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Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates

Christopher Hitchens

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America's first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new nation's character.

When I first began to plan my short biography of Thomas Jefferson, I found it difficult to research the chapter concerning the so-called Barbary Wars: an event or series of events that had seemingly receded over the lost horizon of American history. Henry Adams, in his discussion of our third president, had some boyhood reminiscences of the widespread hero-worship of naval officer Stephen Decatur, and other fragments and shards showed up in other quarries, but a sound general history of the subject was hard to come by. When I asked a professional military historian -- a man with direct access to Defense Department archives -- if there was any book that he could recommend, he came back with a slight shrug.

But now the curious reader may choose from a freshet of writing on the subject. Added to my own shelf in the recent past have been The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, by Frank Lambert (2005); Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801 -- 1805, by Joseph Wheelan (2003); To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines, by A. B. C. Whipple (1991, republished 2001); and Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, by Joshua E. London (2005). Most recently, in his new general history, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, the Israeli scholar Michael Oren opens with a long chapter on the Barbary conflict. As some of the subtitles -- and some of the dates of publication -- make plain, this new interest is largely occasioned by America's latest round of confrontation in the Middle East, or the Arab sphere or Muslim world, if you prefer those expressions.

In a way, I am glad that I did not have the initial benefit of all this research. My quest sent me to some less obvious secondary sources, in particular to Linda Colley's excellent book Captives, which shows the reaction of the English and American publics to a slave trade of which they were victims rather than perpetrators. How many know that perhaps 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780? We dimly recall that Miguel de Cervantes was briefly in the galleys. But what of the people of the town of Baltimore in Ireland, all carried off by "corsair" raiders in a single night?

Some of this activity was hostage trading and ransom farming rather than the more labor-intensive horror of the Atlantic trade and the Middle Passage, but it exerted a huge effect on the imagination of the time -- and probably on no one more than on Thomas Jefferson. Peering at the paragraph denouncing the American slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, I noticed for the first time that it sarcastically condemned "the Christian King of Great Britain" for engaging in "this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers." The allusion to Barbary practice seemed inescapable.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 20-Jun-07



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