The other day I was about to check the newest Jeffery Deaver novel out of the library for the long weekend when I noticed Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates on the shelf. I hesitated. The subject interested me. It was written by Fox News Channel’s Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. I know some of the Bill O’Reilly books could use some more research. I bounced it back and forth in my mind for a few minutes and finally decided to go for it.
I’m glad I did. It was a fairly quick read as I finished it on Monday morning after starting Friday afternoon. It was an interesting read as well.
In some ways the story begins before the 1790’s as the Barbary coast pirates had been active for centuries making a living off of other nation’s trade. Some nations, like Britain had paid tribute to the Barbary nations of north Africa. This made no sense to me since they (Britain, France & Spain) had the more powerful navies in the world. Invest a little time and they could solve the problem once and for all.
While they were foreign ministers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debated this problem. Adams recommended a treaty based on tribute. Jefferson, uncharacteristically, recommended a military solution.
After the Revolutionary War was completed America was deeply in debt. They had sold off their warships to pay off some of that that debt. To become economically strong they needed to trade with other nations. That became difficult without a navy to protect their merchant ships.
The Barbary nations would steal ships, and their cargo and enslave their crews. These Muslim nations justified it on the basis of their faith. It was okay to take from and enslave the infidels (this is how they justified the beginnings of the African slave trade as well). A slave would be freed if they converted to Islam, but if you reverted to your other faith you would be killed.
So sailors and passengers would be held for ransom. Men who were not officers were subject to hard labor, and sometimes torture. It was such a big problem that when Jefferson was the ambassador to France for the young nation, he didn’t want his middle daughter to sail across the ocean after his youngest passed away.
Toward the end of Adams’ presidency, Congress approved the formation of a new navy. It was this slowly increasing navy that Jefferson used during his presidency to address the problem of the Barbary nations. This is the main focus on this book.
It is filled with early mistakes by captains, uncertainty of policy, utter incompetence and finally men committed to defending their nation, and its merchants.
In this history we see a few policies that would mark U.S. policy into the present. The first was not wanting to occupy other nations. The goal was not to colonize those nations, but simply end the conflict they initiated and restore the peace they would break in innumerable ways.
The second would be the beginning of the policy to not negotiate with terrorists, or terror states. The Barbary states, especially Tripoli exacerbated the situation by constantly changing the terms of the agreement and making outlandish demands on a new nation. They tried to take advantage of the fledgling nation.
We have generally kept this policy. It was violated recently when another Muslim state, Iran, captured one of our naval ships. Apparently our current President didn’t learn much from history, and shipped $40 million dollars to them for the soldiers’ release.
Thirdly, the plan that was being executed when Tobias Lear negotiated a treaty was regime change. The rightful ruler of Tripoli had been removed by his younger brother who was now living in exile in Egypt. His wife and children were hostages back home. The plan was to raise a large enough army to support his bid to take his rightful rule. The plan was working when Lear, who didn’t like the plan since it minimized his influence, jumped in to make a premature deal.
While Lear’s treaty brought peace in the short term, it didn’t solve the problem in the long term. During the War of 1812 the British encouraged them to resume plundering U.S. ships. After the war, our bigger navy was sent to set things aright in the Mediterranean. After this, future President John Quincy Adams wrote to Stephen Decatur “I most ardently pray that the example, which you have given, of rescuing our country from disgrace of a tributary treaty, may become the irrevocable law for all future times.”
This mission by Decatur, who served valiantly in the previous conflict with the Barbary nations, brought to an end “the centuries-old practice of building economies around kidnappings, theft, and terror”.
This is an interesting period in American history, one which is not considered very often. We see some similarities to some current problems and there may be lessons to be learned from the actions of our founding fathers in this affair. This is the point Kilmeade ends with, though not in a heavy handed way. He sees the parallels but does not belabor them. I found this to be an engaging book.