Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
I picked this book thinking it would be a nice uncomplicated history book review and quickly realized that I would writing a review that would be running alongside some various historical and political issues. Additionally... Well you'll see. I should note for the record that looking up the writers is the last thing I do, because I don't want my opinions of the writers influencing the grade. That holds true here. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates was published in 2015 by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Sentinel was founded in 2003 to publish right of center political works (saying so right on their home website). While I'm of two minds of partisan publishing houses, the fact of that is that they’re something with a long historical tradition behind them and they’re a fact of life. Brian Kilmeade is the co host of the TV show Fox and Friends, a graduate of CW Post (now known as LIU Post) in 1986. Since then he has worked in news and sports programs. He has written five books, three of them on early American history. He is married with three children. He's also known for sticking his foot in his mouth so deeply he can tell you what his knee tastes like as he has repeatedly made ass-backwards remarks about other religions and races. I won't go into the details because this is a book review not a “rehash of someone's mistakes” review and that's all we're going to say about it here (this goes for you to Editor [Awwwww. OK. I will comply]). Don Yaeger is an American Sports Journalist who has written over a dozen books. So let's turn to our book.
The book covers the 1st Barbary War between the United States and what was then known as the Barbary States. The Barbary States were North African states that were, in theory, provinces of the Ottoman Empire but functioned as independent states. They maintained their own rulers, laws, and foreign policy. Their foreign policy could be summed up as piracy, blackmail, and worse. The states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, along with the fully independent state of Morocco were infamous for attacking shipping, stealing goods, as well as kidnapping people and then enslaving them until high ransoms were paid or the slaves converted to Islam. While the rulers of these states would piously mouth that their plundering was sanctioned by the Quran, the laws of the Quran against victimizing your fellow Muslim didn't weigh upon them very much as they would also freely murder each other for wealth and power. The European powers paid tributes to these states to avoid having their shipping targeted. This tactic had very diverse results, we should say, and the Pirate Lords would raise the price of safe passage if they smelled weakness. This went on for so long and on such a scale that a Catholic Holy Order had operated in France for centuries whose goal it was to raise money for the comfort and ransoming of prisoners.
At this point US merchant ships had sailed under the protection of the British Navy but with the signing of the Peace of Paris and the US becoming an independent nation, they were now fair game. This fact was brought home with the brutality that only a slaving pirate can muster when the American ships Dauphin and Maria were attacked and their crews and officers enslaved in 1785. At the time Thomas Jefferson was the US Minister to France, his wife had just died and he had taken his eldest daughter his wife's half sister, the enslaved Sally Hemings, to Paris. Jefferson, hearing the news about the capture and enslavement of white Christians grew disturbed and began through letters a discussion with his friend John Adams as to the problem and how to solve it. Jefferson firmly believed what was needed was a navy that would sail across the ocean, confront the pirates in their home territories and defeat them. Adams didn't necessarily disagree but felt the US was too poor and weak to afford such a navy (strange as that sounds to modern ears[I know, right? Now our navy dwarfs the next 15 largest navies combined, what a glorious modern age we live in]). Jefferson felt the US was to poor to afford not having such a navy. However, Jefferson lost the first round of debate until his election to the Presidency.
Instead, the United States, in a slow and painfully expensive process, negotiated tribute treaties with the various pirate states over the course of a decade. In 1795 Algiers agreed to release the crew and officers they had taken for over 1 million dollars, about a 1/6th of the US budget at the time (This fascinates me. “We are too poor to afford a Navy, but not too poor to pay pirates a sixth of our state revenue, as well as continued tribute”. That makes no sense. At those rates, you might as well build some frigates. Thankfully, that is exactly what we did.). With the amount of demanded tribute increasing, the US founded the Department of the Navy and started building ships. By the time Jefferson was elected in 1800 the US Congress had authorized 6 frigates for the navy and more were coming. It's here that the USS Constitution was born although she would not achieve fame until the war of 1812. When the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the US by cutting down the flagpole of the US embassy Jefferson did not hesitate to send in the new ships to defend US merchant shipping and gradually the amount of ships, men, and money grew until it was enough to win the war. This would take years. However, the US was not unassisted in it's first war on foreign soil; the Kingdom of Sweden (They were once pretty formidable, though not in their hayday anymore… no slouches) would join forces with the US Navy and the Kingdom of Naples would loan ships, materials, men, and supplies to the mission. This was America's first foreign war and the first time the US would deploy forces to the old world. This is when the US realized that even behind the Atlantic ocean there would have to be some active involvement in the outside world to safeguard trade, if nothing else. Given recent events, I would say that has some relevance to us now, especially as the US public seems to question any involvement in the outside world.
The book does a good job of setting the stage and letting us see the problem. It also does a decent job of leading us through the various campaigns, examining the different commanding officers of note and their missions. We are shown the up and down blockade of Tripoli, the quick peace made with Morocco, the single longest treaty relation in US history and still in effect to this day. This was not a flawless war nor were the men who commanded it flawless professionals. Many mistakes were made and to it's credit the book goes over each and every one of them. It also discusses the fearless actions of junior officers and enlisted men to make those mistakes good. Whether it be sneaking into an enemy harbor to burn a captured warship of the United States rather than see it in enemy hands, or marching across the desert of Libya to attack a fortified city. Speaking of taking a fortified city it speaks a bit about the expedition led by US Marines to attack the city of Derna and gives us a fair idea of the problems of marching through the desert with hundreds of mercenaries as well as the measures needed to gain success as a small force operating on the very end of a thin line of support. The book is very good at showing the many acts of bravery and courage that were performed by members of the US Navy and Marine Corps at the time. Although it tends to focus heavily on officers rather than discussing enlisted men (Makes sense. The officers are more likely to be known publicly at the time, are more likely to be literate and writing diaries, are more likely to be sending formal dispatches etc. There is just more to be known about them.).
That said the book is rather shallow in its coverage, running over events without any real examination of the detail and barely any analysis. No space whatsoever is given over to discussion of the Barbary States. How were they governed? How did they organize their forces, decide their goals, what factions existed in them? None of that is really discussed with the exception of the rightful heir of the throne of Tripoli, Hamet. The then-current Pashaw Yussef had seized the throne in a bloody coup and Hamet had been living in exile in Egypt. This is mostly noted in a very bare bones fashion however. We're not told anything about Yussef's coup or how he maintained power. For that matter the relationship between the Barbary States and the Ottoman Empire isn't discussed at all beyond the fact that the Barbary States paid tribute to the Ottomans. For that matter the domestic situation in the United States and how it impacted the war is not discussed beyond the first debate between Adams and Jefferson. We do not get the different policies of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans in regards to the war and how the US developed its goals with the exception of a brief discussion in Jefferson's cabinet over whether or not he could actually order the US Navy to attack Barbary ships without the explicit approval of Congress. As a result of this, one might be excused from walking away from the book thinking that Thomas Jefferson forced the United States Navy into being alone on pure strength of will as opposed to having the support and aide of a number of other men all of them historically relevant on their own. This simplifies both the war and the lead up to it as well as drains the history of the details needed to really understand the events that occurred.
Then there's the afterward. I'm going to be blunt; the afterward of this book plunged the grade to it's current measurement. In it the writers attempt to try to link the Barbary War to the War on Terror and US operations currently taking place in the middle east, clumsily flailing at some idea of civilization conflict being played out over centuries. The argument isn't going to convince anyone who isn't already fully on board because it is made in a lazy, clumsy, almost half-hearted manner. The writers barely put any effort into connecting the Barbary pirates to the current day Wabbahist extremists who plague Syria and other nations. To be fair that might be because there's no bloody connection to be made between a pack of decadent wealth seeking pirates, and bloodthirsty terrorist, maniacs beyond their common religion. By that logic I am fully fledged member of the IRA or the KKK! I mentioned earlier that the Barbary Wars may have some relevance to modern audiences and I stand by that. An examination of our earlier commitments to foreign shores helps us look at our current deployments and ask: what are realistic goals to set? What are we expecting to get out of this? How far and how long are we willing to go? Attempting to smash the Barbary Wars through a War on Terror shaped hole however is frankly just silly and I am honestly offended by how lazy and clumsily the argument is made. At no point is their point framed clearly, at no point are supporting arguments and facts marshaled and lined up and it certainly doesn't lead to a clear conclusion that gives a complete and thoughtful argument. Frankly I would expect better from a college freshmen (Christ, man. I’ve graded those papers.) and they would have a done the book a great service if they had cut the afterward with a razor.
This is a book that starts out well enough, moves too quickly and too shallowly over a subject that deserves better and completely blows it in the final pages. Without the Afterward I would have given the book a C, because I haven't seen too many books on the Barbary Wars and most of my knowledge comes from books that discuss them as a prelude to the war of 1812. I was disappointed at the lack of information on the Barbary States and the insistence on using outdated translations of Turkish terms but I could accept the latter as a stylistic choice. With the afterward however, combined with the lackluster scholarship here, I am giving Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger a C-. The Barbary Wars and the brave men who fought in them deserved better from us.
Next week, I turn to Kevin Hearn's new book Plague of Giant to try and chill a bit. Keep Reading.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.