- The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World
Since 11 September 2001, Americans have struggled to find meaning in the terrorist attacks and the subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Historians acknowledge that the contest is not a modern phenomenon; Christians and Moslems have fought with one another since the Middle Ages. Yet for many Americans it appears as a modern occurrence, even though commentators, pundits, and historians have pointed to the Barbary Wars (Tripolitan War 1801–5, and the Algerine War 1815–16) as evidence of long-standing hostility. Joseph Wheelan's book, Jefferson's War, addresses the U.S. struggle with terror, while Joshua E. London's Victory in Tripoli, insists that President Jefferson had to respond to unprovoked terrorist attacks on American ships and sailors. Ultimately, these books tell us more about current attitudes than about the historical reality of the early nineteenth century.
Lambert's study does not perpetuate the idea that religion stimulated the conflict between the U.S. and the North African Barbary States. He does not insist that the pirates represented holy warriors fighting a jihad against the Stars and Stripes. Nor does he compare the Barbary pirates to modern terrorists. Instead, Lambert maintains that the pirates waged a commercial war where they were motivated by the lure of money rather than religious passion.
Lambert maintains that conflicts in the Mediterranean represented a war against trade as well as an extension of the American War for Independence. After securing independence, the United States assumed that free and fair trade would accompany their other new-found freedoms. That did not and would not happen for decades to come. After 1783, Spain blocked American access to the Mississippi River, the British restricted American trade in the Caribbean, and in 1784 the Barbary States began capturing American ships and enslaving U.S. citizens. Within the Atlantic world, the [End Page 509] U.S. was a powerless entity that would have to purchase the right to trade, and suffer the seizure of ships and men, or it would have to fight for the rights and principles that they thought they had secured in 1783. Successive American governments—under the Articles of Confederation and the administrations of Washington through Jefferson—paid tribute to protect American ships and men. In 1815 Madison sent a fleet that forced Algiers to stop the raids and demands for tribute. A combined British-Dutch naval operation in August 1816 finally broke the power of the Barbary States.
During the thirty-year period 1785 to 1815, the U.S. confronted not only the Barbary problem but also tremendous turmoil in the Atlantic World. Intermittent fighting between Britain and France placed the U.S. and the Barbary States on the periphery, with both trying to maintain an independent course—one through free trade and the other through piracy and tribute. Ultimately, free trade, open markets, and expanding commerce secured economic freedom for the U.S. These economic changes, according to Lambert, sealed the fate of the Barbary pirates more than did American naval and military exploits.
While this book is not a comprehensive account of the Barbary Wars or a thorough description of naval operations, it does provide an intriguing and well argued thesis. Scholars and general readers alike would profit from reading this study.
Fort Worth, Texas