History Timeline 1800s

Indian petroglyphs mentioned in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Nemaha River, Troy, Kansas. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Historic New Orleans wharf scene along the Mississippi River. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1800s

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  • 1801 Detail

    May 10, 1801 - Tripoli declares war against the United States. The United States had refused to pay additional tribute to commerce raiding corsairs from Arabia.

    Barbary War


    It was a war against pirates. It was a war against Tripoli. It was a war against Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first war of the United States against an African nation. To think of the United States in the years between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the War of 1812, we tend to forget that relationships with other nations, or subsets within nations, were ongoing beyond the tensions with Great Britain. There had been government sanctioned piracy in the sea for three centuries by the nations of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco. Captives were often made into slaves, if a reward for their release was not given. Individual treaties were signed with Tunis, Algiers, and Morroco. In 1797, the United States made a treaty with Tripoli and their leader, Joseph Karamanli. But there was a problem. Karamanli, the bashar of Tripoli, now the nation of Libya, didn't like it, primarily because it did not include a yearly stipend. So on May 10, 1801, he chopped down the American flagpole outside his castle, annulled it, and declared war.

    Karamanli demanded newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson send a gift; $225,000 now and $25,000 per year. He thought that since the protection of the European powers (England before the end of the American Revolution and France during that conflict) were no longer protecting American interests, that he could extract further money. Jefferson disagreed. Since the Treaty of Tripoli had been signed in 1797, frigates had been built by the new United States of America and the Navy formed. Jefferson thought that military power was a better deterrent to the pirate attacks than sending continued tributes. It had been his thought even before taking office. Prior to Jefferson knowing of Karamanli's declaration of war, he had sent a squadron of three frigates and one schooner toward the Mediterranean Sea. The squadron leader, Commodore Richard Dale, was to offer gifts and peace with Jefferson's letter of May 21, 1801 attached, starting such, but if war had been declared, to defend themselves.


    Jefferson's Letter to Karamanli, May 21, 1801


    From Thomas Jefferson to Yusuf Qaramanli, Pasha and Bey of Tripoli, 21 May 1801. To Yusuf Qaramanli, Pasha and Bey of Tripoli, May 21. 1801.

    Great & respected friend.

    The assurances of friendship which our Consul has given you, and of our sincere desire to cultivate peace and commerce with your subjects, are faithful expressions of our dispositions, and you will continue to find proofs of them in all those acts of respect & friendly intercourse which are due between nations standing as we do in the relations of peace and amity with each other. at the conclusion of our treaty with you we endeavored to prove ourselves contented with it by such demonstrations as were then satisfactory to you; and we are disposed to believe that in rendering into another language those expressions in your lre of the 25th. of May last which seem to imply expectations inconsistent with the faith of that transaction your intentions have been misconstrued. - on this supposition we renew to you sincerely assurances of our constant friendship and that our desire to cultivate peace & commerce with you continues firm and unabated.

    We have found it expedient to detach a squadron of observation into the Mediterranean sea, to superintend the safety of our commerce there & to exercise our seamen in nautical duties. we recommend them to your hospitality and good offices should occasion require their resorting to your harbours. we hope that their appearance will give umbrage to no power for, while we mean to rest the safety of our commerce on the resources of our own strength & bravery in every sea, we have yet given them in strict command to conduct themselves towards all friendly powers with the most perfect respect and good order it being the first object of our sollicitude to cherish peace and friendship with all nations with whom it can be held on terms of equality and reciprocity.

    I pray God very great and respected friend that he may have you always in his holy keeping.


    But War Had Begun


    But the letter seeking peace was moot even before it had been written. On May 10, 1801, war had been declared. By the time the United States squadron had reached their destination, Commodore Richard Dale, had no choice but to do the latter of his instructions, to defend the fleet and prepare for eventual war. However, Jefferson believed that he did not have the power to declare war himself, so he petitioned Congress for authority. While never voting officially to declare war, they gave authority for the fleet to defend themselves and sieze all goods of Tripoli.

    The war would be the first of two Barbary wars, known also as the Tripolitan War or the Barbary Coast War. It would last four years. The American ships joined the Swedish ships, blockading Tripoli. Sweden had been at war with Tripoli since 1800 and joined in the fight on the United States side. Morocco sided with Tripoli.

    On August 1, 1801, the USS Enterprise defeated the Tripoli corsair, also named Tripoli, in the first major battle. In 1802, Congress upped the President's authority to deal with the Tripolitan War, passing an act to protect the commerce and seamen of the USA against Tripoli.

    Eventually, the best ships of the United States Navy would be used in the fight; USS Argus, USS Chesapeake, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Enterprise, USS Intrepid, USS Philadelphia, USS Vixen, USS President, USS Congress, USS Essex, USS John Adams, USS Nautilus, USS Scourge, USS Syren, and USS Hornet. The U.S. would win the war by June 10, 1805 after the turning point of the war, the Battle of Derna, was won, and another treaty was signed. But that would not last either. Two years later the practice of piracy began again; another war, the Second Barbary War, would begin in 1815 after the War of 1812.

    Photo above: An 1846 lithograph painting by Currier and Ives of the bombardment of Tripoli. Photo source: Library of Congress. Below: Drawing of the USS Enterprise in battle against the Tripolitan ship Tripoli, 1878, Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. Courtesy National Archives via Wikipedia Commons. Info source: Library of Congress; Avalon Project, Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale Law School; Monticello.org; founders.archives.gov; Wikipedia Commons.


    Tripoli War




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