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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates – Book Review

thomasjefferrsontripolipiratesAuthor: Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
Publisher: SENTINEL, Penguin Random House LLC
Copyright: 2015, ISBN: 1591848066
Cover: Jim Tierney
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, September 16, 2016

Summary: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli . .”: stanza in the Marine Corp hymn. This book explains the part about Tripoli. In the infancy of its existence, America faced the prospect of going along with the rest of the world and paying tribute to extortionists on the northern coast of Africa, or taking a stand. President Jefferson opted to take a stand. This book is an overview of how it happened.


I had a professor in college who warned me to be careful of history books published in South America. Just that. A warning to be careful.

Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you are aware that the news media is not always impartial and objective. Sometimes, the news media is not even about news. This may have something to do with attempting to be “balanced”. For the news media, presenting a balanced perspective may mean comparing the effects of a cavity to a frontal lobotomy. It is called the false-equivalency syndrome. With any information coming out of the media, I take my professors advice. Be careful.

Brian Kilmeade, one of the authors of THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES, is a co-host on the Fox News network show, Fox & Friends. Along with Don Yaeger, the duo have managed to write an informative snippet of history that has striking parallels to current events. This obviously is no accident. That they have managed to present a superficial treatment of an incident in American history as a taut, action-filled and exciting adventure is amazing.

According to THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES, Jefferson, the third President of the United States and Secretary of State under the first President, George Washington, was molded into a war president from the time he was appointed Minister to France in 1782. The casting agent of his mold was the irritant of three powers on the north coast of Africa–Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, collectively the Barbary Pirates or Ottoman corsairs–sanctioning pirates to extort money from ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar.

The authors start with a description of the capture of Captain Richard O’Brien in 1785. O’Brien pops up in other contexts in the book: as a go-between for negotiations between the United States and Tripoli after ransom was borrowed to free him and his men; as one of the advocates of regime change in Tripoli to secure extortion-free passage of American ships in the area.

On pages 13-14 of the book, the authors recount a meeting in 1786 held between John Adams, Jefferson and Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, Tripoli’s ambassador in London. Abdrahaman is quoted as explaining that the holy book, the Qur’an, says that “‘all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave’.” The authors do not say whether Adams or Jefferson actually engaged in a theological discussion with the ambassador or merely took his word for this justification of piracy and barbaric conduct. In any event, the seizure of goods and people off the coast of north Africa would continue for almost the next twenty years after the discussion. America, like the European nations with ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar would continue to pay tribute and extortion to the pirate regimes until the War of 1812. That’s the big picture here. There is a smaller, more pertinent picture developed in this book.

After Jefferson became president in 1801, he flirted with an idea fostered by U. S. Consul William Eaton stationed in Tunis. The then current ruler of Tripoli usurped the position from his brother. Eaton thought it a good idea to replace Bashaw Yusuf, the current Tripoli leader, with Hamet Qaramanli, his brother. The purpose was to install a government in Tripoli friendly to U. S. shipping interests. This, of course, is reminiscent of a number of modern day Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations. Unlike modern day CIA operations, the Jefferson-Eaton operation, facilitated by Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, led to five words in the Marine Corps hymn–“to the shores of Tripoli”.

On April 27, 1805, Eaton, seven marines and assembled mercenaries, took the fortified city of Derne. It was a “resounding” victory. Or not. Eaton already had plans to take his force to Benghazi. But the U.S. consul general to the Berber states, Tobias Lear, took the victory at Derne as an opportunity to arrive at a diplomatic solution to the war with Tripoli. End of story. Not.

The parallels between America’s first foreign war and subsequent wars is the underlying theme that emerges from this book. As with any historical parallel, there are a lot of circumstantial similarities to be draw from specific incidents. The authors of course do not specify those incidents. They leave it up to the reader–hopefully one familiar with current events. However, there is a more generalized parallel emerging from THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES.

The Middle East–a term used here to include north Africa–has been an irritant in American foreign policy since the nation’s birth. As the authors point out, the incidents sparking the abortive war with Tripoli did not cease entirely until 1815 when America signed another peace treaty with the dey of Algiers which did not require the United States to pay any form of tribute. When Jefferson acquiesced to the convoluted prescription of war with Tripoli in 1805–attempting regime change with a government friendly to American interest– it was very clear what America’s interests were. The argument could reasonably be made that America only went to war when its interests were directly threatened. From this first war of 1805, limited though it was, to World War II, America committed its military to the field when there were clear and recognizable American objectives. That concrete purpose of action changed with the Korea and the Vietnam wars.

There was nothing new in the Jefferson war with Tripoli. Regime change has been a part of international relations since the times of the Roman Empire. Nor was the direction of military power aimed specifically at protecting the interest of the nation-state something new. In handling the Barbary Coast pirates, Jefferson merely pushed America into a seat at the international arena of power and politics where the art of state-interests dominated. However, after World War II, the nation-state interests of the United States changed drastically. After World War II, the United State not only had a chair at the table, it owned the table.

In THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES, we get to see how the Jefferson administration dealt with irrational players in the Middle East. Are there parallels for our current times, specifically, for the irrationality of Middle East terror groups for instance? In reading this book there is the titillating sensation–emotions in other words–pushing thoughts to believe there are parallels. In 1805, most of northern Africa was governed under tribal rules of one sort or another though ostensibly the area was under the Ottoman Porte. Today, terrorist groups move freely through nation-states in the Middle East that are in fact tribal fiefdoms–a legacy of inept colonialism. So there are parallels. But then another part of your mind keeps coming back to the reality that the nation-state interests of the United States have drastically changed since it became a super-power. So have the behaviors of irrational actors.

In this book, the authors have identified the 18th-19th century Berber coast as having a problem with opportunistic governments and myopic tribalism. Foreshadowing the changes to grip the area in the 20th and 21st centuries, the authors provide us with a quote from 18th century Tripoli ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman about the superiority and purity of the Muslim religion. That provincial attitude morphed into a regional fanaticism based on that same religion. Hence, terrorist groups hiding under the tenets of religion. What are the interests of the United States in combating these groups? That’s the question. The rote answer is to prevent another 9-11 when a group of fanatics commandeered and flew planes into American buildings. If that really is America’s interest in “the war on terror”, then playing whack-a-mole to destroy terrorist groups is not a solution, it is a condition–a never ending condition. The value of THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES is that it provides a fairly obvious hint as to how America can achieve its interest without war. Of course, America must first figure out exactly what its interests truly are.

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