Michael B. Oren explains some of America's history with pirates.
The answers to these questions can be gleaned from America's experience with Barbary. Lacking a navy and unwilling to bear the financial burden of building one, early American leaders opted to pay tribute to the pirates. By the 1790s, the U.S. was depositing an astonishing 20% of its federal income into North African coffers -- this in addition to costly naval stores and even cannons and gunpowder. In return for this tribute, America only received more piracy. Foreign corporations refused to ship their goods in American hulls and U.S. diplomats were forced to sail overseas on European-flagged ships for fear of seizure. Dozens of American sailors languished in captivity.
Humiliated by these depredations, the American public grew critical of its feckless government and began to demand action. "Steer the hostile prow to Barb'ry's shores," wrote an anonymous poet, a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, "release thy sons, and humble Africa's power." In response, in 1794, Congress passed a bill authorizing $688,888.82 for the construction of six frigates "adequate for the protection of the commerce of the U.S. against Algerian corsairs." By 1801, America possessed a navy capable of striking back at the pirates and a president willing to do so. In reply to Tripoli's declaration of war against the U.S., Thomas Jefferson ordered those frigates into battle.
Learn more about the First Barbary War.