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Teacher Feature:
FREEDOM OF THE SEAS

STEVEN MINTZ, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

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THE SEA HAS PLAYED a vital but often unappreciated role in American history. Many of the key battles in American military history took place on water rather than land. From the battle of the Capes, when a French fleet prevented the British from reinforcing Lord Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown during the Revolution, to the battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War and the World War II battle of Midway, naval engagements frequently played a significant role in shaping the outcome of the nation’s wars.      The sea was also central to the United States’ economy. During its early years, seafaring was the new nation’s second largest occupation, exceeded only by farming. For African Americans, sailing ships were not only associated with the African slave trade, but were also a major source of employment. Before the Civil War, African Americans made up as much as 20 percent of the maritime labor force.
     Given the importance of foreign commerce, disputes over freedom of the seas occupied a pivotal place in the American foreign relations. Such disputes were among the causes of American involvement in the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars with North African privateers, the War of 1812, World War I, and World War II.

The Barbary Pirates  In 1785, Algerian privateers stopped two American schooners sailing off the coast of Portugal and held their 21 crew captive for eleven years. During the next decade, Algerian corsairs took more than a hundred Americans prisoner. To secure the captives’ release, the United States had to pay close to a million dollars, or about 12 percent of all federal revenues.
     In 1801, after the pasha of Tripoli demanded that the United States pay a higher amount of tribute to Tripoli than that paid to Algiers, President Thomas Jefferson imposed a naval blockade on Tripoli. In 1803, however, the US frigate Philadelphia ran aground off Tripoli’s coast and its 307-member crew was taken prisoner.
     The stage was now set for one of the most colorful episodes in American military history. In 1805, William Eaton, the American consul to Tunis, led a ragtag “army” consisting of eight Marines, two Navy midshipmen, and some 300 Europeans and Muslims on a 50-day, 520-mile march from Egypt and success-