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In 1785, US merchant ships that sailed the Mediterranean Sea began to face an unexpected threat: pirates from the North African coast. American sailors were subjected to pillage and enslavement while their government tried to negotiate tributes and ransom prices with the Islamic rulers of the Barbary nations. As the Barbary conflict intensified, Thomas Jefferson saw that negotiations could only proceed if the United States showed its military strength through a naval presence and the use of force in the Mediterranean. Jefferson committed himself to this cause as he rose to the position of secretary of state and later, president of the United States.
In Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History, authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger trace the exciting tale of how these kidnappings led to the First Barbary War, what transpired between the warring nations, and how Thomas Jefferson’s decisions helped shape US policy today.
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Summary and Analysis of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History
Based on the Book by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is the story of a young nation fighting against the brutality of four Muslim powers. Frustrated that American ships were being captured, enslaved, and held for ransom, Thomas Jefferson decided on a show of strength, committing the country to a war that in some ways we're still fighting today. Patriotic and proud, failure is not an option for Americans. This book is about the brave men, many of them forgotten, who fought to secure our freedom.
Prologue: Unprepared and Unprotected In July 1785, the US merchant
ship Dauphin sailed the Mediterranean, its crew under the impression that it was on friendly seas, as the United States was at peace with all surrounding nations. Captain Richard O'Brien was shocked, then, when he realized that a ship that had pulled up alongside them wasn't merely trying to communicate — instead, members of its crew swung aboard the Dauphin in a surprise attack that culminated in enslaving the Americans and holding them captive in Algiers for ten years.
Chapter 1: Americans Abroad
When the Dauphin was seized, Thomas Jefferson was acting as minister to France and John Adams as ambassador to London. The two convened to discuss the situation, and meet with Tripoli's London ambassador, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. Abdrahaman explained that because the US ships carried non-Muslims, the Islamic pirates saw no wrongdoing in plundering their ships — although they would stop if the United States paid an annual tribute to each of the Barbary nations. The amount was more than $120,000. Jefferson and Adams refused to pay such a high tribute — the US didn't have that kind of money, and besides, they didn't want to pay bribes or ransoms. However, they also couldn't afford to stop conducting commerce in the Mediterranean, either. Here, their discussion reached a standstill: Adams wanted to negotiate, Jefferson wanted to use force. By 1789, they had both returned to the United States with the conflict unresolved.
Chapter 2: Secretary Jefferson
Upon his return to the United States, Jefferson was appointed secretary of state by George Washington. He used his new position to petition Congress on behalf of the enslaved men in Algiers. When it became clear that pirates were now specifically targeting American ships, President Washington authorized the Act to Provide a Naval Armament in 1794, providing for six new frigates.
Even then, the use of force was far off, as Congress continued to draw up treaties and collect money to send for ransom. Consul Joel Barlow bartered for the release of the slaves who were still alive in 1795, a decade after their capture. Richard O'Brien, James Cathcart, and William Eaton remained consuls on the coast in Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis, to maintain the hesitant peace between the Maghreb region and the United States.
Chapter 3: The Humiliation of the USS George Washington
William Bainbridge captained the USS George Washington as it sailed the Mediterranean for the first time, on its way to deliver an overdue tribute to Algiers. He met a nervous Consul O'Brien at the dock; nervous, because O'Brien knew that impatience had increased the demands of the dey of Algiers. Indeed, Dey Bobba Mustapha was not appeased by the size of the tribute the George Washington carried, and he insisted the ship and its crew must complete the payment themselves. They would do this by sailing the ship to Constantinople carrying the Algerian ambassador, his entourage, and Algiers' tribute to the Ottoman Empire.
Bainbridge had no option but to comply. Following custom, he had allowed the captain of the Algiers port to steer his ship into the harbor; conveniently, the Algerian captain had anchored the ship in the fortress guns' line of fire. Frustrated and embarrassed, Bainbridge and his crew hoisted the Algerian flag and ferried the ambassador's crew and their heavy tribute of slaves and animals to Constantinople, redirecting the ship toward Mecca five times a day for prayers along the way.
Chapter 4: Jefferson Takes Charge
When Jefferson was inaugurated on March 4, 1801, the United States' standing treaties with the Barbary nations stated that the America would pay an annual tribute of $20,000, as well as one barrel of gunpowder for every cannon salute that US ships received. Letters from Captain Bainbridge and Consul Eaton told President Jefferson that tensions and tribute demands were rising in the Mediterranean, so when news about the repurposing of the USS George Washington arrived, he was moved to call the first meeting of his cabinet. President Jefferson proposed declaring war without the permission of Congress. The cabinet refrained from a declaration of war, but did send an additional naval squadron — one carrying a letter from Jefferson himself, strongly warning the Tripoli leader to tread carefully — to the Mediterranean to act as peacemakers and project a show of strength.
Chapter 5: A Flagpole Falls
From his isolated position in Tripoli, Consul Cathcart was forced to deal with Bashaw Yusuf Qaramanli's increasing ill will and demands by himself. Alone, except for his wife and children, Cathcart had no resources to call on and no deal to offer that could satisfy Yusuf; thus, the bashaw declared war against the United States on May 11, 1801. Despite the long gaps in correspondence across the Atlantic, Bashaw Yusuf's declaration occurred in the same month as President Jefferson's proposal to his cabinet to do the same.
A few days after the declaration, a squad of Algerian soldiers made a show of chopping down the flagpole at the US consulate — more a comedy than a dramatic act of war, since the pole proved strong enough to withstand hours of hacking and chopping at its base. Despite the problems with Yusuf, Cathcart was fond of Tripoli and sad to leave. He and his family were given safe passage out of Tripoli, but the sea's danger proved real when their ship had a run-in with pirates between Malta and Leghorn, Italy.
Chapter 6: The First Flotilla
A flotilla of four ships was finished and ready to sail by June of 1801. The ships were the President, the Philadelphia, the Essex, and the Enterprise; their captains were Commodore Richard Dale, Samuel Barron, William Bainbridge, and Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, respectively. Members of the US Marine Corps sailed with the crews to act as a line of hand-to-hand defense — all of the crews and captains were under orders to shoot or fight in defense only.
When the ships arrived at Gibraltar, no one on board knew about the war with Tripoli, but Captain Dale had his suspicions. The Meshuda, a former US ship captured and refitted by Tripoli, was docked in the harbor, and Captain Dale approached to ask its captain, Admiral Murat Rais, what the state of relations was. Like his ship, Rais had adopted a new identity: Formerly known as Peter Lisle, Australian deckhand on the USS Betsey, he had chosen to join the pirates that captured his shipmates, converted to Islam, and eventually married the bashaw's daughter. When approached, Rais lied and said that Tripoli was at peace with the United States, but said honestly that Cathcart had left Tripoli. Understanding that Rais was deceiving him, Dale decided to send the Essex to protect merchant ships, and the Enterprise and the President to Algiers and Tunis to deliver correspondence before heading to Tripoli. The Philadelphia was told to remain outside Gibraltar harbor, with orders to take out the Meshuda should she attempt to leave.
Chapter 7: Skirmish at Sea
After brief visits to Algiers and Tunis, Captain Dale guided the President and the Enterprise toward Tripoli, whose harbor was already under partial blockade from Sweden. Dale sent two letters to the bashaw attempting diplomacy, but they were summarily refused. The President and the Enterprise joined the blockade, which would endure for weeks.
Consul William Eaton had been living in Tripoli for several years. Although the landscape was beautiful, the citizens were oppressed, and Eaton was infuriated how America and Europe tolerated the pirates' bullying in Mediterranean waters. He knew the only answer was a show of force.
On August 1, 1801, the Enterprise left the Tripoli harbor on a run to Malta for provisions. On the way, Lieutenant Sterett spotted a pirate ship, the Tripoli, and decided to approach under a British flag. His instincts were sound, because when they came together, the pirate captain freely admitted that they were looking for Americans. The Enterprise crew raised the American flag and fired, and an intense battle ensued — the first of the Barbary War. Though the crew of the Tripoli tried to trick their opponents with not one, not two, but three false surrenders, the bloody fighting ended in the Americans' favor. The Tripolitans suffered thirty dead, another thirty wounded, and a ship so incapacitated that it could barely sail back to port. The battle was an embarrassment for Bashaw Yusuf and gave US Congress a potential push toward allowing President Jefferson to declare war.
Chapter 8: Patience Wears Thin
The speed and success of the first Barbary battle was anomalous compared to the events that followed it. After ending the Tripoli blockade in September, Captain Dale returned to Gibraltar to learn that Admiral Rais and his men had abandoned their ships and escaped by land; the President ran aground and had to dock in France for the winter; then Dale fell ill. Meanwhile, the Senate took their time, approving President Jefferson's request for use of force on February 6, 1802. Jefferson could not declare all-out war, but he could increase the size of the navy, signing into law "An Act for the protection of the Commerce and Seamen of the United States, against Tripolitan Corsairs."
Still in Tunis, Consul Eaton had begun a relationship with Hamet Qaramanli, the exiled older brother to the bashaw, Yusuf. Yusuf was not the rightful heir to his throne; years ago, he had murdered his oldest brother, banished Hamet, and taken Hamet's wife and children hostage. Eaton had an idea that restoring Hamet to the throne might guarantee peace between the United States and Tunisia, and President Jefferson allowed him to explore that option.
Chapter 9: The Doldrums of Summer
President Jefferson appointed Richard Valentine Morris to command the next fleet that would sail across the Atlantic. Captain Morris had proven himself during sea battles with the French, but now, married, his wife requested to sail with him. This proved to be a distraction as the couple got comfortable at the Gibraltar port while the USS Chesapeake was undergoing repairs, and carrying forward, Morris gave more attention to socializing in friendly ports than to those where his orders directed him.
While the Chesapeake dawdled, Captain Alexander Murray delivered tribute to Tunis, then took the Constellation to patrol Tripoli. Murray's efforts to blockade the corsairs were genuine but often ineffective. In June of 1802, escaped corsairs captured the Franklin, a merchant ship, and evaded the blockade again to return their hostages to Tripoli. It took assistance from Bobba Mustapha and a ransom of $5,000 to release the prisoners.
Morris's slow progress finally led him to Tripoli in May of 1803, but he didn't see much action before being relieved of duty in July after Eaton returned to the United States and reported on him. Morris had to face a court-martial that ended in his dismissal from the navy. President Jefferson was frustrated because nearly two years had passed with nothing to show for it.
Chapter 10: The Omens of October
Edward Preble was Captain Morris's replacement, and he set sail on the USS Constitution on August 12, 1803, with Colonel and Mrs. Tobias Lear on board (and without his own wife). Lear was slated to replace O'Brien as consul general to Algiers. He had been an aide to President Washington and had a close relationship with Washington's family; it was rumored that he had also gained President Jefferson's favor by burning angry correspondence between Jefferson and Washington after the first president died.
Captain Preble had discretion to act as he saw fit, and better warships to serve him, including the Vixen and the Syren. When he arrived in Gibraltar he learned that United States relations with Morocco were also on the decline, so he sailed first to Tangier harbor to make a show of strength. Preble and Lear went ashore to find the sultan sufficiently intimidated and apologetic; he recanted his threats and promised to uphold the 1786 peace treaty between Morocco and the United States.
Chapter 11: The Philadelphia Disaster
While Preble was making his first moves along the Barbary Coast, the USS Philadelphia was maintaining a blockade of the Tripoli harbor. On October 31, 1803, they gave chase to a Tripolitan ship but ran aground less than two miles from shore. Captain Bainbridge ordered the crew to dump most of its guns and cannons into the water to lighten the ship and lift free of the rock they were stuck on; in the meantime, nine Tripolitan warships surrounded them.
Feeling he had no other choice, Bainbridge surrendered, burning any information that might have been useful to the enemy. He and the crew of 306 were taken ashore as captives. The crew was kept in miserable conditions and put to work, while the officers had a somewhat easier time in the empty consulate building. Dale was comforted that at least the ship would be useless to Tripoli, but after a gale loosed it from its rock, the imprisoned Americans were forced to repair it and retrieve the dumped guns from the harbor so it became seaworthy and outfitted again for their captors.
Chapter 12: By the Cover of Darkness
After he dropped off the Lears in Algiers, Captain Preble directed his ship toward Tripoli. However, learning about the Philadelphia situation, he stopped in Malta to read Bainbridge's letters along the way. He decided the Constitution and the Enterprise, captained by Stephen Decatur Jr., would sail in tandem to Tripoli to reinstate a blockade.
On December 23, 1803, the Enterprise approached a vessel outside the Tripolitan harbor that claimed to be a mercantile ship, but the strange mix of crew members and a sword that belonged to one of the Philadelphia men found on board proved otherwise. The Mastico was seized as a war prize, refitted, and returned to the Tripoli harbor by February 1804 as the Intrepid. Using intelligence written in sympathetic (invisible) ink that Captain Bainbridge sent from his vantage point inside the harbor, Preble developed a plan to burn the Philadelphia. Captain Decatur would sail the Intrepid into the harbor in the middle of the night and set fire to the ship. The operation was a success that the naval force celebrated — while the slaves from the Philadelphia suffered the anger and retaliation of the Tripolitans back on shore.
Chapter 13: The Battle of Tripoli
Back in the United States, President Jefferson had no good news until he learned about the Intrepid and the Philadelphia in March of 1804. Another attempt was made at seeking a truce with Bashaw Yusuf, but it was rejected, and by summer Jefferson was ready to go forth with former consul Eaton's plan to team up with Hamet and take cities by land. Eaton sailed back to the Mediterranean with Commodore Samuel Barron, who was assigned to replace Preble as captain and commander of the US flotilla.
Just before they arrived, Preble waged one largely successful battle in the Tripoli harbor and two relatively unsuccessful bombardment attempts, all during the month of August. On September 3, he sent the Intrepid back into the harbor under cover of darkness, helmed by Captain Richard Somers and stuffed with gunpowder and explosives. It was intended to get close enough to ships or shore to bomb them, but the ship had barely crossed into the harbor when the powder was set off — none of the crew escaped the explosion, and no harm was done to Tripolitan property. On September 9, Barron arrived and took over for Preble, who returned to the United States a hero in March 1805.
Chapter 14: Opening a New Front
During their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, Eaton convinced Commodore Barron to support his plan to ally with Hamet Qaramanli. Barron committed a ship to Eaton to search for the exiled prince in Egypt. Consul Lear was less convinced that unseating Yusuf from the throne was the best plan, but since Eaton had Barron and Jefferson behind him, Lear's doubts were ignored. In November 1804, Eaton sailed for Egypt on the USS Argus with an army of ten (including Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon, a leader from the marines). Egypt was in a state of political instability, and Eaton was hesitantly welcomed by the Egyptian viceroy in Cairo. Appealing to commonalities between Christianity and Islam, Eaton sought his approval and assistance in the plan to find Hamet and overthrow Yusuf.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger,
For Your Information,