Book Review—Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
The forgotten Barbary War that changed American history
Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
To my dad, who died way too young, and my mom, who worked way too hard. They taught me from day one that being born in America was like winning the lottery. This story is yet more proof that they were 100 percent right. ~Brian Kilmeade
When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, America was deeply in debt, with its economy and dignity under attack. Pirates from North Africa’s Barbary Coast routinely captured American merchant ships and held the sailors as slaves, demanding ransom and tribute payments far beyond what the new country could afford.
Time to Stand Up to the Intimidation
For fifteen years, America had tried to work with the four Muslim powers (Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco) driving the piracy, but negotiation proved impossible. Realizing it was time to stand up to the intimidation, Jefferson decided to move beyond diplomacy. He sent the U.S. Navy and Marines to blockade Tripoli—launching the Barbary Wars and beginning America’s journey toward future superpower status.
Few today remember these men and other heroes who inspired the Marine Corps hymn: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.” Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates recaptures this forgotten war that changed American history with a real-life drama of intrigue, bravery, and battle on the high seas.
Part of the reason Jefferson was motivated to shock the world by sending warships to the North African coast was that he understood in human terms the cost of piracy.
[I]n Jefferson’s time and after, Jefferson’s tough-minded approach to securing the safety of Americans abroad prevailed—and changed the course of history. The British, Dutch, and French, who all possessed of vastly larger navies and had greater resources than the young United States, had flinched when faced with the Islamic threat, but they now followed the lead of the new nation.
The growing confidence in the nation’s military strength fueled national policy. The United States had successfully rejected the Old World’s model of complying with the pirates off the coast of Europe and Africa, and it was now bold enough to reject European interference with life on its own side of the Atlantic. 210
Military strength made possible an unprecedented assertion by President Monroe in his annual message of 1823. The Monroe Doctrine, as the principle he introduced came to be called, warned the European powers not to trespass on North or South American shores. Monroe vowed that any attempt to interfere with the destiny of nations in the American hemisphere would be regarded “as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” 214-215
Many men and women suffered in captivity before America’s intervention rid the world of North African piracy, but their suffering was not in vain. After centuries of piracy along the Barbary Coast, only the exercise of military strength had succeeded in ending the state-sanctioned practice of terror on the high seas. The lesson was not lost on America. The young nation gained from this chapter the courage to exercise its strength in the world, and it would remember that lesson in the future when other innocent lives were at stake. ~Brian Kilmeade, 215
Today, the war’s military legacy cannot be ignored. It saw the emergence of the U.S. Navy as a force to be reckoned with in foreign seas. It saw the American flag planted for the first time in victory on terrain outside the Western Hemisphere. So great was the war’s significance for the Marines that their hymn refers to “the shores of Tripoli,” and the Corps adopted the Mameluke sword as part of its officers’ uniforms in 1825.
Most important, here in the twenty-first century, the broader story—the great confrontation between the United States and militant Islamic states—has a new significance. 203