Book Review: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

This book claims to shed light on “the little known story of how a newly independent nation was challenged by four Muslim powers and what happened when America’s third president decided to stand up to intimidation.”

While this book is easy to read, tells an intriguing and important chapter in U.S. history , and is worth reading – it does bring up some red flags that are worth discussion.

Here are 3 things that stood out to me about this book:


When you read or study history - it is important to know who is telling the story. What is their motivation? What are their credentials? Anybody can tell a story. But will it be a true story? You can't believe everything you read or everything people say. And while we all know this to be true - in many cases, it is almost seen as a bad thing to question the credibility of the person telling a story. It's not. In fact, it is a crucial part of keeping the truth alive. Don't be afraid to ask questions. It's a really good thing to do. (#historylovertip you can do this in all areas of life.)

In the case of this book, I wanted to know who the authors (Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger) were. So I looked them up. These guys are not historians. Kilmeade is a journalist/T.V. personality/former press secretary. Yaeger is a professional motivational speaker and (mostly sports) author. These are guys who know how to package a story in a way that sells - and they are really good at it. I honestly didn't want to stop reading, but are these non-historians telling a an accurate history?



During the time of the Romans, Christianity was starting to expand rapidly. Men were going from town to town preaching. One missionary named Paul was preaching to a group of Jews named the Bereans. The Bereans were pumped to listen to Paul, but they did some double checking before they believed what he had to say. They compared what he said to scriptures they already had to see if what he said aligned or if he was taking things out of context. In doing this, they were able to eagerly take in new information, while also making sure it was accurate. (you can read the story here.)

Today's culture is a lot like that culture in the aspect that people like great orators. If you can package something up well, and make it interesting then people will gladly listen and follow you. Except now instead of walking around town following the great orator, we "follow" them on social media. #efficient. There's nothing wrong with this. It is a wonderful thing to be able to find people who present things well. There IS a problem, if you just blindly follow people though. No matter who it is. We all have our own brain - it's awesome. You can really enjoy a story or feel inspired by a cause - but don't just ride the tide. Check it out! See if what they are saying is true.

So when I found that I really enjoyed this book, and I knew the authors were not historians - I did just that. I researched a lot. And while for the most part, the story line was historically true, there are little details that bother me . Take the title for instance. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. The term pirates refers to individuals who attack ships at sea. The term privateers refers to pirates who have government backing. The term corsair refers to privateers in a specific area of the world (the Mediterranean). And while this may not seem like a big deal - a simple term really does change the story line. If Thomas Jefferson is fighting pirates, then they are rogue individuals who have no connection to a government. If he is fighting privateers, he is fighting individuals who are backed by their government but aren't officially part of a military force. In other words, he is fighting a war that's not officially a war. It's a completely different storyline. Thomas Jefferson was dealing with CORSAIRS (a.k.a. privateers). You can read more about it here.

Now granted, the authors do tell the story rightly, but they use a term that is generally understood rather than the accurate term. And that can equate to not having a full understanding of the connection these "pirates" had to the Muslim state. I also wish there was more focus on the role John Adams had on the role in the creation of the U.S. Navy. So, while the story of the Barbary Wars is being told, it's these little aspects othat bother me. On the positive side, I really like the fact that so many primary sources (a.k.a. first hand accounts) were quoted and listed. That's a good sign.

USS Enterprise in Battle [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons


I don't know what the motivation was for these authors. Perhaps it was just to sell a bunch of books. Perhaps it was tell a piece of American history that many people don't know about. Whatever the case - it is obvious, that this book was written in such a way to capture the readers imagination. It is written in a way, that the average person would be interested in reading it. But there were moments I was reading this, that it felt more like a story than an actual history. Here's an example:

"As a fast moving ship approached the Dauphin off the coast of Portugal, Captain Richard O'Brien saw no cause for alarm. On this warm July day in 1785, America was at peace, and there were many innocent reasons for a friendly ship to come alongside. Perhaps it was a fellow merchant ship needing information or supplies. By the time O'Brien realized that the ship did not approach in peace, it was too late."

Did O'Brien tell someone or write down why he allowed this ship to approach? I don't know. Did he see the ship? I don't know. Did he attempt to avoid the ship? I don't know. Did he get the ship confused with another ship? I don't know. Was he concerned about this ship, but didn't have time to do anything about it? I don't know.

The point being - unless O'Brien told someone or wrote it down we don't know. So how did the authors come to this conclusion and nicely give us an "inner monologue" for the captain. Maybe what they are saying is true. Maybe its not. But the way it is written - I have hard time knowing if this was just part of the "storyline" or if this was actually something that went through his head.

I'm all about making history interesting and bringing it to life. But it's important to be able to easily separate fact from fiction. (#historylovertip this applies in all areas of life). I question if this book made that line a little hazy in cases like this.)


If you want an interesting book to read about the Barbary Wars - this is a really good starting point. It lays a good general foundation for understanding the way the world worked in that time period. If you want a deeper look - this book lists many primary and secondary sources that you can read to get a fuller picture.

Overall I would say this book is a good reminder that history is relevant. Thinking like a historian is a thing we should all do in many different aspects of our life.


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