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Among the many words we might use to describe Thomas Jefferson, bellicose is not the first that springs to mind. Eloquent, enlightened, statesmanlike, sometimes wise, often enigmatic, yes, but not bellicose. During the American Revolution, as governor of Virginia, he was famously ineffective at raising troops and defending the state. In 1798, as vice president under John Adams, he opposed the Quasi-War with France, which came to blows in the Caribbean when French and American frigates fought two separate battles stemming from a dispute over American neutrality in the conflict between France and England. In the 1790s Jefferson and the Republican Party he headed opposed the arming of America that the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, strongly favored.

However, when it came to the four so-called Barbary states of North Africa—Tunis, Algiers, Morocco and Tripoli—Jefferson was bellicose indeed. He had wanted to wage war against the quartet of city-states since 1785, and when he became president in 1801 he went into action against them without asking the permission of Congress. This first of two Barbary wars created the first military heroes of the new United States of America and went a long way toward giving Americans a sense of national identity as a people with a role to play in the world.

The Barbary states, nominally subject to the Ottoman Empire, were essentially free to do as they wished, so long as they paid their annual tributes to the rulers in Istanbul. The states lived on piracy; for centuries they had been preying on European shipping in the Mediterranean and outside the Strait of Gibraltar in the eastern Atlantic, and they had seized the ships of American colonists as early as the 1640s.

In 1662 England had been the first to make a deal with the pirates, believing it would prove cheaper in the long run to make annual payments to the Barbary rulers than to wage war upon them. Most other European powers followed suit. What resulted was an inherently corrupt system, little more than bribery legalized by treaty. But cold economic calculation—the costs of marine insurance; the actual loss of ships, crews and goods; and the pirates’ demands for ransom in exchange for white Christian captives—tipped the balance in favor of simply paying them off.

The system was subject to continual slippage, as the Barbary rulers thought of treaties not as inviolable contracts between states but as pawns in a game. If they thought they could get a better deal, they swept them from the board. Their sense of honor did not extend to Christians. Jefferson— minister plenipotentiary to the French court, sent to negotiate trade agreements with France and other European powers— discovered this during a March 1785 meeting in London with John Adams, then representing the United States at the Court of St. James, and Tripoli’s ambassador at large, who had recently declared war on the United States. Preparing to negotiate the usual treaty to set the rate of the annual tribute, the two Americans asked the ambassador about the “grounds of their pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury?”

The ambassador answered that it was “written in their Koran that all nations which had not acknowledged the prophet [Muhammad] were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”

Jefferson would hear from one of those slaves, Richard O’Brien, master of the Philadelphia merchantman Dauphin, taken in July 1785 by Algerine pirates off the coast of Portugal. O’Brien wrote Jefferson the following month, begging his intervention with Congress for “our speedy redemption.” Algerine pirates had also seized the Boston schooner Maria, en route to Spain. Between the two ships, 21 American sailors had been enslaved by the dey of Algiers, whom O’Brien called the “King of Cruelties.” (As the Algerines seized more ships over the next decade, the number of enslaved American sailors would reach 122.) The pirates, wrote O’Brien, had stripped the captives of their clothes and provided them “nothing to exist on but two small cakes of bread per day, without any other necessary of life.” The shipmaster was certain he and his men would starve.

They did not, but over the next five years six of them died of plague. The men lived in terrible conditions and were tortured for infractions and attempted escape, and the dey assigned them as laborers or rowers on his galleys. O’Brien himself lived under the protection of a European consul, which was customary for high-status captives, and became the spokesman for the entire group, writing often to Jefferson, George Washington and members of Congress.

O’Brien’s efforts were almost entirely in vain. The dey demanded vast ransoms for his captives, refused even to open foreign diplomatic appeals not accompanied by lavish gifts and constantly complained of his need for more slaves. Not until 1795, during Washington’s second term, did America finally buy back the surviving sailors of Dauphin and Maria, and the ransom, plus the price of a treaty, cost the government close to $1 million. The cost of annual tributes to the Barbary states, after Congress finally negotiated treaties with them in the 1790s, ran to 10 percent of the entire U.S. budget.

From the beginning Jefferson found such negotiations with the pirate states dishonorable and humiliating. He preferred war. In August 1785, the month he received O’Brien’s first letter, he wrote old friend John Page, “If we wish our commerce to be free and uninsulted, we must let these nations see that we have an energy which at present they disbelieve.” A year later he wrote Adams in London, “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war,” repeating the same sentiment more forcefully to James Monroe: “The [Barbary] states must see the rod.”

But in 1785 and 1786 there was simply no way to put such a policy into effect. The United States was the weakest of nations, still living under the Articles of Confederation with no executive branch and no judiciary, governed only by a Congress that had no power to levy taxes, did not have or want a navy and sometimes could not raise a quorum for months on end. John Adams opposed the whole idea of going to war with Algiers and kept silent when Jefferson tried to put together a consortium of countries to attack the Barbary pirates and put an end to the tribute system once and for all. England refused to participate; it was not in London’s interest to rid the Mediterranean of pirates only to see it opened to American merchants and seamen. The French, the Spanish and the Dutch were also content with their deals with the Barbary states. Jefferson’s diplomatic initiative thus came to nothing; the United States, once it had a Constitution and an operating government, fell in line and paid up like the rest.

Such was the situation Jefferson faced when he took office in March 1801. It was an embarrassing situation for him. He had won the election of 1800 promising to cut costs, waste and personnel throughout the federal government, but especially in the Navy. Jefferson believed the latter an unnecessary expense, as he saw America’s destiny in westward expansion and agriculture, not in shipping and commerce. By 1801 the nation did have a fledgling Navy of some 49 ships—most converted merchant vessels, though there were also six frigates built specifically as warships. (Adams had ordered the frigates during his presidency, to stand up to the French in the 1798–1800 Quasi-War.) Jefferson sold most of the merchant vessels, keeping his pledge to reduce taxes, and ordered all but six of the warships laid up “in ordinary”—stripped bare of rigging, stores and anything else movable.

But Jefferson also believed strongly in waging war on the Barbary pirates. Nine days after his inauguration he heard from the U.S. consul in Tripoli, James Cathcart—one of the men enslaved by the Algerines in 1785—that the Tripolitans wanted a better deal. Jefferson would have no part of it, and in June 1801 he sent a Norfolk-based squadron of four U.S. Navy ships, including President, one of the six frigates built for the Quasi-War, to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping and, if necessary, to engage Tripolitan ships. Necessary it became, as Tripoli cut down the flagstaff at the American consulate, nullified its treaty with the United States and declared war.

The conflict’s first battle occurred on August 1, when the American schooner Enterprise, under Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett, encountered a 14-gun Tripolitan corsair and in a three-hour battle killed dozens of its crew with no American casualties. Sterrett cut away the enemy ship’s masts, threw its guns overboard and let the survivors limp back to Tripoli under a jury rig. Tripoli’s enraged Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli had his defeated commander beaten, then paraded through the city seated backward on a donkey, the entrails of a sheep draped around his neck.

In January 1802 a relief squadron under Richard Valentine Morris sailed to replace the first squadron, which returned to the United States for repairs. Morris based the squadron in Malta, seldom left port and showed little interest in blockading Tripoli. In fact, setting up a blockade of the city presented some difficult problems. The coast outside the city was uncharted and littered with shoals, the entrance to its harbor narrow and difficult to navigate. Tripolitan warships were small, swift and of shallow draft and could slip into and out of the harbor and along the coastline, where the bigger, deeper-draft U.S. frigates could not follow. In winter the Mediterranean storms and accompanying powerful northerlies threatened to drive the American warships ashore. Given the situation and Morris’ do-nothing attitude, this too was a kind of quasiwar, and it lasted until September 1803, when Morris’ superiors recalled him and threw him out of the Navy for his utter lack of initiative. The United States, meanwhile, was not exactly impressing Europe or the Barbary powers with its military prowess or resolve.

That changed under the next commander, Commodore Edward Preble, a tough, sea-hardened captain famous for his temper and disciplinary rigor. In July 1803 he left for the Mediterranean in command of another of the original six frigates, Constitution, which had been refitted for the occasion. His first act was to show up off Tangier; the Moroccans had shown signs they, too, hoped to make a better deal with the Americans, abrogating a 1786 treaty and taking the American brig Celia, only to be run down by the frigate Philadelphia. The appearance of a 44-gun U.S. warship off Tangier rapidly dissipated the incipient crisis. Preble then sent Philadelphia to blockade Tripoli harbor much more closely than Morris had ever bothered to do.

Commanding Philadelphia was Captain William Bainbridge, like Preble a tough disciplinarian and an aggressive, accomplished seaman. But luck wasn’t with Bainbridge. His first act on arriving in Tripoli was to chase down a Tripolitan sail heading toward the harbor. Wary of the shoals, he put men in the bow to cast the lead, and they reported depths of between 7 and 10 fathoms; Philadelphia drew something under 3 fathoms, so Bainbridge must have thought it safe to continue the pursuit. It was not. The ship ran hard aground, and all efforts to free it, including casting the ship’s guns and anchors overboard to lighten it, failed. Tripolitan gunboats attacked as soon as they realized Philadelphia’s predicament. After four hours Bainbridge struck his colors, and Karamanli added the frigate to his collection of warships, plus 307 American slaves.

Tripolitan sailors managed to float Philadelphia free, and divers retrieved the anchors and most of the cannon. Philadelphia’s captured officers were housed in the former U.S. consul building, but its sailors were jammed into quarters fit only for rats, tortured for even minor infractions and forced to labor on public works projects.

The First Barbary War might have ended there had it not taken months to get news to the United States and for fresh orders to reach U.S. commanders in the Mediterranean. America had ransomed sailors before, paying for peace. The ransom this time would be extremely high, but the cost of warships was also extremely high. In any event, Jefferson reacted strongly to the news and would not sue for peace. He wanted reinforcements sent abroad. Just as eager to see the war through, Congress promptly gave him what he asked. The American public, unwilling to be pushed around by “infidels and barbarians,” was also eager to carry on the fight. Newspapers, particularly those that supported Jefferson, called for war.

In the absence of orders from home, Preble did the right thing. He sailed to Tripoli, seized a Tripolitan ketch carrying African slaves to Constantinople and took it back to his base on Malta. At the suggestion of one of his junior officers he conceived a plan to use the merchantman to slip into Tripoli harbor late at night, board Philadelphia and destroy her. To command the raid he chose 25-year-old Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr. It would prove a perfect match between man and mission.

The son of a naval officer, Decatur was well educated, tall and goodlooking, so resplendent in his uniform that young women were said to faint when he entered a room. He was also uncommonly brave. Decatur took an assault force with him on the captured Tripolitan ketch, renamed Intrepid and disguised as a Maltese merchantman flying British colors. He sailed into Tripoli harbor on the night of Feb. 16, 1804, drifting in on a slight breeze to within hailing range of Philadelphia. His Maltese pilot called out in Arabic, explaining to the guards aboard Philadelphia that the merchantman had come to acquire livestock for the British garrison on Malta but had lost her anchors in a storm. The pilot asked the guards if the ketch could tie up to Philadelphia for the night. With permission granted, the raiders towed Intrepid over to the frigate and slid in beneath the anchor chains; then Decatur yelled out, “Board!” He and his men clambered up the sides of the ship and in through the open gun ports. Using only swords and knives, they took the ship within minutes.

It took only a few more minutes to fill the ship with combustibles and fire her. Decatur was last to leave the burning Philadelphia. Intrepid then fled under small-arms fire. Cannon at the bashaw’s castle also opened fire but inflicted no damage to the fleeing American vessel. Philadelphia ultimately burned to the waterline. The mission had been a stunning success; Decatur had lost not a single sailor, and only one man had been wounded. Britain’s Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Decatur earned promotion to captain, the youngest U.S. Navy lieutenant ever to achieve that rank. He also became the nation’s first military hero since the Revolution. Five American counties, four cities and seven towns are named after him.

Though Decatur’s raid did not bring the First Barbary War to an end, it was the conflict’s signature event and defined it for the American people. The war itself went on for another year and a half. Reinforcements arrived from the United States in the spring of 1804, and Preble devised a new plan, to enter Tripoli harbor with small gunboats and backed up by Constitution and a number of brigs. On August 3 he set his plan in motion. The action was fierce as American boarding parties swarmed the decks of the Tripolitan ships. Decatur later remarked that “hand to hand is not child’s play—’tis kill or be killed.” His brother, James, died in this action, felled by a gunshot wound to the head. Decatur pursued the enemy boat that had delivered the fatal shot, boarded it and, in a bloody fight, his 10 Americans killed all but three of the vessel’s 24 occupants. Preble, meanwhile, brought the larger ships into action, and Constitution moved in close to pour cannon fire into the bashaw’s castle. One volley brought down a minaret.

More battles followed, with Constitution repeatedly bombarding shore batteries, wearing down Tripoli’s defenses in a war of attrition. In a final action Preble sent a fireship into the harbor, hoping to destroy the bulk of the remaining Tripolitan gunships, but it exploded prematurely, killing all hands.

Not all the action was at sea. William Eaton, the U.S. consul in Tunis, devised a plan to arm Karamanli’s exiled brother, Hamet, who would then march a force across the Libyan desert to take Tripoli by land. Receiving tentative approval for the scheme, Eaton sailed to Egypt in 1805, found Hamet and assembled a force that included 250 Bedouin, 90 of Hamet’s followers, 63 mercenaries and nine U.S. Marines (whose presence was later commemorated in the Corps’ hymn by the verse “to the shores of Tripoli”). The 500- mile journey across blistering desert caused tempers and ethnic tensions to flare, and the Bedouin demanded more money. When the ragtag army reached a scheduled rendezvous with an American supply ship, the vessel was not there. It soon arrived, however, and the army marched on to Derne. Eaton demanded its surrender. When refused, he attacked, breached the walls and in hand-to-hand fighting took the city, later defending it against a largescale counterattack.

Eaton’s spirited defense of Derne was undercut somewhat by news that the war was already over. Jefferson had sent a seasoned diplomat, Tobias Lear, to Tripoli to negotiate a deal that Yusuf Karamanli, threatened by land and sea, had readily accepted. For $60,000 and the return of 100 Tripolitan prisoners of war, Karamanli signed a new treaty and released Philadelphia’s 296 survivors. Eaton and his Marines were hustled out of Derne, while the other members of Hamet’s ragtag force were left to fend for themselves.

America launched the Second Barbary War in 1815, this time against Algiers, but it did not amount to much of a conflict. Decatur commanded the 10-ship squadron sent to fight it out with the Algerines. He quickly seized the flagship of the Algerian fleet and drove another ship aground, taking some 500 prisoners, then parked his fleet in Algiers’ harbor, guns trained on its defenses, and dictated the terms of a treaty. He did the same in Tunis and Tripoli, ultimately capturing 27 Barbary ships. So ended North African piracy against American shipping. It was clear to all that America had become a naval power.

In his second inaugural address, in 1805, Jefferson proposed a massive expansion of the country’s maritime defenses and the building of more ships for the Navy, including huge 74-gun ships of the line. In the 1820s American merchant shipping in the Mediterranean grew by a factor of four. More important, the two wars against the Barbary pirates had given America a new confidence in itself. Though hardly a world power, the United States had clearly established it did have a role to play in the world—and the means to play it. MH

For further reading Anthony Brandt recommends: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, by Ian W. Toll; The Barbary Wars, by Frank Lambert; and Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to Present, by Michael B. Oren.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here