How Thomas Jefferson would have handled ISIS

August 1804: Tracers arc in the sky as the U.S. Navy bombards Tripoli to fight a ruler who supported the Barbary pirates.

Story highlights

  • President Obama launched strikes on ISIS in Syria without congressional approval
  • Thomas Jefferson launched war on the Barbary pirates without congressional approval
  • The conflict over protecting shipping routes was America's first war on terror
The plot sounds like something plucked from today's headlines: foreign hostages, terrorism, presidential power and American diplomatic relations with the Middle East.
But the nation's first war on terror was waged by Thomas Jefferson, not George W. Bush or Barack Obama. In place of al Qaeda or ISIS, Jefferson was fighting the Barbary pirates.
In Jefferson's time, European powers conceded to terrorism by paying annual tribute and ransom to groups like the Barbary pirates, according to Robert F. Turner, co-founder of the Center for National Security Law and professor of American Foreign Policy.
Once the American colonies gained independence from Britain, their ships were left without protection from piracy at sea. As American commerce began to increase, the Barbary states targeted American merchant vessels that traveled the seas without a strong naval defense.
Ransom payments
Jefferson believed paying ransom to terrorist organizations was a sign of weakness as a nation.
"Some leaders wanted to pay ransom to get hostages back or pay tribute so they [Barbary pirates] wouldn't take further hostages," Turner said. "Jefferson was a lover of peace, but he was not one to believe that peace would be preserved by weakness. We had to show strength."
In 1801, pirates across the coast of Tripoli continued to seize American ships and use force to take Americans hostage.
"Jefferson learned of how brutally Western prisoners were being held. They were kept in chains, dungeons, their life span was not long, and a lot of them were dying in prison," Turner said.
The pirates of Tripoli declared war on the United States in May 1801, according to a chapter written by Turner and published in The Chicago Journal of International Law. Even before his presidency, Jefferson, as secretary of state, argued that his nation should not offer money to terrorists. It's a principle that persists in America's battle against ISIS.
Today, 62% of Americans oppose paying ransom to ISIS, according to a Reuters-IPSOS poll of 4,685 American adults. The U.S. government paid ransom to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, but if those type of negotiations are being held with ISIS, it has not been made public. ISIS seems to be making a statement with its hostages.
Flaws and brilliance of Thomas Jefferson
Flaws and brilliance of Thomas Jefferson

    JUST WATCHED

    Flaws and brilliance of Thomas Jefferson

MUST WATCH

Flaws and brilliance of Thomas Jefferson 04:41
Do you know who this is?
Do you know who this is?

    JUST WATCHED

    Do you know who this is?

MUST WATCH

Do you know who this is? 01:14
Congressional vote
In a recent address to the nation, Obama told the American people that we will "degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS." Even though he said he didn't need it, he asked for Congress' vote of approval. In the meantime, Obama ordered military strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
A survey released by CNN indicates "more than seven in 10 Americans think Obama should ask Congress for the ability to strike ISIS militarily. And eight in 10 Americans support Congress approving military force against ISIS."
But Congress has left Washington to prepare for midterm elections, so any special authority will come after the fact.
In 1801, Jefferson sent a similar message to the American people. Without congressional approval, Turner said, Jefferson sent a small squadron of ships to the Mediterranean to battle the Barbary pirates.
Jefferson ordered naval leaders to "protect our commerce and chastise their insolence -- by sinking, burning or destroying their ships and vessels wherever you shall find them," according to U.S. naval documents.
The first time Congress was officially notified of Jefferson's plan, which deployed two-thirds of America's naval forces into battle with the enemy, was after the fact, in his first annual message to Congress on December 8, 1801.
"Jefferson's belief was that when war is declared against the United States we don't need Congress' approval to fight back," said Turner.
In Jefferson's address to Congress he wrote that, "Unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go out beyond the line of defense," he deployed American naval forces into battle.
Boots on the ground
With such a strong and pressing enemy threatening the United States, Jefferson eventually sent American naval forces into harm's way to fight.
"I'm a believer. I think we ought to be looking for a way to be getting their [ISIS'] attention. It was a widely held opinion to send ships to the Mediterranean, during Jefferson's presidency, because everyone thought, wow, this is outrageous what they're doing to us," Turner said.
Today, Obama faces the pressures of not putting American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. While 76% favor American airstrikes against ISIS, 61% of Americans oppose putting U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Syria, according to a poll released by CNN earlier this month.
The fight against terror is nothing new for the United States. With many similarities dating back to the early 1800s, today Obama has vital decisions to make. Although the President's strategy to defeat ISIS is gradually emerging, America's ability to grow as a nation emanates from the valuable lessons the country learned so early in its existence.