BOOK REVIEW – Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History

Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History. New York: Sentinel, 2015. 238 pp.

Review by Caitlin M. Gale, PhD
Trinity College, Oxford

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is ostensibly about the US-Tripoli War of 1801-1805 that took place during Jefferson’s presidency. Shortly after the American War of Independence, the young United States found itself threatened by the four North African States of Barbary (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli); with Independence, the United States had lost British protection from Barbary. Several ships and their crews were captured by these states during the 1780s and 1790s. By the time Jefferson assumed the presidency, the issue had reached such a head that he sent the nascent United States Navy to confront Tripoli, who had declared war on the United States after a treaty dispute in 1801. The US Navy’s efforts over the next four years and the first use of US Marines abroad left the war immortalized in the USMC hymn.

Brian Kilmead (a Fox News Host) and Don Yaeger (an author and Sports Journalist) had previously collaborated on the book, George Washington’s Secret Six. Though they place Jefferson as the focal point in the title, their Author’s Note instead argues that their focus is on the individuals on the ground, both militarily and diplomatically, in North Africa. The book starts with the newly independent United States encountering the difficulties all small states operating in the Mediterranean faced – risk of trade disruptions and capture by the Barbary States. The first four chapters cover the efforts and struggles the United States faced when dealing with Barbary during the 1780s and 1790s before war actually breaks out in chapter five. Chapters six through sixteen cover the four years of war between the United States and the Ottoman Regency of Tripoli, including US Naval and diplomatic efforts, political negotiations in Washington, and finally the famed ‘shores of Tripoli’ marine effort to overthrow the ruler of Tripoli and replace him with his brother. An epilogue briefly touches on Stephen Decatur’s short efforts off Algiers in 1815.

The succinct chapters and engaging prose make this an incredibly easy book to read. The authors successfully propel their narrative forward, moving between Washington, D.C., North Africa, and the US Naval ships in the Mediterranean with ease and skill. They successfully introduce the myriad cast of characters participating in this drama, and true to their stated goal, the focus is not the ‘great man’ Jefferson but on the ‘normal’ people involved in the war effort. Unfortunately, for all that it is well written, the same cannot be said for its research. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is riddled with basic errors and has an uncomfortable undercurrent of Islamophobia running throughout. Citations are only for quotations, not narrative, and incomplete, making it nearly impossible to verify where the authors have gotten any particular idea. The sources they do credit are exclusively American in focus; they reference very little of the extensive modern scholarship that has been done on Barbary in the last fifteen years and none at all on the history of Barbary itself. This latter point explains some of the wilder errors and misconceptions that appear within the book. At one point, the authors discuss the 1803 reaffirmation of the 1786 US treaty with Morocco and demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding or knowledge on US-Barbary relations prior to 1801, despite spending four chapters on the topic. Finally, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is not even a tale retold, it is the same story presented in the same way as many other histories of the US-Tripoli war and early US Navy, the majority of which have been better researched. Its multiple factual errors and orientalist outlook completely overwhelm the reader, no matter how engaging a read it may be.

In theory, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates may be of value to anyone interested in an introduction to the US-Tripoli War of 1801-1805 or the early American Navy, but in reality there are many better books out there that cover these same topics without the myriad of mistakes.

(Return to April 2016 Table of Contents)

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