Review of ‘Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates’

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Less than 50 years after it gained its independence from Britain, the new American nation faced a crisis. The Barbary states of North Africa preyed upon shipping, taking crews captive and demanding ransom payments and tribute that threatened the infant American economy.

Unsuccessful in its efforts to deal with the pirates through diplomacy, and unable to make the demands for even higher tributes and ransom, Thomas Jefferson, soon after gaining the presidency, chose to demonstrate the new country’s might, and convinced congress to authorize raising a navy and employing it to demonstrate that Americans would fight for the right to trade freely around the world.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Killmeade and Don Yaeger is the story of America’s first war after independence, focusing as much on the unnamed men who fought it at sea and on the ground as on the figures well known in American history. The war against the Barbary pirates is a chapter in American history that gets little notice in history courses, and is largely unknown to most Americans. It is instructive, though, in that it was the first test of the new nation’s prowess, and many aspects of our modern foreign policy grew out of the experiences of this forgotten period of American history.

It reads like a historical thriller, with accounts of those who fought, gleaned from historical documents and journals of people history has largely ignored. A well-constructed book, my only complaint is that the authors display their own lack of full understanding of American diplomatic history in some parts; for instance, John Adams is referred to as the ambassador to Great Britain, when, in fact, the U.S. didn’t post its first ambassador abroad until 1893. A small error that can be forgiven, in view of the fact that most Americans are ignorant of the nuance and detail of American history, but one that the authors or editors should have caught (Adams is correctly identified as minister to Britain in the photo of him inserted in the book. I also took issue with the authors contention that the depredations of the Barbary pirates was based on religion—that they were Muslims was incidental to the fact that they were greedy and like most pirates of that day down to the present were motivated by the desire to profit from preying on those perceived as weak.

These minor irritants aside, this is still an instructive book. It shows the evolution of America’s overseas policy, and the importance of effective leadership, both political and military, in achieving national security and prosperity, and the contributions to our nation that have been made by people whose bravery and innovation in the face of adversity prevails.

I received this book as a gift. I give it four stars.

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