The period of American history from the Declaration of Independence to the War of 1812 was one of the most difficult and incredibly eventful times for the nation. Author Joseph Wheelan has masterfully told the story of one fascinating situation, the 1801—1805 Barbary War in Jefferson’s War. There is plenty of action with graphic details of the environment and battles as well as with the personal histories and relationships of the major figures. He also describes the many similarities and differences between this period and current events.
Perhaps most importantly, he provides the details of the development of what would later be called the “gunboat diplomacy” of American foreign policy. Wheelan depictions colorfully and accurately bring the 1801-1805 Barbary War to life. The action takes place primarily in the Mediterranean Sea and the coastal towns in Egypt, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (modern-day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). The description of Islam, landscapes, produce, peoples and customs conveys how alien and exotic North Africa was to the Americans.
His account of geography witnessed during a desert campaign march to the interior of pasha’s (rulers) homes is detailed and colorful. Battle scenes are frequent and violent. Descriptions of the ships, cannons, and hand weapons are equally detailed, as well as the gruesome carnage they cause. The book mainly reports the action during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and his reaction to it. Wheelan explains the national and world politics and leaders and how this influenced Jefferson’s actions. He also provides thorough biographical information on the various American envoys and diplomats as well as numerous naval officers.
The personalities, prejudices, and egos of many, as well as their alliances and rivalries are significant factors in the complex situations of the war, just as they are today. The intrigue, deceptions and behind-the-scenes action are just one of the similarities of that era to modern-day politics and world events. America then was first confronted by Islamic leaders and “jihad” and well as terror inflicted on non-combatants, with the obvious parallel to the current war on terrorism. Then as is today, alliances were sought between the numerous nations that were alternately attacked and extorted by the Barbary Nations.
Unlike today, plague, disease, food shortages and weather had a huge impact on activities. Perhaps the most significant difference is today’s instant communications as opposed to the months it would take a message to travel between America and personnel on the scene. The Barbary Coast system of payments, ransoms, and bribes would today be called a “protection racket”. Nations gave in to the demands as it was cheaper than going to war. However, the American attitude, and eventually naval power, caused the pashas to decrease their demands, and ultimately cease their actions.
At the time it was seen as the national symbol, showing an olive branch in one hand with weapons in the other. In later years other names would be used, including “showing the flag”, “speak softly but carry a big stick” and “peace through superior firepower”. This first showing of gunboat diplomacy not only quelled the Barbary War, but placed all nations on notice that the reach of American naval power would forever factor into its foreign policies.
Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.