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

Publisher: Sentinel • 11/3/15 • 256 pages
4.49 out of 5 • View Ratings Details • 47 Ratings
For many Americans, war in the Middle East and against Islamist fundamentalists dates back to a sunny Manhattan morning in 2001, or at the earliest, a brief skirmish in Kuwait in 1991. Seeking to disabuse their readers of this notion, Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade and journalist Don Yeager have teamed up to write the brief but entertaining “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates”, recounting the early United States’ war against North African pirates.

The story begins in the 1780s, when the newly independent United States finds its commerce threatened by pirates in the Mediterranean, who are based out of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. While the wealthier and more established European powers had bought peace for their merchant ships, the Americans had neither a large navy nor the monetary resources to respond to the capture of their unarmed vessels and the subsequent enslavement of their crews.

Initially, the United States scrounged enough money together to pay “tribute” to the deys of Algiers and Tripoli, but the situation continued to deteriorate when it became apparent that neither were acting in good faith. By the time Thomas Jefferson‘s presidency entered its third month, the country was at war, and Jefferson had put the wheels in motion to build up American naval power in response to the threats of the Barbary powers.

The next several years would feature spectacular victories and devastating setbacks, all of which helped shape the history and character of the budding American nation. There was foreshadowing of strength, such as the scene in 1801 when Tripolitans found their attempted humiliation of Americans thwarted by a flagpole that refused to fall. There was the thrill of victory, illustrated in the scene where a American frigate overwhelmed a Tripolitan pirate ship and captured its crew and cargo. There were also, of course, failures and lessons learned, including the disastrous grounding of the Philadelphia and, ultimately, Tobias Lear’s overly generous peace agreement that ended the conflict.

Throughout the book, readers are introduced to a colorful cast of characters on both sides of the hostilities, all of whom are colorfully brought to life by the authors’ storytelling. Heroes on the American side include Captain Edward Preble, whose leadership was instrumental in turning the tide of the conflict after his predecessor lazed about in friendly European ports rather than participating in the blockade of Tripoli harbor; he was subsequently court-martialed for his failure to “conduct himself…with the diligence or activity necessary”. On the other side of the conflict, readers are introduced to the introduced Murat Rais (born Peter Lisle), a Scotsman who betrayed America and, after converting to Islam, became a pirate captain and later matched wits the the blossoming U.S. Navy.

The book also explains how history repeats itself, and that a lot of what America is going through today is not new. The “Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States and Tripoli” was ratified in 1796 – an attempt to appease the enemy – and failed spectacularly. The character of the enemy Jefferson and the fledgling country encountered – one whose twisted view of a religion justifies the pillaging, plundering, enslavement, and murder of the innocent and unarmed – is no different from the enemy we are still fighting today in the form of ISIL and al Qaeda.
Kilmeade and Yaeger prove themselves to be adept storytellers. This is certainly not a scholarly work – its 206 pages contain just 179 end notes, and a similarly truncated bibliography – but it gets the job done. Since the war against the Tripoli Pirates is not a part of history whose story is often told, an overview of the conflict is a necessary addition to the writings already available.
While readers who are already familiar with the conflict and its details would likely find nothing new here, those who are new to the story will find themselves engaged in a thrilling page-turner that tells a story that more Americans need to know. Hopefully, by writing a concise and accessible narrative of this piece of history, more Americans will understand the threats we’ve faced in the past and the lessons our forefathers learned from their battles against them. Kilmeade and Yaeger provide this service to their readers in as entertaining and page-turning a fashion as possible.
Original CBC review by Paul Hart

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