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.

Piracy off the coast of North Africa affected every country that sent ships to the Mediterranean region to engage in commerce. 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, scrounged together the money and ships necessary to form a navy and deal with the threat by force, a nearly impossible task. Correspondence – often containing instructions and plans – took place in written letters that would take months to transit between sender and recipient. Conditions on the ground and allied interests could change instantly. Wins and losses at sea could shift the balance of power. The United States fought back. What did that portend for other well-established countries like England and the Netherlands? These are complex issues that would benefit from in-depth and impartial analysis.

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. Those that finally succumb to American strength may be redeemed. Those who do not must be taught a lesson, and those who do not meet such threats with requisite force are sniveling cowards who are not up to the task.

One of the book’s most glaring shortcomings is its scant research. The authors reference letters and other writings to provide some context behind decisions taken, requests made, accounts of battle, and surface-level deliberation, but they provide no nuance or depth. For example, it is widely known that Thomas Jefferson wrote thousands of letters, many of which have been preserved, studied, and cataloged. Instead of a deep dive into the complexities Jefferson faced in procuring a navy and conducting one of the country’s first military engagements, we get a few lines from letters that advance a pre-conceived narrative.

If scant research is the book’s first problem, a sever 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 are treated 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 and nuanced walk from then to now, the book assumes a constant state of play between the United States and North African countries. Today’s paradigm, they presume, was the same in the late 18th century. 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. 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 connect the dots and 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; 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 laments the end to the hostilities while extolling the virtues of Christianity, Peace, after all, is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Throughout the book, Kilmeade and Yaeger point to Jefferson’s believe that he Barbary Wars could only be resolved with force. In fact, they covertly 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. Further, that peace frustrated an ongoing military assault that included a covert operation in the desert. The military campaign was therefore immediately halted, and the ground offensive, which included ten Marines, 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 the 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 it was given to me by a friend while he was shipping out to his next assignment. I understand why he gave it freely. It reads like a Cliff’s Notes version of 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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© 2020 by Mark Konold