Lifting the Yoke

Page 10 of 10

Topical Summary: Jefferson's agendas—First annual message to Congress—Tripoli—First victory—Flagship Constitution—Naval re-enforcements—Blockade of Tripoli—Capture of the Franklin—Lewis out of touch—Events he missed—Filling in the blanks—War heroes—Final impression

States of the Union

President Jefferson had more than enough problems to face within or near his own borders beginning on the morning after his inauguration, March 4, 1801. There were treaties and trade agreements to be negotiated with Indian nations east of the Mississippi; problems with Spanish control of New Orleans; the precise location of the U.S.-Canada boundary (an issue that Lewis took part in by exploring the upper reaches of the Marias River) as well as the uncertainty of the boundary with Spain; the need for improvement and defense of U.S. Atlantic Coast ports. Geographically speaking, those matters were within easy grasp of the administration, whereas the evolving relations with Britain, France and Spain had to be dealt with at a distance. Most remote of all were the troublesome Barbary States, yet they were important to American commercial interests that the president had vowed to encourage and support; to simply ignore them could diminish foreign respect for the United States.

In his First Annual Message to Congress, copies of which Meriwether Lewis hand-carried to the House and Senate on December 8, Jefferson summarized the major issues and events that he had dealt with during his first year in office, what he had done about them, and what the results had been. Concerning affairs in the Mediterranean Sea, he announced that Yusef Karmanli, the Bashaw of Tripoli—"the least considerable of the Barbary States"—had placed "arbitrary and unreasonable demands" on the United States, which Consul Cathcart had refused to countenance. "The style of the demand admitted but one answer," the president said, so he sent a small squadron of three frigates and one support schooner to the scene, to protect American commerce against attack. "The measure," he felt, "was seasonable and salutary." The proof of that was demonstrated quickly and decisively.

Figure 5

David Trounces Goliath

The USS Enterprise engages the corsair Tripoli

enterprise and tripoli in battle

Collection of the U.S Navy

Drawing circa 1878 by Captain William Bainbridge-Hoff, a fourth-generation descendant of Commodore William Bainbridge (see Figure 4)

Captain Andrew Sterrett's vessel, partially obscured by the smoke from a broadside of six-pounders, is identifiable as a schooner by the quadrilateral fore-and-aft gaff-sails flying from the two square-rigged masts. The pirates' Tripoli, the heavier square-rigged vessel at right, has several sails in shreds, and splinters of wood have been blown from its starboard side above the waterline.

The first battle in the First Barbary War ended in a rousing victory that energized the navy, inspired Americans with patriotism and confidence in their country, and provided the navy and the nation with a new hero to cheer. Late in July of 1801, Captain Sterrett's 12-gun escort and re-supply schooner Enterprise (then usually spelled Enterprize), manned by 94 officers and crewmen, was en route to Malta to refill her water barrels and those of the frigate President. From her stern flew a British ensign, either to give the impression that it belonged to a country that had paid the bashaw of Tripoli to keep his corsairs from harassing their ships, or else to decoy some prowling corsair into a fight. On August 1 they encountered the 20-gun Tripoli, manned by a crew of 90. The Tripoli's captain fell for Sterett's deception and came alongside for a friendly chat. Sterrett quickly exchanged the Union Jack for the Stars and Stripes and initiated the fight by ordering the twenty Marines on board to open fire. The battle lasted three hours, with Sterrett successfully repelling his opponent's efforts to board him—the pirates' preferred hand-to-hand, deck-sweeping mode of assault. Twice the Tripoli's rais, or captain, Mahomet Rous, feigned surrender by lowering his colors in an attempt to entice the Americans to board him so that his men could fight it out on their own decks. Sterrett avoided that trap, too. Finally Mahomet Rous, overwhelmed by the Americans' superior seamanship and firepower, threw his flag into the sea in total surrender.

Sterrett inspected the defeated ship and found her "in a most perilous condition," having received 18 cannonballs "between wind and water." The carnage on board was dreadful. Twenty men had been killed and thirty wounded; among the latter were the captain and first lieutenant.1 Consistent with the president's orders, reiterated by Commodore Dale who was in command of the squadron, that prisoners and defeated vessels were not to be seized, Sterrett ordered his men to cut down the Tripoli's masts and throw overboard her guns and all other property of value. Then, having dismantled her of everything but a tattered old sail and a single spar, he let the Tripolitans make their way to the nearest port as best they could.

Jefferson was proud of his feisty little navy's success in its first battle of the Barbary War—and so might Lewis have been. On the first of December the president personally wrote to Lieutenant Sterrett to express the "high satisfaction" that his victory had inspired in his countrymen. "Too long, for the honor of nations," the president wrote, "have those barbarians been suffered to trample on the sacred faith of treaties, on the rights and laws of human nature!"2 A week later he expressed similar feelings to both houses of Congress: "The bravery exhibited by our citizens will, I trust, be a testimony to the world that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace, but a conscientiouis desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race, and not to its destruction."3

On the other hand, the National Intelligencer reported on June 18 that Bashaw Yusef Karamanli, enraged at Reis Mahomet Sous's failure in battle, had ordered the unfortunate pirate captain to be paraded through the streets of Tripoli on the back of a jackass to the site of his ultimate humiliation, a public bastinado.


Jolted by Yusef Karamanli's quixotic declaration of war, Congress acted quickly to give the president authority to direct his commanders to take preemptive action toward any country that declared war on the U.S. On February 6, 1802, they passed "An Act for the Protection of the Commerce and Seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan Cruisers," authorizing the president to direct the commanders of U.S. Navy ships to "seize and take prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, or to his subjects." However, the taking of "prizes," a standard policy of war, was impractical since it would have required escorting all such ships to American ports, and few if any Tripolitan vessels were seaworthy enough for that.

Figure 6

USS Constitution

frigate constitution, a ship with three masts

U.S. Navy photo, 1997

On orders from secretary of the navy Robert Smith dated July 13, 1803, a squadron of nine warships, led by the frigate Constitution, was ordered to the Mediterranean Sea to protect American merchantmen from depredations by the Barbary pirates. The Constellation, armed with 36 guns, drew nearly 14 feet of water; the Chesapeake (rated 32 guns, but carried 51) drew 20 feet, the Adams (28 guns) nearly 11 feet; the John Adams (30 guns), almost 17 feet; and the New York (36 guns), nearly 12 feet. Support vessels included the schooner Enterprise, and the brigs Vixen, Argus, Nautilus, and Siren. The squadron was commanded by Commodore James Barron; Stephen Decatur, Jr., was his first lieutenant. They were under orders not to enter the bay at Tripoli because it was too shallow in many places for ships drawing twelve feet of water or more. The squadron also included the ill-starred 36-gun Philadelphia under the command of William Bainbridge.4


Jefferson's second state-of-the-union message, delivered to Congress on December 15, 1802, contained several issues of greater moment than the shenanigans of the Barbary States. Spain's sudden closure of New Orleans to American shippers was a serious threat to international commerce, but Spain's subsequent retrocession of the entire Province of Louisiana back to France promised some improvement in that arena of foreign commerce. The president instructed James Monroe, his envoy to France, to explore the possibility of purchasing that port as well as western Florida. (Napoleon's surprising offer to sell the entire territory to the United States was in the very near future.)

Far away, in the Mediterranean Sea, the Barbary War had been under way for more than a year, and initial fears seemed somewhat diminished.

There was reason not long since to apprehend that the warfare in which we were engaged with Tripoli might be taken up by some other of the Barbary Powers. A reenforcement, therefore, was immediately ordered to the vessels already there. Subsequent information, however has removed these apprehensions for the present. To secure our commerce in that sea with the smallest force competent, we have supposed it best to watch strictly the harbor of Tripoli. Still, however, the shallowness of their coast and the want of smaller vessels on our part has permitted some cruisers to escape unobserved, and to one of these an American vessel unfortunately fell a prey.4

Subsequent events had justified the expectation that Algieria, Tunisia and Morocco would fall in line behind Tripoli. In September-October of 1802 there was a near-war with Morocco, partly as a consequence of Consul Simpson's refusal to secure permission for a Moroccan ship to break the blockade of Tripoli harbor with a cargo of wheat for Yusuf's starving people. Also, presumably to arm his new frigates, Soliman had invented a pretense for amending his 50-year treaty with the U.S., and asked Consul Simpson for 100 gun carriages—not guns, mind you, just carriages. He said he would pay for them. However, Simpson paraphrased the sultan, "should the government think well of making the Emperor of Morocco a present at this time, as a fresh proof of the friendship of the United States, . . . these carriages would be more acceptable to him than any thing else."5 Relations with Morocco were in general disarray, Soliman having impulsively declared war on the U.S., but Simpson, understanding the politics of terrorism, confided to a friend: "I hope the gun carriages will come just in time to settle every thing, at least for some years, until they think of something else to ask for."6

Jefferson's phrase, "the smallest force competent" was a signal that notwithstanding the Barbary War, and consistent with his campaign vow, he was making a serious effort to keep expenses to a minimum; "to watch strictly the harbor of Tripoli" referred to a strategic blockade. Since the Algerian trouble in 1784-5, Jefferson had wanted to organize a perpetual blockade with the collaboration of Europe's smaller nations. Most European countries were already paying tributes to the Barbary powers, so the American navy had to make do with a few passes of the entrance to the bay of Tripoli by a couple of well-armed frigates. That was effective enough, temporarily.

The American vessel that "unfortunately fell a prey" was the little 8-gun brig Franklin, captured on June 17 by a corsair that had recently slipped out of Tripoli and dodged the blockade.7 The pirates released all of the crewmen who were not Americans, and by early October the captain and three captive seamen were ransomed by Consul O'Brien for $6,500. Thus there appeared to be a need for some small shallow-draft gunboats to beef up the blockade. The would involve some expense, although, the president reminded the congressmen, "the difference in their maintenance will soon make it a measure of economy."

Filling in the blanks

Jefferson directed the publishers of Philadelphia's Aurora and Washington's National Intelligencer to mail copies of their newspapers to Lewis in care of the military posts at Cahokia or Kaskaskia in the Illinois country, for six months beginning in mid-November of 1803. We can deduce from the context of the statement in the letter that his reason was to keep Lewis informed about the status of treaty negotiations for the purchase of Louisiana, and the timelines for taking possession of the territory. Lewis sent at least three newspapers across the Mississippi to Clark at Camp Dubois on January 16, 1804, but Clark's journal entry for that date gives no hint as to any of the news they contained.8 We don't know all of the recollections of the first two years of the Barbary War Lewis might have recalled during his arduous journey to the mouth of the Columbia River and back. But he did tell us of one—the high nuisance quotient of the Barbary States.

Six days before the end of the expedition, at 11:00 on the morning of September 17, 1806, Lewis encountered his old friend Captain John McClellan and his party of traders outbound from St. Louis. Lewis wasn't journaling, but Clark wrote a perfunctory recollection of the meeting:

This gentleman an acquaintance of my friend Capt Lewis was Somewhat astonished to See us return and appeared rejoiced to meet us.    we found him a man of information and from whome we received a partial account of the political State of our Country, we were makeing enquiries and exchangeing answers &c. untill near mid night.9

He didn't see any reason to list the specific portions of the "the political State" of the country they learned of, or what questions and answers they exchanged. Lewis might have asked who won the Tripolitan war. If he didn't, then he would surely have heard some of the highlights after he reached St. Louis. If not there, then he could have gathered details little by little as he traveled eastward that fall. And we may suppose that Jefferson filled him in on more of the story when they sat down together in Washington City in January of 1807.

Figure 7

Commodore Stephen Decatur

First American War Hero

Young man wearing an officers uniform coat

From The Naval History of the United States (1886), vol. 1

Engraving by Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) of a detail from a full-length portrait made in 1814 by Thomas Sully (1783-1872)

Lewis had been out of touch with all that was going on elsewhere in his country for the past twenty-eight months. What had he missed, specifically regarding the Barbary War?

First, the grounding and abandonment of the 44-gun frigate USS Philadelphia on an uncharted reef in Tripoli harbor on October 31, 1803, and the immediate enslavement of the 300 crewmen and officers, including Captain Bainbridge.

Second, the nighttime boarding and burning of what was left of the Philadelphia by young Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. and his 60 volunteers, thereby depriving Yusuf Karamanli of what would have become the finest pirate man-of-war afloat. Decatur's daring escapade took place on January 16, but the news didn't reach Washington until mid-November.

Third, the self-commissioned "General" William Eaton, with a detail of six U.S. Marines, led a thousand-man force consisting of several hundred mercenaries, plus a large number of Tripolitan dissidents who were supporters of Yussuf's deposed and exiled brother, Hamet, on a forced march of more than 500 miles from Alexandria, Egypt, to the Tripolitan provincial capitol at Derna (today called Darnah, in Libya). Eaton and his army followed a route that more or less closely paralleled the Mediterranean's south shore, an arduous feat still memorialized today in the second phrase of the first line of The Marines' Hymn.10

There was a near-war with Morocco in late summer of 1803, when a Moroccan cruiser allegedly attacked a U.S. merchantman. In response, the frigates Constitution, New-York and John Adams (112 guns total), plus two schooners, were ordered to patrol the Moroccan coast (Figure 2).11 On November 23 the Senate authorized hostilities against Muley Soliman's gunboats, but by December 5 Jefferson could report to both houses that the sultan's "misunderstanding" had been resolved, and that crisis was past.

Finally, Lewis might at least have heard from his friend McClellan that the Barbary War was history—that the "Mahometant yoke" had at last been lifted from American shoulders. Even before he learned of Lear's success with the treaty, Jefferson had written to his old Virginia friend John Tyler that the "war" with Tripoli was merely a sideshow. Indubitably, however, it had been "seasonal and salutary." There is reason, he wrote, "to believe the example we have set, begins already to work on the dispositions of the powers of Europe to emancipate themselves from that degrading yoke. Should we produce such a revolution there, we shall be amply rewarded for what we have done."12

War Heroes

In addition, Lewis may have gotten his fill of reports about the two new battle heroes the war had produced for Americans to admire. Against all odds, "General" Eaton returned home in the summer of 1807 to the huzzahs of a grateful populace. Americans embraced him as "a bona fide flag-waving, enemy-crushing American military hero. Not since the public had enshrined Stephen Decatur for burning the Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor had anyone been raised this high."13 (Could that have been partly why Lewis complained to his good friend and confidant Mahlon, in November of 1807, that he himself "had never felt less like a hero than at the present moment"?14) Eaton's campaign to win over the state of Tripoli for America, which reached the brink of success at the gates of the provincial palace at Derna, had actually been a fiasco, a Hydra-headed farce of hair's-breadth brushes with disaster and ignominy, unexplainable goof-ups, dire misunderstandings, bureaucratic bungling, delayed supplies, misconceived military gambits, and hopeless personal indebtedness on Eaton's part.15 Clumsily but nonetheless surely, Lear snatched the victory out of Eaton's hands at the last minute by secretly negotiating an end to the Tripolitan war. That treaty, signed on the deck of the USS Constitution while standing off the bay of Tripoli, left Yusuf Karamanli in control of the state but strongly encouraged him to give up piracy.

Aside from Joel Barlow's insertion of his own gratuitous "Article 11" into the 1796 treaty with Tripoli, which was reiterated and expanded in the 1805 treaty, the shoving match that was given the legitimacy of a "war" by the Barbary pirates was not a religious crusade on the part of either Muslims or Christians. Tacitly, the Barbary states took prisoners under authority of Sur'ah 47.4 of the Qur'ãn,16 but their motivation was limited to base greed.

A Narrow Window

A ground-level view from the sidelines where Meriwether Lewis stood could have resembled a barroom brawl initiated by four unregenerate bullies intoxicated only by their own super-sized self images, flavored with avarice, and topped with insatiable appetites for power. On a less belligerent level, the whole story of this "war," plus the several ensuing tussles with fear-mongering pirates on the Barbary Coast, until the final curtain fell in 1835, reads like a scenario for an opera buffa such as Jefferson enjoyed at the Comédie-Italienne the year before he left Paris.17

Those packs of Barbary dogs were merely pseudo-political nuisances, capable of getting in other peoples' faces by day, and of keeping them awake with worry by night. They were more insidious than the cactuses that punctured the Corps of Discovery's feet in the American west. More annoying than the eye-gnats. More persistent than the mosquitoes. Much more. For a few years at least.

If Lewis had published his own edition of the journals as he promised, he might well have revised his metaphor to read "the Barbary yoke." In any case, the story of what was known by his detractors as "Jefferson's War," opens for us a narrow window on a little known but intriguing episode in Meriwether Lewis's brief hitch as the President's secretary.

1. Dispatch delivered in person by Captain Sterret to Secretary of the Navy Smith, National Intelligencer, November 18, 1801, p. 2. "Between wind and water" meant that the 18 cannonballs had penetrated the corsair's hull in the critical zone that is alternately wet and dry from the motion of the waves, and will take on water as the ship heels on first one side, then the other, while tacking into the wind. Admiral W. H Smyth, The Sailor's Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms (London: Blackie and Son, 1867), s.v. "Wind and water line."

2. Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Sterrett, December 1, 1801. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence, 1651-1827. (retrieved 20 October 2009.

3. James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Volume 1, Section 3: Thomas Jefferson.

4. The Constitution was the third of the six fast, easily maneuverable, heavily armed ships-of-the-line built at the urging of President George Washington to lead the new American Navy. She was launched at Boston on October 27, 1797, nicknamed "Old Ironsides" during the War of 1812, and today is the oldest commissioned U.S. naval vessel still afloat. Rated at 44 guns, although she often carried as many as 50, she was manned by a crew of 450 officers and enlisted men, including 55 Marines and 30 boys. United States Navy Fact File. July 7, 2007. (Retrieved October 10, 2009). Second Annual Message to Congress, Avalon Project.

5. Dateline Tangier, January 8, 1802; National Intelligencer, December 24, 1802.

6. Consul Simpson to Consul Gavino, dateline Tangier, September 27, 1802; National Intelligencer, December 27, 1802.

7. Dateline Algiers, June 30, 1802; National Intelligencer, October 6, 1802, p. 3.

8. Moulton, Journals, 2:157.

9. Ibid., 8:363.

10. Shortly after the First Barbary War ended in 1805, the words "To the Shores of Tripoli" were inscribed on the Marine Corps' Colors. Following the Marines' participation in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48, the phrase "Halls of Montezuma"—the Castle of Chapultepec—was added to their flag. The author of the Marine's Hymn is unknown, but all three stanzas of it first appeared in print in 1918; in 1929 it officially became The Marines' Hymn. The tune, with a few emendations to accommodate English prosody, is that of a song, "Couplets des Deux Hommes d'Armes" (Song of the Two Men-at-Arms), from an operetta, Geneviève de Brabant (Genevieve of Brabant) composed in 1867 by the French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).

11. National Intelligencer, December 24, 1802.

12. Jefferson to John Tyler, March 29, 1805, in Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1903), 11:69-70.

13. Richard Zacks, The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 320.

14. Meriwether Lewis to Mahlon Dickerson, November 3, 1807, in Jackson, Letters, 2:720.

15. Zacks, 331-45.

16. "Now when you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds, but thereafter [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted: thus [shall it be]. And know that had God so willed, He could indeed punish them [Himself]; but [He wills you to struggle] so as to test you [all] by means of one another."

17. Sandor Salgo, Thomas Jefferson, Musician & Violinist (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 24-25.

Originally funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program