Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: A Book Review

TJ and Tripoli

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, the new best seller by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates has been sitting on the Best Seller list for several weeks now, and hooray! It does exactly what it wants to accomplish: interest the reader in an informative-but-not-didactic manner, and prove the point that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Or, if you will, the old axiom that history repeats itself.

According to the authors, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, (and this is perhaps the most important crux of the book) piracy along the Barbary Coast (i.e. Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, or modern-day Libya) has been going on for centuries. In fact, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were European diplomats, representing the Articles-of-Confederated United States, in the mid-1780s, such piracy had already been going on for centuries. Pirates cruised the Mediterranean preying upon merchant ships or other vessels that did not belong to them, and exacting “tribute,” or, calling it by its rightful name, “extortion.” To wit: pay us for not beating you up.

Both Adams and Jefferson were seriously involved in efforts to safeguard American ships from these predators. Both were men of the Age of Reason, and both were essentially men of good will: dedicated to resolving problems to the general satisfaction of all parties, with no real inclination for personal glory.  Adams, crustier than most, was also a basic Puritan. He believed that Mahometans, or Musselmen, which is what people were calling followers of Islam in those days, were people of the Book – or some Book at any rate, and could be reasoned with. Besides, he believed that engaging in any war with Islam would be costly and perhaps unwinnable.  He made a strong point. Jefferson, who had actually purchased a copy of the Koran years earlier, had his doubts. When their genial, but somewhat smarmy Barbary coast diplomatic counterpart met with the Americans, he indicated that their Holy Book countenanced killing the infidels in order to get an express ticket to Paradise. Mr. J., the cool deist, decided then and there that “reason” was not viable when dealing with religious fanatics.  Another strong point.

Nevertheless, paying off the Barbary pirates became policy for the new United States. We were poor and needed the trade. We also did not have the military might to put an end to it. Other countries like England and France had been paying off for years.  Sort of a pesty situation – and we had far more important issues to deal with.

But since the authors are writing adventure history rather than pure philosophical history  (not to mention the authors’ eye on Hollywood), fast forward to the Jefferson Administration. We were building a Navy, and had already been training an elite Marine Corps. The “millions for defense” was starting to become more important than the “one cent for tribute,” especially since the “tribute” was bleeding us dry. Besides, the piracy was not ending. And these were not merely renegade bandits; this was criminal mayhem, state-sponsored by various beys, deys, bashaws and pashas, the various chieftain-style leaders along the North African coast. And, to complicate the already complicated situation, these beys, deys, bashaws and pashas did not always get along with each other (what a surprise!).

Meanwhile, our ships, merchant and otherwise, were still being plundered and captured, and our sailors and merchantmen were still being enslaved at hard labor, or left to rot and die in North African fortress-prisons. President Jefferson, who was a very unwarlike man, had had enough. Like it or not, he would hold his nose, and deal with the situation once and for all. Giving his underlings a “take care of it” blank check of sorts, in goes the Navy, in go the new ships, including the Constitution, which later became Old Ironsides, and in go the Marines. All twelve of them.

The authors grab the reader’s interest from the start, and make an actual historic event into the adventure story it truly was. It combines diplomacy (sort of), playing one side against another (sort of), ships with sails happy to hoist false colors (not unheard of), consuls, captains and generals working together (sometimes) and at odds (what else is new?), and some fine, brave Americans who were willing to defend the right of free trade. And oh yes, there was that long, hard trek across the desert, with a handful of trained American soldiers trying to help reclaim a previously-usurped bashawship with unruly sub-armies of divergent characters, methods, and reasons for going in the first place.

It is all done with a minimum of notes and citations and the usual i-dotting that one now expects from history and produces little more than zzz’s. Bravo to the authors for putting the “story” back in “history.” Thank you.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Sentinel Publishing, 2015

  • ISBN-10: 1591848067
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591848066


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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6 Responses to Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: A Book Review

  1. shunpwrites says:

    Sounds like a must read!

  2. energywriter says:

    Thank you, Feather. I will be looking for it.

  3. Thanks for the review – I’ll definitely plan to read it.

  4. Bill Wilson says:

    This would be a good read for a sixth grader, but as an adult it seems poorly researched and written quickly.

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