Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is an account of land and sea battles, as it introduces the events of the First Barbary War. After the Revolutionary War, the United States was a young nation still trying to establish itself around the world. America was at peace until 1785, when pirates off the coast of North Africa began capturing US merchant ships and taking their crews as slaves.

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In July 1785, the US merchant ship Dauphin sailed the Mediterranean, its crew under the impression that it was on friendly seas, as the United States was at peace with all surrounding nations. Captain Richard O’Brien was shocked when he realized that a ship that had pulled up alongside them wasn’t merely trying to communicate”instead, the crew swung aboard the Dauphin in a surprise attack with daggers and swords drawn. This resulted in the enslaving the Americans and holding them captive in Algiers for ten years. The Mediterranean bordered the Ottoman Empire, American merchants depended on commerce with the nations along the coast, the tributes demanded by the Muslim nations to ensure the safety of US ships were exploitative and liable to increase without warning. During their successive presidencies, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson confronted the problem with different views.

Adams favored diplomacy w/tribute payments, Jefferson Preferred war. The enslaved sailors were released a decade later, the United States was struggling to piece together tributes that would satisfy the Barbary nations’ ever-increasing demands. In 1799, the George Washington delivered an unsatisfactory tribute to Algiers and in return, its crew was forced to ferry an Algerian entourage to Constantinople. When Jefferson became president in 1801, tensions were high enough that he sent the US Navy’s first flotilla of ships to the Mediterranean to keep the peace. At the same time, the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, declared war against the United States. During the next four years, the US Navy fought battles at sea, blockaded enemy harbors, endured the capture and enslavement of the Philadelphia crew, and finally launched a plan to take Derne, Benghazi, and Tripoli by land and overthrow Yusuf Qaramanli. Only Derne fell, as Tobias Lear stepped in with a treaty and ransom that appeased Bashaw Yusuf and secured the prisoners’ release. Thomas Jefferson was acting as minister to France and John Adams as ambassador to London. The two convened to discuss the situation, and meet with Tripoli’s London Ambassador, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. who explained that because the US ships carried non-Muslims, the Islamic pirates saw no wrongdoing in plundering their ships”although they would stop if the United States paid an annual tribute to each of the Barbary Nations.

The U.S.A. didn’t have that kind of money, and besides, they didn’t want to pay ransoms. They also couldn’t afford to stop conducting trade in the Mediterranean.

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