Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History

by Brian Kilmeade, Don Yaeger


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When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, America was deeply in debt, with its economy and dignity under attack. Pirates from North Africa’s Barbary Coast routinely captured American merchant ships and held the sailors as slaves, demanding ransom and tribute payments far beyond what the new country could afford.

For fifteen years, America had tried to work with the four Muslim powers (Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco) driving the piracy, but negotiation proved impossible. Realizing it was time to stand up to the intimidation, Jefferson decided to move beyond diplomacy. He sent the U.S. Navy and Marines to blockade Tripoli—launching the Barbary Wars and beginning America’s journey toward future superpower status.

Few today remember these men and other heroes who inspired the Marine Corps hymn: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.” Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates recaptures this forgotten war that changed American history with a real-life drama of intrigue, bravery, and battle on the high seas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594869627
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 99,724
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

BRIAN KILMEADE and DON YAEGER are the coauthors of George Washington’s Secret Six, a New York Times bestseller for more than five months. Kilmeade cohosts Fox News Channel’s morning show Fox & Friends and hosts the daily national radio show The Brian Kilmeade Show. He lives on Long Island. This is his fourth book. Yaeger has written or cowritten twenty-four books and lives in Florida.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Americans Abroad

It is not probable the American States will have a very free trade in the Mediterranean . . . the Americans cannot protect themselves [as] they cannot pretend to [have] a Navy.

-John Baker-Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, Observations of the Commerce of the American States, 1783

In 1785, the same year Richard O'Brien was captured by pirates, Thomas Jefferson learned that all politics, even transatlantic politics, are personal.

He was a widower. The passing of his wife in September 1782 had left him almost beyond consolation, and what little comfort he found was in the company of his daughter Martha, then age ten. The two would take "melancholy rambles" around the large plantation, seeking to evade the grief that haunted them. When Jefferson was offered the appointment as American minister to France, he accepted because he saw an opportunity to escape the sadness that still shadowed him.

Thomas Jefferson had sailed for Europe in the summer of 1784 with Martha at his side; once they reached Paris, he enrolled his daughter in a convent school with many other well-born English-speaking students. There he would be able to see her regularly, but he had been forced to make a more difficult decision regarding Martha's two sisters. Mary, not yet six, and toddler Lucy Elizabeth, both too young to travel with him across the sea, had been left behind with their "Aunt Eppes," his late wife's half sister. The separation was painful, but it was nothing compared with the new heartbreak he experienced just months into his Paris stay when Mrs. Eppes wrote sadly to say that "hooping cough" had taken the life of two-year-old Lucy.

As a fresh wave of sorrow rolled over him, Jefferson longed for "Polly the Parrot," as he affectionately called his bright and talkative Mary, to join his household again. The father wrote to his little girl that he and her sister "cannot live without you" and asked her if she would like to join them across the ocean. He promised that joining them in France meant she would learn "to play on the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to read and talk French."

"I long to see you, and hope that you . . . are well," the now seven-year-old replied. But she added that she had no desire to make the trip, harpsichord or no harpsichord. "I don't want to go to France," she stated plainly. "I had rather stay with Aunt Eppes."

Jefferson was undaunted and began to plan for her safe travel. Having already lost two dear family members, he did not want to risk losing Polly and looked for ways to reduce the dangers of the journey. He instructed her uncle, Francis Eppes, to select a proven ship for Polly's crossing. "The vessel should have performed one [transatlantic] voyage at least," Jefferson ordered, "and must not be more than four or five years old." He worried about the weather and insisted that his daughter travel in the warm months to avoid winter storms. As for supervision, Polly could make the journey, Jefferson advised, "with some good lady passing from America to France, or even England [or] . . . a careful gentleman."

Yet an even more intimidating concern worried Jefferson: more frightening than weather or leaky ships was the threat of pirates off North Africa, a region known as the Barbary Coast. The fate of the Dauphin and the Maria was a common one for ships venturing near the area, where the Sahara's arid coast was divided into four nation-states. Running west to east were the Barbary nations Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, which all fell under the ultimate authority of the Ottoman Empire, seated in present-day Turkey.

The Islamic nations of the Barbary Coast had preyed upon foreign shipping for centuries, attacking ships in international waters both in the Mediterranean and along the northwest coast of Africa and the Iberian peninsula. Even such naval powers as France and Great Britain were not immune, though they chose to deal with the problem by paying annual tributes of "gifts" to Barbary leaders-bribes paid to the Barbary states to persuade the pirates to leave merchant ships from the paying countries alone. But the prices were always changing, and the ships of those nations that did not meet the extortionate demands were not safe from greedy pirates.

To the deeply rational Jefferson, the lawless pirates posed perhaps the greatest danger to his sadly diminished family. He knew what had happened to O'Brien and could not risk a similar fate for his child. As he confided in a letter to brother-in-law Francis Eppes, "My anxieties on this subject could induce me to endless details. . . . The Algerines this fall took two vessels from us and now have twenty-two of our citizens in slavery." The plight of the men aboard the Maria and the Dauphin haunted him-if their hellish incarceration was terrifying to contemplate, "who can estimate . . . the fate of a child? My mind revolts at the possibility of a capture," Jefferson wrote. "Unless you hear from myself-not trusting the information of any other person on earth-that peace is made with the Algerines, do not send her but in a vessel of French or English property; for these vessels alone are safe from prize by the barbarians." He knew those two countries paid a very high annual tribute, thereby purchasing safe passage for their vessels.

As a father, he could feel in his bones a fear for his daughter's safety. As an ambassador and an American, Jefferson recognized it was a fear no citizen of a free nation embarking on an oceanic voyage should have to endure.

A Meeting of Ministers

A few months later, in March 1786, Jefferson would make his way to London to meet with his good friend John Adams. Together they hoped to figure out how to deal with the emerging threat to American interests.

His waistline thickening, his chin growing jowly, fifty-year-old John Adams welcomed Jefferson into his London home. Overlooking the tree-lined Grosvenor Square from the town house Adams had rented, the two men sat down to talk in the spacious drawing room.

Adams was the United States' first ambassador to Great Britain. Just arrived from Paris after a cold and blustery six-day journey, Jefferson was minister to the French government of Louis XVI. To Adams and his wife, Abigail, their old friend looked different, as Jefferson had begun powdering his ginger hair white. The stout New Englander and the tall, lean, forty-two-year-old Virginian might have been of different breeds-but then, in the years to come, they would often be of two minds in their political thinking as well.

Unlike most of the European diplomats they encountered, neither Adams nor Jefferson had been born into a tradition of diplomatic decorum. Adams was a rough-and-tumble lawyer, the son of a yeoman farmer from south of Boston, known for a damn-all attitude of speaking his mind. A man of quiet natural grace, Jefferson was learning the cosmopolitan ways of Paris but, at heart, he was a well-born country boy, heir to large farms outside Charlottesville, a tiny courthouse town in central Virginia. Both men were novices in the game of international negotiation, a game their country needed them to learn quickly.

When the Americans and British signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, bringing to an end the Revolution, the United States' legal status changed in the view of every nation and world leader. No longer under British protection, the fledgling nation found that its status was lowly indeed. Adams's letters to the British government tended to go unanswered, and Jefferson's attempts to negotiate trade treaties with France and Spain were going nowhere. Now a more hostile international threat was rearing its head, and Adams had summoned Jefferson from Paris to discuss the danger posed by the "piratical nations" of North Africa.

In earlier days, the colonies' ships had enjoyed the protection offered by the Union Jack; but because U.S. ships no longer carried British passports, the British navy provided no protection against pirates. The French, America's wartime allies against the British, did not protect them now that there was peace. Americans abroad were very much on their own, especially in international waters. And because America had no navy to protect its interests, insurance for American ships skyrocketed to twenty times the rate of that of European ships.

The expense of insurance was insupportable, but America's economy could not afford to end trade on the high seas; the Revolution had been fought with borrowed money, and repayment of those debts depended upon ongoing international commerce. One key piece of the nation's economic health was trade with southern Europe, accessible only by sailing into the Mediterranean-and within range of the Barbary pirates. According to Jefferson's calculations, a quarter of New England's most important export, dried salt cod, went to markets there, as did one sixth of the country's grain exports. Rice and lumber were also important exports, and the merchant ships provided employment for more than a thousand seamen. The trade and employment were essential to the growing American economy, and John Adams thought the numbers could easily double if a diplomatic solution in the Barbary region could be reached.

The American government had initially approved payment to the North African nations. But the bribes demanded were impossibly high, many hundreds of thousands of dollars when the American treasury could afford only token offerings of a few tens of thousands. In an era when not a single American was worth a million dollars, and Mr. Jefferson's great house, Monticello, was assessed at seventy-five hundred dollars, paying such exorbitant bribes seemed almost incomprehensible. Unable to pay enough to buy the goodwill of the Barbary countries, America was forced to let its ships sail at their own risk. Sailors like those on the Maria and the Dauphin had become pawns in a very dangerous game.

On this day, Adams and Jefferson worried over the fate of the Dauphin and the Maria. It had been nearly a year since the pirates from Algiers had taken the ships and cargoes the previous July, and now the regent of Algiers had made known his demand: until he was paid an exorbitant and, it seemed, ever-escalating ransom, the American captives were to be his slaves.

Despite their pity for the captives, Jefferson and Adams knew the new nation couldn't afford a new war or a new source of debt. They understood that the cost of keeping American ships away from the Barbary Coast would be greater than the cost of addressing the problem. That left the two American ministers, as Jefferson confided to a friend, feeling "absolutely suspended between indignation and impotence."

Yet neither Jefferson nor Adams could afford to remain paralyzed in the face of the danger. Not only had American families and the economy been endangered, but rumor had it that the pirates had also captured a ship carrying the venerable Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson's predecessor as minister to France. (As one of his correspondents wrote to Franklin, "We are waiting with the greatest patience to hear from you. The newspapers have given us anxiety on your account; for some of them insist that you have been taken by the Algerines, while others pretend that you are at Morocco, enduring your slavery with all the patience of a philosopher.") To everyone's relief, the reports proved false, but the scare brought the very real dangers posed by the Barbary pirates too close for comfort.

Sitting in the London house, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussed the idea of a negotiation that might break the impasse. Adams had a new reason to hope that the Barbary rulers could be reasoned with, and the two ministers set about deciding upon the right approach.

"Money Is Their God and Mahomet Their Prophet"

A few weeks earlier, Adams had made an unannounced visit to the Barbary state of Tripoli's ambassador, freshly arrived in London. To Adams's surprise, the bearded Sidi Haji Abdrahaman had welcomed him warmly. Seated in front of a roaring fire, with two servants in attendance, they smoked tobacco from great pipes with six-foot-long stems "fit for a Walking Cane." Adams had promptly written to Jefferson. "It is long since I took a pipe, but [we] smoked in awful pomp, reciprocating whiff for whiff . . . until coffee was brought in."

Adams made a strong impression on the Tripolitans. Observing his expertise with the Turkish smoking device, an attendant praised his technique, saying, "Monsieur, vous tes un Turk!" ("Sir, you are a Turk!") It was a high compliment.

Abdrahaman returned Adams's visit two days later, and Adams decided his new diplomatic acquaintance was "a benevolent and wise man" with whom the United States could do business. He believed Abdrahaman might help broker an arrangement between the United States and the other Barbary nations, bringing an end to the capture of American merchantmen. Now reunited with his friend and fellow American, he shared his plan with Jefferson and invited him to join the conversation.

On a blustery March day, Adams, Jefferson, and Abdrahaman convened at the house of the Tripolitan envoy. The conversation began in an improvised mix of broken French and Italian, as the Tripolitan envoy spoke little English. The discussion was cordial, and Adams and Jefferson began to believe that a solution was in sight. When the talk turned to money, however, the bubble of optimism soon exploded.

Jefferson had researched the sums paid as tribute by European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal, so he knew the going rate. But the gold Abdrahaman demanded that day was beyond the reach of the United States: a perpetual peace with Tripoli would cost some 30,000 English guineas, the equivalent of roughly $120,000, not counting the 10 percent gratuity Abdrahaman demanded for himself. And that amount bought peace with only one of the Barbary states. To buy peace in Tunis would cost another 30,000 guineas, to say nothing of what would be required to pay Morocco or even Algiers, the largest and most powerful of the four. The $80,000 that Congress had been hard-pressed to authorize for an across-the-board understanding was no more than a down payment on what would be needed to meet the Barbary demands.

Although he now despaired of an easy solution, Adams wasn't ready to stop talking. He could understand financial concerns, and he was already beginning to realize what O'Brien would later say of the pirates: "Money is their God and Mahomet their Prophet." Yet greed alone couldn't explain the madness and cruelty of the demands. Unsatisfied, the famously blunt Adams wanted a better answer. While maintaining the best diplomatic reserve he could muster-whatever their frustration, the American ministers could hardly leap to their feet and walk out of the negotiations-Adams asked how the Barbary states could justify "[making] war upon nations who had done them no injury."


Excerpted from "Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Brian Kilmeade.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Cast of Characters xiii

Author's Note xvii

Prologue: Unprepared and Unprotected 1

Chapter 1 Americans Abroad 5

Chapter 2 Secretary Jefferson 19

Chapter 3 The Humiliation of the USS George Washington 33

Chapter 4 Jefferson Takes Charge 45

Chapter 5 A Flagpole Falls 51

Chapter 6 The First Flotilla 59

Chapter 7 Skirmish at Sea 73

Chapter 8 Patience Wears Thin 87

Chapter 9 The Doldrums of Summer 95

Chapter 10 The Omens of October 111

Chapter 11 The Philadelphia Disaster 121

Chapter 12 The Cover of Darkness 131

Chapter 13 The Battle of Tripoli 151

Chapter 14 Opening a New Front 171

Chapter 15 Win in the Desert or Die in the Desert 181

Chapter 16 Endgame 193

Chapter 17 Fair Winds and Following Seas 199

Epilogue 205

Afterword 209

Acknowledgments 217

Notes 223

A Note on Sources 233

Index 237

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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down. Very compelling, very interesting piece of America's formative history and the war that set up the US to take on the Brits again in 1812. Brave men, Pirates, guns,and the US wins. Must read!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read and helps understand the culture of the region. Appears well researched and thorough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Quick and easy to read very much like what's going on now overseas
Davids3 More than 1 year ago
This book is poorly written with an awkward and amateurish style that makes it hard to read. The story line used by the author jumps all over the place without continuity again making it hard to read. And, while being hyped as new material, the barbary coast pirates are a well researched subject and better books are available by Forester and Zacks.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overall a good read of a topic i never thought much abouy glad i read it
JohnWelch More than 1 year ago
An odd book. I read about about this war in C.S. Forester's Landmark Book, "The Barbary Pirates": a "young adult" book by a great writer (the "Hornblower" series of novels) who knew sailing-ship navies. This war was not forgotten, nor was the Quasi War with France. Truxton, "Constellation", Preble, Decatur...Glenn Tucker's "Dawn Like Thunder" (1963) seemed to cover the story for non-specialists. The barbary pirates of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers have no connection to modern Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Their "pashas" and such owed some allegiance to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, but they engaged in kidnapping / piracy only as a way to receive tribute...a ransom. Tucker's book is good enough. Another: Fletcher Pratt's "Preble's Boys", in which Pratt describes how the young officers under Preble won all but one of the naval battles in the War of 1812. Ian Toll's recent "Six Frigates" covers a longer period, but the story is the same.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to put down! Very informative.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This forgotten war was the onset of our troubles dealing with Muslim cultures, and their lack of respect led to our establishing a US Navy to defend our citizens from slavery and our merchandise from pirates, for whom treaties were changeable at a moments' notice. If I had looked at the writer I probably wouldn't have bought it since he hails from Fox News but it turned out to be written very well and is in an informative and easy to.understand style. I recommend for the your education if nothing else.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great insight on how our young nation fought terrorism and won respect.
Schapps More than 1 year ago
I usually research the author of a book, especially historical, before purchasing and reading, but I received this book as a gift so I read it. You can definitely tell it was written by the sports guy from Fox and Friends. It reads like a high school paper on the subject. I do, however, now look forward to reading books on this subject by more reputable authors.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good. A lost history except for the last couple years. Quite the feat and battling muslim with a new country not acredited by the rest of the world and struggling to survive as a free country and no president when this started..thereal building of a new nation to what the us has become today
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michael Oren did this 8 years ago & Better! “Power, Faith, and Fantasy” by Michael Oren was published 8 years ago in 2007 and is an extremely far superior account of the Tripoli Pirates and their conflicts with our fledgling nation. Read Oren’s stunning tome instead.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not an ordinary account of a historical event but rather a well written and organized entertaining read. I was hooked.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it!
wiseowlOH More than 1 year ago
Kimeade and Yaeger have an excellent book with "Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates" which should be required reading for all students and parents on Naval history and how it is apparent today that our American Navy is needed more than ever to be strong. Jefferson had enormous problems in his administration which haven't improved in 2015 for our Navy today. The enemy of Jefferson's day are the same as we face today and our present populace should take heed. Thank you Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager well done.
4691992 More than 1 year ago
While the book read easily and I enjoyed the pictures, the author's clear American and Christian bias made it difficult to stomach at times. If he would have spent a little time researching the history of Islam, the political system of the Ottoman Empire, the complicated history of western and eastern empire building, invasion and broken promises going back to the Crusades it could have been a 5 star book. The author decided to portray the Barbary coast in an over-simplistic way in order to paint them as cartoonish "bad guys". Nothing in history is black and white and putting in a little time into exploring the other sides point-of-view would have added to the authors credibility. He also completely ignored the irony of white Americans being held as slaves in Africa while Africans were being held as slaves in America and Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings (which I thought we were beyond as a society). I was disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read for those who love our great Country.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great study about the beginning of our navy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting because I didn't know much at all about this time period. I kept getting an Anti-Muslim vibe with this book. At first it wasn't that noticeable but as the book progressed I kept feeling a political agenda. Then I read the Acknowledgments and the authors praise of Roger Ailes and the other Fox News characters recently dismissed because of their sexual harassment at Fox News. If your politics is NOT Fox News and their perspective on facts then don't bother buying this politically motivated book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a fast and informative read. It covers details little known that will cause you to want to know more. Overall a very pleasurable book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
very boring....Not well written...
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