Friday, May 1, 2009

Presidents and Pirates

It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute. The United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.
-President Madison on U.S. policy towards pirates in the Mediterranean (1815)

America’s history of fighting pirates is almost as old as the nation itself. In 1785 the first American ships were captured by the Barbary pirates and by 1796 the U.S. had signed a peace treaty with the Barbary States of North Africa formalizing the “fees” that the United States would pay for access to the Mediterranean.

In 1802 Congress authorized a permanent American naval presence in the Mediterranean because of ever increasing blackmail demands by Barbary pirates. The capture of the U.S. frigate Philadelphia in 1804 led to a daring raid on Tripoli by Stephen Decatur.

The Barbary States sought to take advantage of America’s involvement in the War of 1812 by resuming their piracy for ransom business. President Madison ended the series of Barbary wars be defeating the forces of the dey of Algiers in 1815.

Now president Obama is dealing with the pirates off the coast of Somalia, using U.S. navy Special Forces to free the American captain of a ship held by Somali pirates. Though the president gave permission to use deadly force against the pirates, many do not know that the president does not have the constitutional authority to declare war.

Teaching with the Constitution

Remind your students to click on the text of the Interactive Constitution to read Linda Monk’s explanation.

Have your students read Article I section 8 clauses 10 through 14 and then ask them to read Article II section 2 clauses 1 and 2. Ask them if Congress or the president has the constitutional authority to deal diplomatically or militarily against pirate activity.

Ask your students to read Article II section 8 clause 12 , which constitutionally limits the duration that the federal government can set aside monies for the Army, but in Article II section 8 clause 13 funds for the Navy are not limited to two years. (Hint: think about pirates and cargo ships)

Ask your students to define separation of powers and why it this is an important concept, even though it is not directly stated in the Constitution.

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