Review: “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates” by Kilmeade and Yaeger

JeffersonThomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. 249 pages. Sentinel.

One of the distinct pleasures of teaching at a university is having immediate access to a library that holds a million books. Well, maybe not a million, but a bunch. More than I could ever read. And while waiting for my students the other day, I did what I usually do: I perused the new books section on the library’s main floor. That’s where I came across this fun little book.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is very little about Thomas Jefferson (I’d say about five percent) and more about the pirates, which is fine by me. I am an admirer of Jefferson, but pirates are always fun. And this was a time in the history of the United States when the country had yet to prove itself capable of surviving on its own.

In 1785, just as the fledgling United States was recovering from its own War of Independence, pirates along the north African coast began targeting American shipping. They would steal product, money and more importantly, take Americans hostages and often make them slaves, all under the justification that they were infidels and that the Koran therefore allowed it. Response to the ongoing threat was varied and slow in coming. France, England and other countries were already paying annual ransoms to sail the waters unmolested, but the United States, still in debt from war, couldn’t afford the demands of the pirates. And this inevitably led to war.

What makes this book intriguing is the fact that here is a United States that probably the weakest it has ever been, confronted by a threat that echoes some of the same threats we face today. It wasn’t faced without making many mistakes, and it took many years to resolve. But the process of overcoming this challenge is a story of courage, and some of the names you will read in this book will ring familiar to you. From this conflict both the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps were born.

It’s not a long book, and I wished it would have gone into more depth. Some of the characters, such as Stephen Decatur and William Eaton, both heroes in their own way, deserved more attention, and I feel like trying to find books on them alone. I felt like it was trying to cover 20 years of history in 250 pages, which just wasn’t enough space. But for a one day’s read, it was fun and inspiring.

I give it four out of five stars.