Sunday, December 4, 2022

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



Maggie Gust

B14-CBN-12-11-15-5“From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea..” In this nifty new book, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger tell the exciting story of how the U.S. Marines earned bragging rights to include the shores of Tripoli in their hymn.

Even before the Constitution was ratified and the United States of America came to official existence, the Barbary pirates were menacing our vessels. In summer 1785, the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, received a letter from Richard O’Brien, captain of the Dauphin, which had been raided by Algerian pirates two weeks earlier. O’Brien and his crew had been captured and enslaved by the pirates, and he was deploring their treatment to Jefferson. The true misery was yet to come. O’Brien would spend 10 years enslaved in Algiers and many of his men would succumb to disease, starvation and overwork. It seemed that was the only escape for any of them.

It was not even two years since America had won their independence from Great Britain. That country and the rest of the world was waiting for the former colonies to fall on their faces. There were no bones to the American government as yet. Constitutional ratification was still three years away and George Washington’s presidency almost four years in the future. Besides the lack of political infrastructure, America had massive debt (the entire war was fought on borrowed money) and an economy that was in the terminal stage of anemia. It needed trade with southern Europe, which unfortunately put American vessels directly in the path of the Barbary pirates. Great Britain, France, etc. paid surcharges to Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis to allow safe passage for their vessels. America not only did not have the money for that protection, it had no one authorized to provide it. Because we had no navy and nothing to threaten the pirates with, our insurance rate was about 20 times higher than the others.

For Jefferson, this had a personal aspect as well. His beloved wife had died in 1782, and though he had their eldest daughter, 10-year-old Martha with him in Paris, he wanted to bring 6-year-old Polly over but was terrified of a pirate attack. He instructed his brother-in-law to send her only in a British or French vessel, as both nations paid hefty tributes for safety. Jefferson made a trip to London to confer with John Adams, United States minister to England, about the piracy issue. By this time it was several months after the capture of O’Brien and his men.

Adams and Jefferson went to visit the envoy from Tripoli to discuss release of the captives. Exorbitant sums were discussed, with commissions going to the envoy as well as to others involved in the release. When Adams asked how the government of Tripoli could justify making war on nations which had done them no harm, the envoy replied: “All nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.” All of the Muslims injured in such incidents were already in their places in paradise, he explained.

The two old friends continued to debate the best approach for the new nation in this regard. Adams was for recommending payment of the bribes, that they simply could not go to war against the pirates. Jefferson argued that building a navy was the way to go, that in the long run it would cost less than paying bribes which were inconsistent and could go up at a moment’s notice. Additionally, the new country simply needed a navy to foster prestige. Still, the two men worked in concert to get O’Brien and his men freed, but nothing they tried succeeded. After five years, the men were still slaves.

Jefferson returned home November 1789 to be greeted with the news that he had been appointed secretary of state by the new president,



George Washington. Much had happened in the five years he had been away. Stunned, Jefferson was not sure about accepting the position and retreated to Monticello, where 17-year-old Martha was to be married that winter. After a few weeks, Jefferson decided to accept the position and traveled to the nation’s capital, New York City, to report for duty in March 1789. In his first meeting with Washington, the conversation included the plight of Richard O’Brien and his crew.

Washington was a proponent of neutrality in international affairs and wanted neither a standing army or standing navy. Jefferson spent months preparing two reports to congress, one on O’Brien’s men and one on trade in the Mediterranean. During this time and the time that congress debated the reports, America’s economy was growing, more vessels were making their way to southern Europe. In October 1793 alone, ten American vessels were captured, 110 men enslaved. Debate time was over – action was mandatory.

The wheels of congress moved slowly as it began debates on the issue in February 1794. James Madison led the delegation against a navy, fearing it would expand the federal government’s influence and power. Others argued as Jefferson had, that the cost of a navy was less than not having one and that the cost of maritime insurance was prohibitively expensive and increasing almost daily. New England wanted the navy to protect their merchant vessels while the South did not support anything that increased federal power. Finally a compromise was reached to build or buy six ships, but that construction of them would stop if peace were reached. It took three years before the first ship was launched. Meanwhile, the Barbary pirates continued their plundering. Jefferson had resigned and returned to Monticello a few months before the congressional debates began.

Washington has another term, then John Adams serves four years before Jefferson takes on the presidency. Everything moved at a glacial pace at that time. People, even the president, would receive news about an event weeks or months after it happened, and a response would take weeks or months. During the next eight or nine years until Jefferson becomes president, no significant progress is made in the pirate issue. The Muslim countries have no fear or respect for the United States. Under Jefferson, that will finally change.

Kilmeade and Yaeger’s book should be required reading in middle and high schools. This is how history should be written. Their style is straightforward and thoroughly researched. I found it easy to read and completely riveting, even though it is history and I already knew the ending. The authors put human flesh on these legends which served to make me respect them even more. The description of Stephen Decatur’s brilliant decision to blow up the Philadelphia, an American ship that had been run aground in Tripoli Harbor and the execution of that plan is thrilling. Equally exciting is William Eaton’s 500-mile trek through the desert with U.S. Marines and local mercenaries.

It is not a completely happy story, of course, because it is real life. I found a new appreciation for the patriotism and code of duty, honor and integrity that men of that period not only professed but lived. It is holiday season and I would recommend you buy this book for yourself, read it, then lend it out to everyone you know or buy everyone their own copy. Encourage any children age 12 and older you know to read it. You will love it.

Rating: 4.85/5.0. Genre is U.S. History. Published by Penguin Group in November 2015, 249 pages. It is available at Collier County Public Library and all major vendors.


Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher, as well as various occupations in the healthcare field. She shares a hometown, Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, reading, movies and writing are among her favorite activities. She is self-employed and works from her Naples home. Contact her at or

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