The Barbary Wars American Independence in the Atlantic World

Frank Lambert

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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American independence was secured from Britain on September 3, 1783. On October 11, 1784, the American merchant ship Betsy was captured by Salle Rovers, state-sponsored pirates operating out of the ports of Morocco. Algerine pirates quickly seized two more American ships: the boats were confiscated, their crews held captive, and ransom demanded of the fledgling American government.

The history of America's conflict with the piratical states of the Barbary Coast 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 haltering steps toward commercial independence. Frank Lambert captures 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 America's earliest conflict with the Arab world was always a struggle for economic advantage rather than any clash of cultures or religions.


Praise for The Barbary Wars

"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."—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"As Frank Lambert has written in his magisterial book on the topic, The Barbary Wars, the conflict with North African pirates was more a 'sideshow' than the threat to 'America's survival.'"—Chicago Tribune

"[A] concise overview of the centuries-long depredations of the state-sponsored pirates of Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli, who not only seized ships but enslaved their crews."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"[Lambert] does an excellent job of placing the Barbary Wars within the context of their time."—The Roanoke Times

"Frank Lambert's new book is a lucid and compelling account of the new American nation's first confrontation with the Muslim world. Lambert situates struggle against North African 'pirates' within the broader context of America's quest for free trade and commercial independence, countering the anachronistic tendency of recent historians to inflate the significance of religious and cultural differences. The Barbary Wars is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the new nation's troubled early history."—Peter Onuf, University of Virginia

"In this slim and eminently readable volume, author Frank Lambert makes a case for the Barbary Wars as the first true test of American Independence. Lambert, whose previous works deal with early American religious history, goes to great lengths to show that these disputes between North African Muslims and North American Christians were rooted in economics issues, and not in religious or cultural ones . . . Lambert skillfully addresses the American-Barbary disputes in the context of a wider Atlantic and international realm, giving a richly detailed and highly nuanced appreciated for the dizzying array of events that marked Mediterranean and North African history from the Crusades through the eighteenth century . . . The Barbary Wars is an important contribution to the fields of Atlantic and Early American history. Do not be fooled by the thinness of the volume; this is a weighty and much-needed corrective to the historiography of American relations with the Muslim world. Where others see the conflict as rooted in economic terms. Furthermore, his assertion that the conflict is best understood in the light of larger issues—the Napoleonic Wars, for example—allows the reader to better grasp the nuances of an often misunderstood chapter in American foreign relations. Lambert's sober reasoning and crisp writing allows him to use the particular events of the Barbary Wars to illustrate larger generalities in American and Atlantic history. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World is a treatment that deserves a wide—and guarantees an engaged—readership."—Timothy G. Lynch, H-Net Reviews

"Lambert 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."—Library Journal

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The Barbary Wars

In August 1785, shortly after the Algerine attacks on the Maria and Dauphin, John Adams reflected on the state of American independence from...

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  • Frank Lambert

  • Frank Lambert teaches history at Purdue University and is the author of The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in American, Inventing the "Great Awakening," and "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 17371770.