The Tripolitan War of 1801-1805

By early 1801, the bashaw of Tripoli (Yusuf Karamanli) had become disgruntled with the United States.  America had yet to pay the $6,000 promised to him in the 1797 U.S.-Tripoli treaty and he felt that the United States treated Algiers and Tunis with more respect.  The bashaw repudiated the 1797 treaty and demanded a lump sum of $225,000 plus $20,000 each year.  The new president, Thomas Jefferson, called this request “groundless & insolent” and, in a humorous understatement, added that America’s answer was “sent by the squadron.”[1]

The Tripolitan War, the first U.S. war that occurred beyond North America, lasted from 1801-1805.  The U.S. Navy imposed a blockade upon Tripoli (with mixed success) and had occasional skirmishes against Tripolitan ships.  However, Jefferson did not sent a sufficient number of ships to subdue Tripoli.  The Tripolitan War plodded on.

The Burning of the U.S. Frigate Philadelphia; reproduced from an aquatint engraved by F. Kearney, 1 August, 1808.

A huge setback occurred on October 31, 1803, when the frigate Philadelphia crashed on a sandbar (while in pursuit of a Tripolitan ship) and efforts to free it failed.  Captain William Bainbridge surrendered the frigate and the crew of 307 became hostages for the duration of the conflict (although five men gained their freedom by converting to Islam, known as “Turning Turk”).  The officers received comfortable lodging and could walk about the town, but the ordinary seamen lived in a squalid prison and did hard labor.  For a sense of the different experiences of officers and seamen, see these two captivity narratives:  Jonathan Cowdery’s American Captives in Tripoli and William Ray’s Horrors of Slavery.  Both are printed in Paul Baepler’s White Slaves, African Masters:  An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives.

In one of the most dramatic events in U.S. naval history, on the night of February 16, 1804 Captain Stephen Decatur and led a crew of seventy to set ablaze and destroy the captured ship Philadelphia by lighting it on fire (see the above picture).  They thereby prevented the Tripolitans from using the ship against American ships.

Attacks on Tripoli, 3 August 1804; from a painting by M.F. Cornè in the Maine Historical Society.

America’s reputation throughout the western world soared following the burning of the Philadelphia and the August 1804 naval battles.  British Admiral Lord Nelson lauded Decatur’s nighttime raid as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”  Pope Pius VII lionized Captain Edward Preble, proclaiming that “with a small force and in a short space of time, [he] has done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages.”

© New Content and Website 2011, 2015


[1] Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Foster, 6 June 1801, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 2007, 34:  267.


  • joe

    This is an older post of yours I understand, but I was wondering what information you came across about the possible constitutional questions that arose in this era due to an engagement of a foreign military without a declaration of war, though I believe, congress authorized Jefferson to act to protect American interests there?

    • jasonthebarbarypirate

      Hi there. Good question! Congress supported Jefferson’s decision to dispatch the navy to the Mediterranean. Although Congress never declared war against Tripoli, Congress passed legislation (known as the Mediterranean Fund) to finance the overseas conflict. It consisted of a 2.5% tax on certain imported goods. Controversy emerged over the continuance of the Mediterranean Fund in late 1805 and 1806. The conflict with Tripoli had ended, but new tensions with Tunis had arisen and Jefferson did not want to recall the navy from the Mediterranean.

      • Joe

        Thanks thats good information, I just was reading through and wondering if this situation presented somewhat of a conflict with Jefferson being the first Republican president and the ending of the federalists control of the Presidency.

        • tom

          remember history ,,, in the early and middle 1800’s and before, the republicans were the same as our democrats today,, not sure exactly when roles reversed,, but remember what mark twain said: if voting truly made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it,,,

          • jasonthebarbarypirate

            Hello, thanks for commenting. The current Republican Party began in the 1850s. In the 1790s and early 1800s, Jefferson’s party was known as the Democratic-Republicans– but they were the forerunners of the Democratic Party that emerged in the late 1820s (with Andrew Jackson as its spokesman).

          • Isaac Algazi

            The philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and any associated “party” had nothing to do with the philosophy of today’s Democrat party. To suggest they are the same, or even similar, is insulting and patently not true.

  • James

    If I were going to cite this with an MLA format who would I say published this?