decade, after the U.S. Navy returned in 1815 and confronted Algeria, which was raiding American ships. That action was approved by another Founding Father, President James Madison.
Congress authorized military activities in the region, but didn’t declare war.
The U.S. Navy made short work of the Algerian forces and a stricter peace pact was put in place.
The last declared war in American history was World War II. Since then, U.S. forces have seen action in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan without a war declaration.
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