Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History
If there’s a central overarching theme to THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES, it’s that it’s very easy to foul things up. You don’t need me to tell you this, of course. One false step, one ill-advised decision, and you’ve done something you’re going to regret the next morning. And this is just at an individual level. It’s just as easy to screw up at the nation-state level, with the difference being that when this occurs, the consequences are often more dire than minor, quotidian stuff, like not putting the frozen steaks in the fridge the night before you’re planning to cook them.
It’s facile just to say that the study of history is the study of past mistakes, but there’s at least some value in looking back at the regrettable things that people did to see if anything can be gleaned from these failures. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that what we learn from history is not to make the same mistakes over and over again, or that when history is said to repeat itself, it happens when people repeat past mistakes.
"Kilmeade and Yaeger have written a very fast-paced and breezy retelling of the ongoing war against the Barbary pirates, which began with the capture of an American merchant ship and the enslavement of her crew."
This is sort of the point that Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger seem to be making in THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES --- that the mistakes made in America’s dealings with the Barbary pirates in the first two decades of the Republic have some sort of relevance to our dealings in the Middle East today. That’s more than a bit of a stretch, but the authors don’t insist on it, and it’s not strictly necessary to enjoy the book.
Kilmeade and Yaeger have written a very fast-paced and breezy retelling of the ongoing war against the Barbary pirates, which began with the capture of an American merchant ship and the enslavement of her crew. The story begins with an extraordinary amount of military and diplomatic fumbling. On the military side of things, the young republic simply was not able, at first, to field a creditable military threat against the maritime power of the pirate kingdoms of North Africa. On the diplomatic side of things, the Americans were frequently outclassed and humiliated more than once. And the fortunes of war were not often in the favor of the Americans, who were cursed with foolish and lazy commanders as well as rotten luck.
The authors handle the ridiculous elements of the tale with a light touch, and do an outstanding job of explaining the ultimate exploits of Presley O’Bannon and Stephen Decatur, the eventual heroes of the war. THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES is neither impressively scholarly nor outlandishly revisionist. It presents its story in an accessible, readable way, with a focus on the character (or sometimes the lack thereof) of the American actors.
If there’s a drawback to the book, it’s that it’s all too often a catalog of things that were fouled up. But it’s easy to do that. You don’t need me to tell you this.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on November 20, 2015