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The United States and the Barbary Pirates: Adventures in Sexuality, State-Building, and Nationalism, 1784-1815

  • Author(s): Zeledon, Jason
  • Advisor(s): Cohen, Patricia;
  • Majewski, John
  • et al.

Throughout the first three decades of its independence, the United States constantly experienced conflicts with the Barbary pirates. Indeed, weathering a hostage crisis or waging war against Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, or Tunis was commonplace from 1784 to 1815. Of these thirty-two years, twenty-five of them featured a serious conflict with the Barbary States. The majority of works about the Barbary conflicts focus on events in North Africa: the experiences of the American captives, the frustrations of the diplomats, the excitement of battles, and the courageous actions of naval and military officers. This manuscript reorients our attention to the United States and reveals the greater significance of the Barbary conflicts. They powerfully shaped the cultural and political development of the early U.S. republic and changed the way policymakers, newspaper editors, and the public saw their country’s place in the world.

In the 1780s, problems with the Barbary pirates contributed to the movement to abolish the Articles of Confederation and create the Constitution. Also, American perceptions of North African men changed from the 1780s to 1790s: from fierce adversaries to effeminate pushovers. During the Tripolitan War of 1801-1805, both political parties (Federalists and Democratic-Republicans) believed that much was at stake for themselves—they were fighting for the public’s trust in their vision for keeping Americans safe from Barbary piracy. When the navy did win battles, Federalist and Democratic-Republican newspaper editors alike claimed credit for their party while denigrating their rivals as unpatriotic and not concerned with the public good. Also, although fought 5,000 miles away in the Mediterranean, the Tripolitan War was enormously popular and made a sizable cultural impact. After negligently running the war against Tripoli, President Thomas Jefferson mishandled another conflict, with Tunis. He controversially used federal funds to cover the travel and living expenses of Tunisian Ambassador Sidi Soliman Mellimelli and was ultimately outmatched in negotiations for peace and a new treaty. Another war in the Mediterranean (against Algiers) occurred during the presidency of James Madison, who learned from Jefferson’s mistakes and accomplished what policymakers had striven for since the 1780s: the subjugation of the Barbary pirates. By obtaining congressional support at the outset and by sending an overwhelming force to the Mediterranean, Madison obtained a fast and decisive victory and prevented Federalists from raising any viable challenge to his leadership. This manuscript concludes with an examination of the historical memory of the Tripolitan War, Mellimelli mission, and Algerine War.

In making new arguments, this manuscript examines a plethora of primary sources written by Americans, North Africans, and the British and especially draws upon newspapers found via the online databases Early American Newspapers Series I & II and Nineteenth-Century U.S. Newspapers. Newspapers reveal exciting new voices and information, as they contain editorials, letters not found in published collections, advertisements for cultural events, transcriptions of speeches, toasts given at public events, poems, and election campaign ads. Altogether, this manuscript reveals how America’s conflicts with the Barbary pirates during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries affected the development of political parties, ideas about gender and race, and nationalism within the United States.

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