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The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World

The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World

4.0 1
by Lambert
The history of America's conflict with the piratical states of the Mediterranean runs through the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison; the adoption of the Constitution; the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812; the construction of a full-time professional navy; and, most important, the nation's halting steps toward commercial independence.


The history of America's conflict with the piratical states of the Mediterranean runs through the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison; the adoption of the Constitution; the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812; the construction of a full-time professional navy; and, most important, the nation's halting steps toward commercial independence. Frank Lambert's genius is to see in the Barbary Wars the ideal means of capturing the new nation's shaky emergence in the complex context of the Atlantic world. Depicting a time when Britain ruled the seas and France most of Europe, The Barbary Wars proves that America's earliest conflict with the Arab world was always a struggle for economic advantage rather than any clash of cultures or religions.

About the Author:
Frank Lambert teaches history at Purdue University

Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
Since September 11, politicians and pundits looking for historical precedents have turned to the United States' first sustained encounter with Muslim states: the effort to stop piracy by North Africans. In this useful introduction, Lambert puts the Barbary wars into the broader context of U.S. efforts to reshape and participate in the Atlantic trading order in the years between the Treaty of Paris that recognized American independence in 1783 and the final failure of Napoleon's ambitions in 1815. Trade at the time was seen largely in terms of concessions and privileges rather than universal laws and natural rights. Independence from Britain exposed U.S. commerce to the full range of mercantilist restrictions on trade, as well as to the depredations of the North African raiders. The engagements with the Barbary pirates were part of the larger struggle to establish the United States' place in the international order of the day. For those in search of lessons for today, Lambert's crisp and readable narrative makes clear that it took a combination of patient diplomacy, military force, and good luck to make the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds safe for U.S. commerce. One suspects that all three factors are needed again now.
Library Journal
Lambert (history, Purdue Univ.; The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America) argues that the Barbary Wars were an American struggle for the exercise of free trade rather than a battle between faiths or cultures, as they have been portrayed in other recent accounts seeking parallels with current American-Muslim entanglements. Lambert describes a United States separately embroiled with the armies of the French and the British and hampered by its virtual lack of a navy. As Lambert adeptly shows, the Barbary Wars changed all that. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“For those in search of lessons for today, Lambert's crisp and readable narrative makes clear that it took a combination of patient diplomacy, military force, and good luck to make the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds safe for U.S. commerce. One suspects that all three factors are needed again now.” —Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

“Does an excellent job of placing the Barbary Wars within the context of their time.” —The Roanoke Times

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:

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The Barbary Wars

American Independence in the Atlantic World

By Frank Lambert

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 Frank Lambert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8090-9533-9



In August 1785, shortly after the Algerine attacks on the Maria and Dauphin, John Adams reflected on the state of American independence from his diplomatic post in London. In a letter to John Jay, he confided, "I find the spirit of the times very different from that which you and I saw ... in the months of November and December, 1783"—that is, just after Britain recognized the United States as a sovereign state. Then expectations were high that the two nations would prosper under reciprocal trade agreements. But alas, a very different climate prevailed just two years after the Treaty of Paris. "Now," Adams continued, "the utmost contempt of our commerce is freely expressed in pamphlets, gazettes, coffee-houses, and in common street talk." Rather than becoming America's main trading partner, Britain had reinstated and even reinforced trade regulations through navigation acts that blocked the United States from lucrative markets and extorted high tariffs in others. At the same time, Algiers declared war on American shipping. After independence, instead of becoming an equal partner in the Atlantic world, the United States was again a dependent—subjugated by British trade restrictions and defenseless against the Barbary pirates.

Americans viewed the pirates as vestiges of an unenlightened and vanishing time when depredations of the powerful, not the rule of law, dictated the rhythms of trade. American independence promised to usher in a novus ordo seclorum, a new age that would transform the "tribute-demanding" Atlantic into a free-trade zone. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many of his countrymen when he envisioned an end to the old mercantilist system. "I would say then to every nation on earth," Jefferson declared just a week before the Algerines captured the Boston schooner Maria, "your people shall trade freely with us, and ours with you, paying no more than the most favoured nation, in order to put an end to the right of individual states acting by fits and starts to interrupt our commerce or to embroil us with any nation." Free trade would help everyone, Americans argued, expanding the overall volume of commerce so greatly that an individual country would benefit from even a modest share. Such reasoning made no sense to the Barbary pirates. They too subscribed to the notion of a zero-sum game: there was a fixed amount of trade available, and thus what one country gained was always at the expense of another.

While American merchants and Barbary pirates confronted each other from very different orientations, neither controlled the arena in which they clashed. In the 1780s both parties were on the margins of an Atlantic world dominated by the great European maritime powers. To understand the Barbary Wars, therefore, it is necessary to consider American-Barbary relations within the larger context of the Atlantic world and the aims of those who wished to keep the renegades from North Africa and the upstarts from North America on its fringes. Events need to be viewed from London as well as from Algiers and Philadelphia. One example will suffice. In late 1784 and early 1785, while deploying a naval squadron to patrol the Mediterranean and thereby protect His Majesty's shipping, the British circulated reports that the Algerines had captured an American ship and planned to seize others. Though the reports proved groundless, the damage to American shipping was real and immediate. One Henry Martin explained to Jefferson, "In consequence of these reports, the underwriters at Lloyds will not insure an American Ship to Cadiz or Lisbon for less than 25 percent whereas the customary insurance for English vessels is no more than 1¼ or 1½ percent and therefore no American Ship has any chance of getting freight either to Spain or Portugal." America and the Barbary States confronted each other in the shadows of the Union Jack.

While they were still under British rule, American merchants had been expected to operate within a closed colonial system of trade that funneled imperial wealth and profits into the City of London, thereby enhancing the crown's geopolitical power. But during the tumultuous decades leading to England's civil war in the 1640s, colonial commerce received very little attention from Whitehall. Colonial traders took advantage of the upheaval, selling their produce in non-English markets, including those of England's chief Atlantic rivals, Spain and France. With the downfall of the British monarchy in 1649 and the dismantling of the House of Lords, domestic politics, not colonial trade, predominated in Commonwealth England. Scores of factions tried to shape England's future course, from royalists who wished to restore the Stuarts to the throne to radicals who wanted to abolish ancient privileges, thus leveling English society. The Navigation Acts of 1650–51 represented the sole attempt during the Commonwealth period to ensure that the colonies remained "subordinate to Parliament" and that "all colonial trade ... [was] carried in English ships," but inadequate enforcement allowed the colonists to evade the measures. Then, when the royalists triumphed and brought Charles II back from exile in 1660, the cash-strapped monarch was determined to collect all royal revenues, including colonial duties imposed by the Navigation Acts.

Committed to mercantilist doctrines, the Restoration court at Whitehall refocused attention on international trade, including that of the American colonies. While earlier monarchs had granted monopolies to individual companies for the purpose of exploiting trade in a given region of the world, Charles II sought a "total integration of the country's trade based on national monopoly, with the state playing a leading role." While in practice the British mercantilist system was never as integrated as Charles II wished, it nonetheless circumscribed the markets open to colonial merchants.

That American merchants wished to be freed from imperial trade restraints well before the revolution is evident in their repeated attempts to develop illicit commerce with non-British ports and to smuggle goods past British customs officials. New England traders in particular were notorious violators of the Navigation Acts. After the Restoration, Charles II and his Privy Council observed that Massachusetts Bay officials regarded the colony as a "free State" subject only to laws of their own making. To bring New England into compliance, the Privy Council dispatched agents to gather intelligence on trade violations and to warn perpetrators that His Majesty was determined to enforce commercial regulations. They had their work cut out for them. In his 1676 report to Secretary of State Sir Joseph Williamson, agent Captain John Wynbourne noted that in Boston Harbor ships "dayly arrived from Spain ffrance Holland & Canareys" loaded with goods that were to have been imported only from England. And outgoing American ships carried enumerated commodities to Europe, ignoring provisions in the Navigation Acts to transport colonial crops only to England.

Agent Edward Randolph's similar dispatch of June 17, 1676, described a colony pursuing independence in religion, governance, and trade. Like Wynbourne, he found Boston Harbor teeming with European ships, "contrary to the late Acts of Parliament for encouraging Navigation and trade." And as they had with Wynbourne, Boston officials struck an independent, if not defiant, tone in explaining their actions. Randolph reported that Governor John Leverett "freely declared to me that the Laws made by Our King and Parlmt obligeth them in nothing but what consists with the Interest of New England."

For all of their evasion of the Navigation Acts, colonial merchantmen depended on the British for protection against pirates and privateers. Algerine pirates routinely preyed on British and colonial vessels, capturing ships and their cargoes while enslaving their crews. They then demanded tribute for cessation of future depredations and ransom for release of the captives. English monarchs had long concluded that it was less costly to pay tribute than to fight. Besides, they found the Barbary States useful tools in English commercial policy, as pirates became willing raiders on Britain's trading rivals who did not pay tribute. It meant a constant state of negotiation and threat, with the Barbary powers hoping always to increase tribute payments and the British hoping to strike a balance of economic and diplomatic cost-effectiveness. It was under this largely reliable umbrella that colonial American merchantmen passed safely through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, sometimes escorted by British warships and always carrying the prescribed passes.

By the 1760s, however, even loyal colonial merchants were reappraising their position within British mercantilism. Following the expensive French and Indian War, the British Parliament imposed a round of new taxes designed to raise revenue from the colonists and strengthened provisions for enforcing trade regulations. Parliament hoped that the Revenue Act of 1764, often referred to as the Sugar Act, would generate an additional forty thousand pounds sterling by placing duties on a number of foreign goods much demanded by the colonists, including coffee, sugar, and wine. It also contained new regulations concerning the loading and unloading of ships in American ports designed to assist customs collectors in detecting smuggling. Its most controversial feature was the duty on foreign molasses. Under the existing schedule of duties, the rate was six pence per gallon, but colonists routinely evaded its payment by smuggling molasses into the colonies from the French West Indies. By reducing the new rate to three pence per gallon, George Grenville, the king's chief minister and architect of the new tax, hoped the lower rate would make the tax more palatable to colonists and that their greater compliance would result in increased royal revenue. Colonists, however, protested the measure, viewing the lower duty as a bribe aimed at enticing them to pay the tax and thereby acknowledge Parliament's taxing authority.

Convinced that the act would cripple colonial trade, especially that with the West Indies, the Loyalist merchant and planter James Habersham of Georgia chose to lecture British lawmakers. In a letter to Georgia's agent William Knox, Habersham urged him to work "in concert with any Agent or Agents of the northern provinces" to protest the act, "as particularly affects the Trade of this province." He acknowledged that the act did not harm Georgia "in so great a degree as some of the Northern Colonys," yet he explained that Georgians had long exported lumber, horses, and cattle to the West Indies, a trade that had "principally been the Means, whereby most of the Inhabitants have acquired the little property they possess." Because Georgia planters and merchants owned few vessels, the majority of the exports had been carried on sailing vessels of northern registries that in return brought "a few Negroes and sometimes Cash." Although the Georgia produce often constituted a small portion of the ship's cargo, according to Habersham this "growing commerce promised the greatest advantage to us."

The following year Parliament proposed the Stamp Act; the new taxes and regulations could not have come at a worse time. Still suffering from the recession that followed the French and Indian War, merchants throughout the colonies protested the measure and all other acts restricting American trade. A group of four hundred Philadelphia merchants complained in a November broadside "that the many difficulties [we] now labour under as a Trading People, are owing to the Restrictions, Prohibitions, and ill advised Regulations, made in the several Acts of Parliament of Great-Britain, lately passed to regulate the Colonies; which have limited the Exportation of some Part of our Country Produce, increased the Cost and Expence of many Articles of our Importation, and cut off from us all Means of supplying ourselves with Specie." This in turn left them unable to pay down their enormous debts to British merchants. Free access to world markets, the protesters argued, would benefit Anglo-American merchants on both sides of the Atlantic.

But far from granting the colonists more commercial freedom, Parliament in 1767 imposed the Townshend duties on a wide range of colonial imports, further tightening Britain's noose around colonial trade. The incensed Americans responded by waging commercial warfare. Reasoning that Britain was a country whose economic lifeblood was trade and recognizing that the American colonies were Britain's largest single market, the increasingly rebellious colonists decided to deny that market through nonimportation agreements. Beginning in Boston and spreading elsewhere, Americans entered into solemn associations, pledging to import no goods from Britain except a few essentials until Parliament repealed the offending duties.

Propagandists whipped up support by depicting the boycott as consistent with the loftiest republican principles. Borrowed from British political history, republicanism was a set of ideas formulated by opponents of arbitrary power. First expressed in the Commonwealth period following England's civil war, it was revived in the 1720s when England's first prime minister, Robert Walpole, consolidated Parliament's power. Republicans feared centralized power in the hands of placemen, officeholders who did the bidding of others. Such vicious men put private gain above the public good; in consolidating their grip on power, the argument went, they raised taxes to support a swollen court and, the republicans' bête noire, a standing army. Republicans opposed such measures in the name of freedom. Taxes, they argued, threatened property, and property represented the foundation of political independence. If a person owned land or if he operated a profitable mercantile house, his economic independence allowed him to vote his conscience. To protect that sacred status, republicans advocated vigilance and virtue: vigilance to detect any ministerial grab for additional power and virtue to resist the temptation to sacrifice civic good for private gain.

Nonimportation went against merchants' instincts. They were in business to make profits by importing and exporting goods, and the idea of letting their ships rot alongside quays lined with empty warehouses was difficult to embrace. For those who obeyed the Continental Association, as the boycott was called, forgoing personal gain was an act of patriotism. No one was a greater champion of American overseas commerce than Alexander Hamilton, yet he supported the measure as a means of freeing the colonists from imperial slavery. "We can live without trade of any kind," he wrote, adding, "Food and clothing we have within ourselves." Traders unwilling to make the sacrifice found themselves beset by angry republicans who tarred and feathered them for ignoring the boycott of English manufactures.

For many New England merchants, the Tea Act of 1773 represented the culmination of a long chain of trade abuses they suffered at the hands of the mother country. While the three-pence-per-pound tax sparked new popular protests of "taxation without representation," the law's provisions represented to American merchants commercial slavery. Aimed at bailing out the East India Company, the bill authorized that company to sell its tea directly to American consumers through agents of its choosing. Moreover, by granting the company drawbacks or refunds of British duties on tea imported from the East Indies, Parliament enabled it to undersell colonial merchants who had purchased tea from high-priced middlemen or had smuggled it from Dutch suppliers. With the Tea Act, British restriction of markets reached the colonies themselves; Parliament would determine who could sell the colonists their tea and at what terms. How, asked patriot merchants locked out of a key market at home, could continued dependence on Parliament be termed anything other than slavery?

When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, the delegates identified trade restrictions as the first chains that enslaved the colonists. Addressing Parliament on behalf of the Congress, John Jay cited the new imperial measures enacted since the end of the French and Indian War as the final step in a "plan for enslaving your fellow subjects in America." But even before those odious acts, Jay wrote, Parliament through the Navigation Acts had systematically drawn "from us the wealth produced by our commerce." "You restrained our trade in every way that could conduce to your emolument," he charged Parliament, and "you exercised unbounded sovereignty over the sea. You named the ports and nations to which alone our merchandise should be carried, and with whom alone we should trade."


Excerpted from The Barbary Wars by Frank Lambert. Copyright © 2005 Frank Lambert. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frank Lambert teaches history at Purdue University and is the author of The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, Inventing the "Great Awakening," and Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770.

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