Bookmark: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

You would be forgiven for not knowing that the United States was engaged in a naval war with the countries of North Africa during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. These battles were sandwiched between The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and are rather miniscule compared to the more sweeping and awful episodes of the American Civil War and the world wars of the twentieth century. Therefore, if you want a quick-though-one-sided introduction to the affair, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates does the trick. It introduces the reader to the conflict, the primary actors of the events and heroism of the day, and the earliest days of the United States Navy. It also provides a glimpse of the challenges a fledgling America faced from a dynastic rule half a world away. Unfortunately, that is where any flattering and worthwhile aspects of the book end.

The Barbary Coast wars should not be overlooked. Cannot say the same for this book.

Unfortunately, the book is a very shallow take on an engaging and complicated moment in the early days of the United States. It is plagued with jingoism and peppered with trite tribute to the idea of how America “takes care of business.” The authors have an intended audience: one that believes benevolent Christian America is always the good guy in a crusade against evil, especially if that evil is perceived Muslim tyranny. The book speaks to those who believe an enemy's redemption can be found by succumbing to American might; those who do not yield must be taught a lesson; and countries that chose a different path were sniveling cowards who are not up to the task.


Scant research is one of the most glaring shortcomings in this one-step-above-a-Cliff's-Notes version of the Tripoli Wars. Piracy off the coast of North Africa affected every Mediterranean shipping lane in the early 19th century. Most countries – the United States included – dealt with the scourge by paying ransom for captives or tribute to regional rulers. The United States, under Thomas Jefferson, changed course, scrounged together the money and ships necessary to form a navy, and deal with the threat by force (a nearly impossible task for a new country). Battle conditions changed instantly - in hand-written correspondence - between Washington and those at sea took months to transit. Jefferson saved thousands of letters on, well, everything. This book doesn't have to be a tome, but it should be better than a banal smattering of cherry-picked references that fit the authors' preconceived and revisionist narrative.


If scant research is the book’s first problem, a severe lack of intellectual honesty is its second. Kilmeade and Yaeger – and likely their intended readers – want to frame the early 19th century events through an early 21st century lens. For example, the authors treat the countries and territories of 19th century North Africa as a monolith. The intricacies of semi-autonomy and subjection to the Ottoman Empire are completely overlooked. And while it could be argued that past actions sowed the seeds for the present reality, which would require a thoughtful walk from then to now, the book simply assumes today's state of play between the United States and North African countries was the same 250 years ago as it is today. It clearly was not.

In addition, the book glosses over a point that, if made, would undercut one of the book’s main-though-unspoken themes: slavery. Kilmeade and Yaeger go to great lengths to emphasize the brutal slavery visited upon the good and noble Christian sailors by the savage Muslim population of North Africa. (That intentionally hyperbolic take is mine.) They reinforce this bias with cherry-picked passages from letters lamenting the poor Christian souls suffering at the hands of an abnormal people made cruel by a twisted religion that allows the enslavement and killing of non-believers. One assumes the reader will see the irony of those passages having been written by people, primarily white Christians, who lived and thrived in an America rife with institutionalized, and equally barbaric, enslavement of blacks. The authors certainly don’t connect the dots; an oversight that conveniently absolves the audience from any reflection or critical thought that might expose bigotry and ignorance, and glosses over the complexities of politics, religion, and human instinct.

Another glaring, though obvious, contradiction that erodes the book’s credibility is how it extolls the virtues of Christianity while denigrating the diplomatic effort to end hostilities. Last I checked, peace is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Throughout the book, Kilmeade and Yaeger point to Jefferson’s belief that the Barbary Wars could only be resolved with force. In fact, they passive aggressively suggest that anything less would have been spineless, and America just doesn’t do that. Therefore, when an American diplomat effects an end to hostilities and a subsequent peace treaty, the authors contend he did it for his personal glory rather than any greater good. Further, that peace frustrated an ongoing covert military operation in the desert. The peace brought an end to the assault and the Marines involved skulked away from a recently-captured city in the dead of night lest they be overrun. Rather than celebrate a triumph of American diplomacy and an end to fighting, the authors lament that the American forces were not permitted to finish the job. Blessed be the peacemakers, indeed.

While not flat out propaganda, this book certainly walks up to that line and at least leans over it. I never intended to read it, but a friend gave it to me while he was shipping out to his next assignment. I understand why he gave it freely. It's the lazy man's approach to history. It will prepare you to follow gist of the topic, but not to contribute substantively to it. Skip this book and find more thorough, thoughtful, unbiased, and substantive account of a very engaging time in world history.

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© 2021 by Mark Konold