Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History is a book that was, for a time, the darling of the conservative book reading establishment. I pulled the book from a shelf for purchase coming home from American University a few months ago, where it was on the New York Times Bestseller’s List, even though it first appeared back in 2015 and seemed to phase out of the list late March. In contrast to its good sales, very few traditional literature review outlets seemed to give this book much notice, with the Washington Times being the only one to give it significant mention.
This is something of a surprise given the starstruck praise the book receives right from the outset by some larger than life figures in military affairs. General Stanley McChrystal stated that the book “reads like a fast-paced thriller but is actually a thoughtful account of America’s first foray into what has become a complex part of the world” and the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked that it was a “fascinating story of extraordinary courage and resolve, and a brilliant reminder of an early chapter of our country’s remarkable history.”
Perhaps the reason can be found squarely with the authors for the book. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates was penned by the authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, with Kilmeade claiming the greatest share of the credit and the author space. Some reviewers seem to forget Mr. Yaeger, as retired Vice Admiral Dunn did in his review last year.
Brian Kilmeade is a Fox News reporter, which to some sounds the alarm. He stars on Fox and Friends and has a radio show as well. While he is by no means the worst of Journalists, he is – at the heart of it – an information entertainer. Most television news anchors fall into this category now, much to my chagrin. He has his personal beliefs, and those beliefs certainly bleed into his work on the show and in this book. He has written three other books – two of which seem like harmless fluff to pass an afternoon with. The other is a book on George Washington’s Secret Six.
That book was set in a similar time period and was co-authored with Don Yaeger again. Before I looked into him, I had assumed that Yaeger would have been the historian to help Kilmeade piece together his product. Deserving more than enough credit to get his name on the book, but Yaegar was very clearly Kilmeade’s second rather than an equal partner. Turns out my brain did not quite reach reality. Don Yaeger is a motivational speaker, a journalist, and a prolific author with 28 books credited to his name. The more I look into him, the more I’m not sure what to think. If I ever get around to Washington’s Secret Six, I will look more deeply into Yaeger.
So what happens when you finally open up the two hundred pages published by Sentinel? Well, the General was more than correct. It reads like a thriller. It is a fast read that goes by relatively quickly, making it almost rather perfectly an airplane book. At the same time, it is a book that will sometimes stop you and make you ponder a question: “was it really like that?”
The book is, in a sense, an attempt to paint the past with the brush of the present. I wouldn’t go as far as Philip Kopper did in his review, where he concluded by calling the book “patriotic drum-thumping or history lite.” It was, however, a book designed to appeal to a particular crowd. It uses steady examples of our past selves, seeming to imbue the past with a dignity that may, or may not be deserved for ourselves. The ignominious look at the other Barbary states also may not be deserved, as it takes the worst of the group – the ruler of Tripoli – as a marker of the rest.
The most sympathetic of the non-Europeans was the Bey’s brother who was exiled in Egypt. It is clear that the book was based in history, but there was very little critical look at the source material itself. Everywhere one looks, the Americans are eminently reasonable and the Barbary Pirates are unreasonable. While close to reality, there is some selective conveying of information that led me to roll my eyes several times.
This ultimately comes down to the choice of framing this conflict as a war against the Tripoli pirates. There was a certain dignity to the Moroccans, but they are only mentioned once as a means of establishing the superiority of the US naval capacity. Their past role and future role in assisting the United States goes unmentioned, only their act of war that ended in a moment garners mention.
I suppose that may be why it is easy to get sucked into the account so much. This was a case where the United States were clearly “the good guys” in a conflict. This lack of ambiguity rarely surfaces in US history with historians able to be highly critical of nearly every military endeavor taken upon by the United states with the exception of the Second World War. It would be bordering on the unreasonable for a favorable portrayal of people who made a civilization out of blackmail and slavery of Christian merchants, but I would like to see three dimensional people instead of caricatures.
It is perhaps with the Second World War in mind as a possible anchor to frame the conflict, that Kilmeade and Yaeger discuss the coming of war in terms of appeasement and a ridicule of appeasement. John Adams is treated rather terribly in this book, and made into an almost Neville Chamberlain type who sought peace with aggressors and found none. This is a rather cruel distortion of history, and the framing of Thomas Jefferson also does him something of a disservice, even if the result is a favorable portrayal within the text. On this I am not alone, as Vice Admiral Dunn called it a major detraction from the book’s otherwise good narrative.
In the end, even the Conservative Book Club notes a rather glaring flaw with the text. For a nonfiction book with a history focus, this book is remarkably unscholarly in its citations – under one a page. By contrast, some of my books to the left of me have pages of citations almost a third the size of a book. This is a book I actually want to like, its just not something that has real depth to it. When we learn about the horrors of warfare, even villains (where they exist) have dimension to them and can be portrayed somewhat sympathetically. You’ll find no sympathy for the Barbary, outside of the brother of the Tripoli despot we betrayed.
The book remains illuminating. Within its pages you will find a veritable crusade for dignity and decency against the injustice of Muslim pirates who kidnap, kill, and enslave Christians unless they are bought off for a ridiculous sum of money. You will find a lot of daring and courage, a few accounts of brutal captivity, and the story of a nation coming into itself.
But do not take it as a gospel. This is a book that has earned a lot of its criticism, and some of it with good reason. People who are more liberally minded will find difficulty imagining a situation whereby white people were ever held powerless by the hands of people portrayed in this book as shameless profiteers of religiously motivated violence. That the accounts are largely true won’t make up for the rather shameless appeal to our baser instincts, and if the villains of the book are projected upon the present it can result in a lot of uncomfortable and undeserved results.
This is primarily a book for the burgeoning American identity, and its worth for understanding the modern middle east is dubious at best.
Score: C (74)
C books are easily readable and enjoyable, but perhaps should not be taken too seriously. When taken in conjunction with greater authorities, they can be a rewarding experience, but without them you should be wary of the feelings you get. If you find yourself either too happy or too furious, the reason is probably the book rather than the subject itself.