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