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  • The Founders on Intervention: American Military Action Abroad (1783-1860)

    Those who advocate strict non-interventionism usually intend it to mean that America should remain militarily uninvolved abroad except when there is a clear and imminent threat to U.S. territory. But this isolationist doctrine of non-interventionism is not in keeping with the founding principles of America’s early foreign policy.

    The Founding Fathers, whose foreign policy some non-interventionists claim to champion, were no strangers to difficult foreign policy decisions. When faced with the choice to allow attacks on American ships of commerce by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea or to punish the perpetrators of those attacks, President Thomas Jefferson and his Secretary of State James Madison chose the latter.

    In 1801, just thirteen years after the Constitution was ratified, the United States built six frigates and dispatched a naval squadron to seek out and punish the Muslim pirates who had been attacking American merchants and endangering the life and property of American citizens. Soon the U.S. Navy attacked the port of Tripoli (pictured above) and landed Marines on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, who then captured the Ottoman city of Derma. This series of battles inspired a line of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Hymn (“to the shores of Tripoli”).

    The Tripolitan War blatantly violated the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, in order to carry out a U.S. foreign policy objective that was in keeping with America’s guiding principles of maintaining independence abroad, ensuring freedom, and preserving peace. It did so without officially declaring war. Interestingly, America’s cause in this conflict was also understood by the Jefferson administration to be punishing the Barbary States’ violations against the Law of Nations.

    Strict non-interventionists would apparently object to this historical deployment of the Marines on foreign soil to ensure Americans’ safety in another hemisphere; for the doctrine of non-interventionism is conspicuously dogmatic and inflexible. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the isolationist views of the 1930s and bears little resemblance to the Founders’ foreign policy approach. Even though there was disagreement among the Founders on certain policies, there was an overwhelming agreement that abroad America should vigorously maintains it independence and pursue its interests while standing for the idea of political freedom across the globe.

    While a policy of non-intervention is sometimes appropriate, the doctrine of non-interventionism is an isolationist policy which limits the options available to America. It is a limitation that the Founders clearly did not adopt: in the years 1783-1860, the U.S. engaged in military action nearly sixty times at locations around the globe. Like the Tripolitan War, these military actions in the service of America’s interests and principles were both defensive and, at times, interventionist.

    The true consistency of American foreign policy is to be found not in its policies, which ought to prudently change and adapt, but in its guiding principles, which should be unchanging and permanent. Those who advocate strict non-interventionism are not representing a traditionally American foreign policy approach; for it excludes the statesmanlike virtue of prudence and ignores many instances in early American history when the U.S. did intervene, even militarily, in order to defend America’s interests and advance its political principles.

    —Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation. This post is the second in a series on the Founders’ understanding of military engagement.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    13 Responses to The Founders on Intervention: American Military Action Abroad (1783-1860)

    1. Michael, Portland, O says:

      Jefferson & many of our founders did not even believe we should have a standing army in times when Congress did not declare war. That's one of the primary purposes of the 2nd Amendment. We wanted a well armed citizenry and employ the letters of mark & reprisal with our trained citizens to enforce legal matters outside of declaration. Marion, the vast majority of these frequent "military engagements" were not wars, certainly not on a scale of what we are doing in MENA.

      Irrespective of the Constitutional position, for which you are dead wrong, let's look at it simply from a practical perspective. Virtually every war we have fought since the Revolutionary War (even then, maybe not) did not improve the liberty or standard of living of Americans. The stuff we are engaged in now, if anything, is hurting our national security & costing us billions of $ we do not have. It is not the job of the US federal government to enforce imperial contracts or police the world. Every time we do either in our history, it has backfired on us.

      • Last Sane Man, CA says:

        Like the Civil War. That obviously decreased liberty in America. Yep.

        • Armed and Free says:

          It did indeed. Look at the actions that Lincoln took, thus setting horrifying precedents. Dramatic expansion of presidential power, unilateral suspension of Habeas Corpus, completely destroying the relevance of Constitutional restrictions on power, unilateral declaration of war (Congress declared war well after Lincoln started it), utter destruction of states' rights… The list goes on (including suppression of free speech and disarming citizens of border states.). I think you and I can both agree that all of these decreased freedom, in addition to allowing future presidents to invoke Lincoln.

          Now, on to the article itself – first of all, the Barbary States had actually declared war by chopping down the flagpole at the US Embassy, in addition to blatantly attacking shipping. Second, Jefferson got authorization from Congress. Third, this was an action against a state, in response to attacks from said state, NOT an action against a state, in response to attacks from a terrorist organization that may or may not be connected.

      • Sam Fox says:

        The article fails to mention that what happened then did not result in a long standing occupation of the places that were attacked. What took place in 1783-1860 hardly resembles what the US is doing in the Middle East.

        The US govt did not set up the pirates, then take them down, like we did with Saddam Hussein.


    2. Bruce Applegate, NYC says:

      I apologize for believing in Barak Obama's " Change We Can Believe In" Campaign and voting for him because…

      * His codling countries and orginazations that sponsor terrorism.

      * His destructive spending habits.

      * His socialistic beliefs.

      * His destructive and rude behavior to a lifetime friend in Israel.

      * He is not a man who keeps to his word. (RE: Guantanamo Bay, Israel, Spending, etc…)

      * His lack of urgency when "the world is on fire", playing basketball, going to ball games, Oprah etc…

      * His friendship with Jeffrey Immults, Bill Ayers, Jerimiah Wright, and his welcoming of Commons to the Whitehouse on Police Appreciaton Week.

      * His rude behavior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

      * His policy of stopping oil drilling, and allowing denying the Cost of Inflation Raise to those on Social Security for the first time in history. 3 years in a row making history.

      * Being silent as churches were burnt.

      * Promising Billions to those that burnt churches and promote terrorism and renounce peace agreements.

      * Waiting two and a half years to show his birth certificate and thus allowing a division in our country, he should be uniting not dividing.

      * Stopping production of oil and committing to becoming buyers.

      * Giving Brazil billions to drill for oil where he stopped us from drilling.

      **** ITS CHANGE I JUST CAN'T BELIEVE IN ANYMORE. IT'S CHANGE I CANT BELIEVE HE HAS DONE. I am so regretful for voting for him. All I can say is G-d Please, help bless America and help us survive this very evil person, if you disagree about that, then "The Road To Hell Was Built With Good Intentions****

    3. West Texan says:

      Very well stated Marion. Thanks, WT

    4. Bob, USA says:

      Your article is HIGHLY misleading revisionist history. Your statement that "the United States built six frigates and dispatched a naval squadron to seek out and punish the Muslim pirates" is a blatant bald faced lie. The idea that we were hunting these people down to punish them is a ridiculous assertion that you should retract.

      The manner in which you lead people to believe that Jefferson was a renegade in the same manner as Bush and Obama is ridiculous. Jefferson went out of his way to ensure that the Constitution was adhered to.

      The level of disinformation and propaganda spewing from this article is shameful.

    5. Wildcat from Dallast says:

      Another excellantly written and articulated article exposing how even our founding fathers used the military far from our shores to develop our foreign policy and protect American citizens and American interests. One of the essential items of interest was that we went over to North Africa to defeat the Islamic pirates along the Barbary Coast without remorse. If I remember correctly it may have been your first article when you identified that the ambassador (or representative) from what is now Libya that told President Jefferson that the raids, the killing, the stealing and the rape will continue against the American infidels as that is the pirates being faithful to the tennants of Islam as written in the Koran. That is when our leader decided to put an end to the abuse of American citizens under the veil of a religion.

      Thanks for your research and continued well written informative articles. Keep them comming. Wildcat.

    6. Charles says:

      Please identify which of these military engagements took place at a time when the United States was $14,294,000,000,000.00 in debt.

    7. Pingback: The Founders on a Standing Navy: American Military Action Abroad (1783-1860) | The Foundry

    8. Rosco1776 says:

      When Jefferson became president in 1801 he refused to accede to Tripoli's demands for an immediate payment of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000. The pasha of Tripoli then DECLARED WAR on the United States. Although as secretary of state and vice president he had opposed developing an American navy capable of anything more than coastal defense, President Jefferson dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean. As he declared in his first annual message to Congress: "To this state of general peace with which we have been blessed, one only exception exists. Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had permitted itself to denounce war, on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean. . . ."

      When attacked we should respond but nobody attacked from Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan………
      Sorry, we are broke and we need to protect our own borders as we are being invaded. We have made a whole lot more enemies by invading sovereign countries who never attacked us so yes, a non interventionist foreign policy is one we should have unless attacked.

    9. Daniel Key says:

      I don't think you can even compare what we've done in the past 60 years to anything similar to what the founders did. Even Ron Paul was all about going after Bin Laden. He's said it a thousand times. He said we should use "mark and reprisal" in order to do it.

      For the founders to be compared to what we're doing now would have required that not only did we send frigates to pursue the pirates, but we overthrew their government, and rebuilt it to resemble our own. THAT, my friend is intervention. Please don't spin what is currently happening and compare it to what the founders did. What you're basically saying is Jefferson and Bush had the same foreign policy…it's absurd.

    10. Daniel Kogel says:

      I'm sorry but these examples don't actually seem to imply that they were interventionists – they weren't intervening in anything, they were retaliating. Non-interventionists believe in retaliating when attacked, and attacking when threatened. These example continue to support the FACT that our forefathers were non-interventionists.

      Non-interventionism is a pretty clear cut term. All you have to do is know what intervention means. The fact that it's so hard for so many to understand a simple word is scary as hell.

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