Not Your Liberal’s Thomas Jefferson

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Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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Most Americans have heard the lyrics to the Marine Corps Anthem, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” but most could probably not identify the conflicts that produced such a rousing call to action. Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger have filled part of that void with a thrilling new book about the Barbary Wars titled, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.

This is not your liberal’s Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson is often characterized as the weakest president among those who served from the founding generation. He bungled through the American War for Independence as Governor of Virginia, and he was, at least in principle, opposed to standing armies and an interventionist foreign policy. But Jefferson also believed as president he had a duty to protect American commerce and American interests abroad and he did so with a vigor that neither George Washington nor John Adams could match.

Jefferson’s time as Minister to France and later Secretary of State introduced him to the unorthodox, illogical, and deceitful patterns of Islamic diplomacy. The fledgling United States served as a punching bag for the predatory pirates of the four Islamic states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. Most European powers and later the United States kept them at bay with bribes. As American Richard O’Brien would put it, “Money is their God and Mahomet their Prophet.” Jefferson did not trust this process and saw that the more the United States capitulated to their demands, the more the thugs demanded. To Jefferson, paying off these ruthless warlords was not just bad policy, it was a violation of American sovereignty.

Shortly after taking office, Jefferson, with congressional approval, sent a small American flotilla to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping. Jefferson hoped this show of force would persuade the opportunistic pirates to look the other way. It didn’t work. The Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, had already informed the American government that it would take $225,000 to keep his pirates away from American shipping, but after American warships sailed into “his” waters, Qaramanli declared war on the United States.

Qaramanli did not achieve his desired outcome.

Jefferson quickly dispatched the rest of the newly christened American Navy to the Mediterranean, and in short order her ships of the line reduced any opposition to splinters. As a result, Tripoli refused to engage American vessels, and the American Navy had to resort to short counterattacks and forays against their inferior foes. The Navy effectively bottled up the Tripoli pirates in their own harbor.  

Then disaster struck.

The USS Philadelphia ran aground in the Tripolitan harbor in October 1803. The crew was seized as hostages and the ship turned into a forward artillery battery. In February 1804. Stephen Decatur led a daring mission to render the Philadelphia useless to the enemy. He captured a Tripolitan gunboat, used it as a ruse to get close to the Philadelphia, boarded the ship, overpowered its garrison and set it ablaze. Decatur’s feat was called the most “daring act of the age” by British admiral Horatio Nelson.

While effective, this bold move did not end the war and after several more months of inconclusive sparring by the navy, a brash American ex-consul named William Eaton led a small detachment of marines and several hundred foreign mercenaries across over 600 miles of desert to surprise the Tripolitan city of Derna. Virginian Presley O’Bannon led his marines against overwhelming odds and after passing “through a shower of Musketry from the Walls of houses, took possession of the Battery” at Derna and seized the city. Qaramanli realized he had been defeated and signed a peace treaty with the United States.  

Kilmeade and Yaeger have done a remarkable job telling this story. While Jefferson is certainly the centerpiece of the tale, the authors deserve credit for offering a comprehensive view of the conflict. American victory resulted from the work of several men, most of whom have been forgotten in the two hundred years since the end of the war. They were generational heroes, men of action in a time that demanded action. Not all made it back home after fighting a foreign power on foreign soil. We should remember them, “to the shores of Tripoli.”

While the situation has changed in the Middle East, the enemy has not. Kilmeade and Yaeger conclusively prove that Islamic diplomacy cannot be trusted. Jefferson knew that the only deterrent was force. Money may be their God, but a strong arm is the only thing that keeps them at bay. Agreements would quickly be torn up or ransoms called inferior by an ideological foe bent on conquest and infused with a core disdain for peoples of different religions and different cultures. Their world has never been safe for Americans.  

As in their previous work — Washington’s Secret Six — Kilmeade and Yaeger have provided a handbook for why the founding generation continues to be important in modern American society. They fought the same foes, wrestled with the same problems, and more importantly offered solutions to these complex issues, if we would only listen.