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The Jihad of America’s Founding Fathers

Why is the tension between the United States and the Muslim world far from a recent development?

Takeaways


  • Americans inherited an understanding of the Muslim world from the Europeans, but chose to pursue this enemy even more relentlessly than the Europeans had done.
  • The American encounter with the Muslim world actually began before there was a United States.
  • It represented a struggle between what came to be called "civilization" — and what the newly civilized world would define as "barbarism."
  • Pope Pius VII said the Americans had done more in a few years than the rest of Christendom had done in centuries.

Editor’s note: As evidenced by the debate over U.S. involvement in Libya and by congressional hearings about Islamic extremism, relations between the United States and the Muslim world have become increasingly tense in recent weeks. Robert Allison provides a historical perspective by tracing U.S.-Muslim relations all the way back to the 18th century.

The American encounter with the Muslim world actually began before there was a United States. And it almost occurred before Europeans ever became aware that America existed.

When the Christian kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, located in today’s Spain, conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada back in 1492, their most Christian majesties Isabella and Ferdinand realized an important goal. They finally had the extra capital to pay for Columbus’s voyage to the Orient — or so they presumed.

But however important this particular voyage would be to the history of the United States, the motives of Ferdinand and Isabella were quite political in nature. They hoped that by securing a new route to the Indies, they would find a new source of revenues to pay for a long-lasting venture — their continuing holy war against the Muslims.

By that time, the Muslims had already been driven back from Spain’s territory into Morocco and Algiers. As it turns out, even beyond Spain itself, 16th-century Europeans would remain more interested in driving the Ottoman Turks — then the rulers of the Muslim world — out of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe than they would be in colonizing the Americas.

In fact, John Smith (1580-1631), before he turned his attention to America, where he became a founder of the first colony at Jamestown, fought the Turks in Eastern Europe and was briefly captured by the Pacha of Nalbrits, the ruler of a European principality.

This may have been the first “American” encounter with a Muslim tyrant, but it would not be the last.

In 1625, Morocco captured an American ship. And 20 years later, a ship built in Cambridge, Massachusetts — with a crew from that colony — defeated an Algerian ship at sea. The writer James Fenimore Cooper would later call this event the first American naval battle.

And in 1673, when Britain and Algiers were at war, the Algerians captured a ship from New York. Churches in that city raised money to redeem their sailors.

The skirmishes continued. At the close of the 17th century, Joshua Gee, a sailor from Massachusetts, was held captive in Sallee, Morocco. When he got home to Boston, he was an instant celebrity. He wrote the story of his captivity and redemption — and Boston clergyman Cotton Mather (1663-1728) celebrated his deliverance with a sermon.

All of these episodes are important — but they must be considered as part of a larger struggle. It did not end when the Ottoman Turks were driven from the gates of Vienna — or when their navy was beaten at Lepanto.

It was more than a struggle for trade routes or territory. Americans at the time saw these episodes as part of the contest between Christians and Muslims — and between Europeans and Turks or Moors.

Ultimately, it represented a struggle between what came to be called “civilization” — and what the newly civilized world would define as “barbarism.”

The Americans inherited this understanding of the Muslim world from the Europeans, but chose to pursue this enemy even more relentlessly than the Europeans had done. By the end of the 18th century, the so-called Barbary states of North Africa — Algiers, Morocco, Tunis and Tripoli — made piracy on the seas a principal source of their income.

However, their acts of piracy threatened only nations with little means for naval defense, such as Denmark, Sweden, the states of Italy — and the United States. On the other hand, England or France, which were formidable seapowers, cunningly turned the Barbary states into tools of their own behalf.

The British, Dutch and French could all afford to pay Algiers, Tubis and Tripoli to avoid attacks on their own commercial ships. This left the Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and U.S. ships badly exposed.

It thus does not come as a big surprise that the British were quick to inform Algiers when the United States became independent. As a consequence, in 1785 Algiers captured two American ships — and 11 more in 1793.

These captures created problems for young America’s political leaders such as John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who was U.S. minister to France in 1785, immediately proposed war. He said taking this step would prove to both the states of Africa and Europe that the United States was a new kind of nation, which would not play the crafty games of European power politics, including bribery.

Meanwhile, John Adams thought the United States — like the Europeans — should pay tribute to Algiers. Peace would be less expensive than war, Adams believed. He was also convinced that paying tribute to the Algerians and Tripolitans was simply the price of doing business in the Mediterranean.

At the time, Adams won the argument over Thomas Jefferson. And once U.S. relations with Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were smoothed by treaty, President Adams sent consuls to the Barbary states.

These consuls had dual roles — as diplomats and independent businessmen. In the latter role, they would supplement their meager salaries through their own commercial enterprise. They ended up bickering with one another — and could not see that their own commercial interests were different from their country’s interest.

The War on Tripoli and the U.S. Marines

One of the most famous U.S. military hymns, the hymn of the U.S. Marine Corps — a specialized fighting unit which is usually the first to enter contested territory — actually begins with describing the 1805 Tripoli war. The marines sing:

“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,
we fight our country’s battles
in the air, on land and sea.”

The “halls of Montezuma” in those lines refer to the 1847 occupation of Mexico City and the Castle of Chapultepec, otherwise known as the “Halls of Montezuma.”

Meanwhile, the “shores of Tripoli” refer to the war with Tripoli, in which the Marine Corps captured the Derne fortress and hoisted the American flag overseas for the first time in history.

Instead of preserving American peace in the Mediterranean, this policy brought on the war with Tripoli, which lasted from 1800 to 1805. It was principally fought over the U.S. refusal to pay money to the pasha of Tripoli to obtain immunity from raids.

This war with Tripoli carried great ideological importance for the Americans. In essence, they imagined themselves doing what the nations of Europe had been unable or unwilling to do — beating the forces of Islamic despotism and piracy.

This war proved to Americans their real status as a nation — and affirmed that theirs was to be a different kind of nation. It was different both from the nations of Europe, which were content to pay tribute to the Barbary states, as well as from the Muslim states. The latter were ravaged by their rulers — and torn apart by their impoverished and savage people.

For the Americans, this war had a significance far beyond military objectives. Pope Pius VII (1740-1823) said the Americans had done more in a few years than the rest of Christendom had done in centuries. They had humbled the Muslim states of North Africa. The war against Tripoli was meant to do this, but it was also meant as a lesson to Europe.

The Americans had proved that they would behave better than the Europeans, that they would not stoop to the demands of Tripoli — or use the Barbary states to drive their own competitors from the sea. In the end, the war with Tripoli inspired the American people with a renewed sense of their mission and destiny.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from “The Crescent Obscured,” which was originally published in 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Robert J. Allison. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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About Robert J. Allison

Robert J. Allison is a professor of history at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts.

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