Friday, December 2, 2016

Review: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates


By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

            Years ago, military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall wrote that a wartime battlefield bears little resemblance to the ordered mayhem of football behemoths competing in the Rose Bowl. Instead, it bears closer resemblance to recess time in a schoolyard in a tough neighborhood. Marshall's comparison is borne out in Kilmeade and Yaeger's account of the ragged succession of failures and victories in President Jefferson's war with the Barbary Pirates.
            In 1785, Algerian pirates seized the American merchant ship Dauphin and enslaved its crew and Captain Richard O'Brien. Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. envoy to France, recognized the pirates as a serious threat to commerce and personal liberties. He and John Adams, then U.S. envoy to England, met in London with Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, about the problem and possibly buying peace through paying tribute, as the European nations were doing. But the price was too high, and would buy peace with only one of the four pirate states.  Abdrahaman stated further that what Americans called piracy was justified by the Islamic religion: "It was written in our Qur'an."
            In 1797, the U.S. did buy freedom for O'Brien and his surviving crew. It also bought peace with tribute for some years, and at least one of the tribute-bearing ships was forced to carry the Algerian pirates' gifts to Constantinople. But when Jefferson became president, he persuaded Congress to build a navy.  He also received a threat from the bashaw of Tripoli: increase the tribute, or the bashaw would declare war on the U.S. Jefferson therefore sent three naval ships to the Mediterranean as a show of force. Thus began Jefferson's transition from paying tribute to taking military action.
            From that point, the authors trace the intricate interweaving of diplomacy and force, the raged pattern of failures and successes that ultimately won a tenuous peace with all of the pirate kingdoms and established the United States as a power to be reckoned with.
            The strength of the authors' book is its detail of research and its recording events in their chronological order. It also gives the readers an appreciation of the difficulties commanders experienced in those days of little communication. Naval commanders also had to be diplomats, and they had to make diplomatic decisions without help from higher headquarters. Readers will not find this book to be a page turner, but will be gratified by the amount of historical detail it provides about the newly constituted America's emergence as a power on the world scene. It is recommended for its information rather than its writing style.
Review by Donn Taylor
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