Category Archives: U. S. history

Coins as history

I just spent a week going through one of the big books used by coin collectors, numismatists, to grading and pricing United States coins. Oh, there are a lot of them: colonial coins, foreign coins that circulated in the United States, privately issued coins, Confederate coins, bullion coins, commemorative coins, proof coins . . . and that’s even before we get to the coins the U.S. Mint issued for circulation.

If you know what to look for, and have the background, every coin tells a story.

Take this coin, the 1876-CC twenty cent piece. Your first two questions are, “1876-CC, what does THAT mean?” and “Twenty cent piece??” Good questions.

The Federal Government was given the responsibility for issuing coins as money in the U.S. Constitution. They were supposed to be in gold and silver. And the original denominations were 1/2 cent, one cent, five cents, ten cents, quarter dollar, half dollar, dollar, quarter eagle ($2.50 in gold), half eagle, and eagle ($10 in gold). The first mint was set up in Philadelphia, and it began churning out coins in 1792. Considering the Constitution had been ratified in 1789, you can see it took a few years to get started.

There were some rules, mostly set by the Mint. The coins had to depict some representation of the goddess Liberty on the obverse (front) and an eagle on the back. (Not true for copper coins.) No living people on the face of the coins; we were not some monarchy! The coins had to carry their denomination and “United States of America.” The other mottos you associate with our money, “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” weren’t standard in the early days. The initial content was nationalistic enough. The styles of Liberty and the eagle changed every so many years, based on the whims of the Mint directors and the aesthetics of the Chief Engraver and his assistants.

The Mint struggled to put out enough coins to facilitate commerce in the United States. So sometimes new mints were established in places that either had major gold and silver strikes, or were commercial hubs, to increase the number of coins minted. There was a major silver strike out in Nevada, which is why a branch mint was established there. To do some primitive quality control, special letters were stamped into coins that came from mints other than Philadelphia. These were called mint marks. “C” had already been used for a branch mint in Charlotte, North Carolina, because of a gold strike in the 1830s, so Carson City’s mint, which was established later, got “CC” as its mint mark.

The Mint experimented with different denominations to address different needs. A three-cent piece was coined for many years when the price of a first-class postage stamp was three cents. Sensible? yeah, maybe. The twenty cent denomination takes a bit more explanation. There was frequently a shortage of small change, below a dollar. This was particularly bad in the western states and territories, which being newer had less capital and coins to start from. So some influential politicians decided that another silver coin added to the mix would be useful, especially if it were coined in quantity in the branch mints out west. And a twenty-cent piece, five to a dollar, made a certain amount of sense. So the coin was authorized, and most of them were coined in Carson City or the other western branch mint, San Francisco.

But, as you might expect, the twenty-cent piece was often mistaken for a quarter. The design was very similar, though the eagle faced in opposite directs. The twenty-cent piece was close to the same weight and size as the quarter. And so the coin quickly became unpopular. Three years of circulating coinage, two more years of coinage for collectors, and that was it. The twenty-cent piece disappeared from the Mint, from circulation, and from people’s memories.

The Carson City Branch mint endured into the 1890s, thanks to local silver mining and pressure from Nevada Congressmen. Now it’s a museum.

The 215th anniversary of Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison, decided February 24, 1803. Maybe you dimly recall this Supreme Court decision from high school history classes. Maybe you know it’s important. But why is it important, and how did it come about?

Federalist John Adams was so annoyed with Jefferson succeeding him that he left town rather than attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

For those who think of the Founding Fathers as high-minded individuals, it may be a bit of a shock to realize they could act from clearly partisan motives. The Federalists had been defeated by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party in the election of 1800. Wanting to assure continued Federalist control of the judiciary, the Federalists passed a new law to create many new judicial positions, and proceeded to fill them with their allies.

However, not all the commissions had been handed out to the new judges when the Democratic-Republicans took over. And the new Jefferson Administration refused to give the commissions to the judges in question, which meant they could not serve as judges.

Don’t recognize him? It’s William Marbury. I wouldn’t have known him, either.

William Marbury was one such disappointed individual. To get his commission, he sued James Madison, who as Secretary of State was responsible for issuing the commission, demanding it be issued to him.

Now, the justices on the Supreme Court were all Federalist appointees. If they ruled in favor of Marbury, Jefferson could claim they were part of a partisan Federalist plot against the people. If against, well, the Federalists would at least have been deprived of a judgeship. Jefferson must have felt he couldn’t lose either way.

He was in for a surprise. The Court decided 4-0 against Marbury. But in his opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the reason Marbury’s case failed was because he sued under an unconstitutional law, and that it was the right and duty of the Supreme Court to judge the constitutionality of laws under the provisions of United States Constitution. This became known as the doctrine of judicial review, and is a fundamental component of the Supreme Court’s role to this day.

Chief Justice John Marshall, and don’t mess with my opinions, sir!

Jefferson was dismayed. True, Madison wouldn’t have to release all those Federalist judicial commissions. But this decision made it clear that Federalist judges would use their power as a check on Democratic-Republicans. And from a nobler, less partisan perspective, Jefferson feared such a powerful judiciary would become a group of unchecked oligarchs.

The Supreme Court hasn’t been the only body to claim the right to determine the constitutionality of laws. Presidents from Washington to the present have done so. The states did so from the era of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (1798-99) until the Civil War . . . and not seriously since. Nor has the Supreme Court’s ability to enforce its judgments been unchallenged. But the doctrine of judicial review has survived.

Today, if constitutional issues are involved in a legal case, we expect that the Supreme Court will decide how the Constitution will be read and how it applies to the issues in question. That is why Marbury v. Madison is important.

Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure

A primer on the Electoral College

The Electoral College is frequently a mystery even to Americans who have followed many Presidential elections. This is a historical explanation of what the Electoral College is, why it came about, how it works, and some possible problems with it.

In the early years after the Revolution, the United States of America was governed by the Articles of Confederation.[i] It was an unhappy experiment. The Confederation Congress needed to get 9 of the 13 states to agree to pass any measure, and had no power to enforce its laws on the states. States failed to pay their contributions, even ones to which they had agreed, leaving the Confederation Congress broke much of the time. The situation in the states was not much better. In 1786, Massachusetts’ government seemed on the verge of toppling to a rebellion of farmers.[ii]

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)

So when the delegates from 12 of the states gathered for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, they decided to build a stronger central government. They wrestled with many controversies, and typically adopted compromises to obtain the broadest possible support. They made the new Federal Government more powerful, but split it into three branches, and made each a check on the other two.[iii] In the conflict over whether the Federal Government should represent the states or the people, they compromised and created a legislative branch, Congress, divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives, to represent the people, and another, the Senate, to represent the states.[iv] And in the conflict between being responsive to the popular will and preventing the government from being subject to momentary mob enthusiasms, they gave members of the House of Representatives only a two-year term, while giving Senators a six-year term, and having the judiciary appointed by the President subject to review by the Congress.[v]

And who did the first electors vote for? Guess!

And who did the first electors vote for? Guess!

Ah, but how was the President, the head of the executive branch, to be selected? The Constitutional Convention enacted a complex system along the lines of their previous compromises. The President would be elected, thus representing the popular will, but not directly. Instead, he would be elected by a special group of people chosen for that purpose called electors, which group we now call the Electoral College.[vi] These would be chosen by the states, giving them a role. Each state would get two electors just for being a state, just like how they get two Senators in Congress. But they would also get the same number of electors as they have Representatives in Congress, hence in proportion to their population, which gives the popular will a role once again. The electors would be the ones who would actually cast votes for the President, and also vote separately for the Vice President. Whichever candidate got a majority of the Electoral College votes would become the President and Vice President.[vii]

Over time, certain customs developed in the election of the President. Under the Constitution, legislatures determined how the electors were chosen from their state. In the early days, many legislatures did choose the electors, but over time the legislatures turned the choosing of the electors over to a popular vote. And the “winner take all” principle became the norm: whichever candidate won a plurality in each state would get all the electoral votes from that state.[viii]

The first President to need 270 electoral votes: LBJ. (He got 486.)

The first President to need 270 electoral votes: LBJ. (He got 486.)

So how does this actually work today? Each state gets as many electors as it gets Senators and Representatives in Congress. Each state gets two Senators, so each state gets two electoral votes for that. The 435 Representatives in the House are apportioned roughly by population, so each state gets electors roughly proportionate to the population.[ix] For example, California, the largest state by population, gets 53 electors because it has 53 Representatives, plus the two electors it gets for having two Senators. Wyoming, the smallest state by population, gets only one electoral vote for its one Representative, but two more for its Senators, so three in total. And there is one anomaly: the District of Columbia is represented in the Electoral College as if it were a state, so it gets three electors.[x] Hence there are 538 electors (435 + (50 x 2) + 3). For a candidate to win the Presidential election, that candidate must win over half the Electoral College votes, which means 270 are needed to win.

When you go to vote on November 8, the ballot you mark probably lists the names of the candidates, but you are actually voting for the slate of electors in your state that have been nominated by each candidate’s party to pledge their votes for that candidate. The candidate who wins a plurality in each state wins all that state’s electoral votes, which is to say that candidate’s electoral slate is deemed the winner.[xi]

Congress counting the Electoral College ballots in 1877 (which actually was a complicated mess, but for reasons not germane to this article)

Congress counting the Electoral College ballots in 1877 (which actually was a complicated mess, but for reasons not germane to this article)

Once the appropriate state official certifies the vote, and hence the election of the winning electors, those electors gather at the state capital to cast their votes, which are then certified by state officials and carried to Washington, D.C. There in January, the new Congress will count the Electoral College votes and declare the winners of the Presidential and Vice Presidential elections.

Simple. Even though the President isn’t officially elected until the Electoral College votes are counted by Congress in January, we’ll almost certainly know the day after people vote in November who won.

But what if something goes wrong? There are three perfectly legal problems that could cause the Electoral College to fail.

The first and biggest problem with the Electoral College is that a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose in the Electoral College. There are two reasons why this can happen. First, the Electoral College rewards winning in small states disproportionately to winning in large states, because small states have their weight in the Electoral College increased above their population thanks to the two electors they get just for being states (corresponding to the number of Senators they have). Second, the winner-take-all system of awarding all the electoral votes of a state to the winning candidate means a candidate can barely eke out a popular vote majority in just enough states to win the Electoral College, while being thoroughly trounced in the other states.

Between losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College through a controversial Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush had legitimacy problems early in his Presidency.

Between losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College through a controversial Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush had legitimacy problems early in his Presidency.

It’s happened three times: in 1876, 1888, and 2000, the candidate who won a plurality of the popular vote lost in the Electoral College to an opponent who had gathered a majority in the Electoral College.[xii]

There’s not much that can be done about this. It’s part of the design of the Electoral College. But in these more democratic times, when we feel the will of the people should be the final word, results like these undermine the legitimacy of the Presidential election process and the Presidency.

The second problem is that, while the electors are typically chosen from loyal party members who cast their ballots as directed, sometimes electors don’t vote the way they’ve been instructed by the voters and their parties. It’s only happened occasionally, as recently as 2004, but has never influenced an election’s outcome yet.[xiii] Still, such votes are legal and irreversible. Oh, some states have passed laws binding electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote, but the Constitution recognizes no such constraints on an elector’s vote. The authors of the Constitution looked at the electors as being local wise men who would vote for a reputable statesman, not party hacks who would blindly follow a popular vote.[xiv] So it’s questionable whether those state laws could actually bind the electors, to say nothing of overturning the votes they actually cast.[xv] Neither the states nor Congress have disputed the votes of rogue electors. Conceivably, if enough electors changed their mind, they could elect someone nobody voted for.

The third problem is if no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College, which given the current even number of electors includes the possibility of a tie. It happened once under the current system, in 1824.[xvi] In that case, the election for President is thrown into the House of Representatives. But, contrary to what you might expect, the Representatives don’t vote directly for the President, no. Instead, they have to band together and vote by states, each state getting only one vote. So, if this situation arose, California would have to get its 53 Representatives to huddle and decide which candidate they would cast their one vote for. Imagine the misfortune of a state with an evenly split delegation: it wouldn’t be able to cast a vote at all! While the smallest states, with only one representative, would have an easy time of it.

I wuz robbed!

I wuz robbed!

It was a mess when it happened in 1824. Two of the also-rans, John Quincy Adams (who came in second) and Henry Clay (who came in third in the popular vote, fourth in the Electoral College vote) banded their supporters together to give Adams a majority in the House, and hence the Presidency. Andrew Jackson, who had won a plurality of both the popular vote (41%) and the Electoral College vote (99 out of 261) felt the election had been stolen from him. His successful campaign four years later against Adams was heavily colored by charges that Adams and Clay had made a corrupt deal in 1824.

It wouldn’t be much better today. In the current Congress, 33 state delegations have a majority of Republicans, 14 of Democrats, and 3 are evenly split. The Democrats may pick up a delegation or two in this election year, but the Congress that meets in January, 2017, is still likely to have a majority of state delegations with Republican majorities. Say that the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, wins a plurality of votes and Electoral College votes, but not a majority, because the rest are split between Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. How many Republican delegations would be willing to vote against their own party to put Ms. Clinton in the White House? Or what if Mr. Trump’s behavior continues to erode his support? Might the Republicans decide they should discard all the losing nominees, and elect a stalwart Republican they like?[xvii]

Fortunately, the possibility that neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton will win a majority in the Electoral College is still remote, so this third difficulty is still unlikely . . . so far.

[i] The Articles were accepted by Congress in 1777, but were not ratified by all the states until 1781.

[ii] This was Shays’s Rebellion. The rebels felt that the economy and laws had been manipulated to benefit speculators. The state government viewed the uprising as treason, pure and simple.

[iii] The three branches are the legislative (Congress), responsible for passing laws, the judiciary (the Supreme Court and other Federal courts), responsible for judging cases under law and the constitutionality of laws, and the executive (the President and the executive branch agencies), responsible for the administration, execution, and enforcement of the laws.

[iv] In the House of Representatives, each state has representation in proportion to its population, while in the Senate each state gets two votes, no matter how many people live in that state. This also resolved the controversy between the large states, which wanted their votes to represent their size, and the small states, which wanted each state to have equal representation. One should also note that who counts as a person and who votes were not simple matters in 1787, let alone the same thing. Native Americans not actually subject to the Federal Government’s authority (“Indians not taxed” in the phrase of the era) were neither counted nor could vote. Slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person and could not vote. Women and children were counted but could not vote.

[v] As the House represented the people directly it was appropriate that it had the shorter term, the better to respond to popular views. The Senate, on the other hand, was not just apportioned equally to each state, but its members were originally elected, not by the voters, but by the state legislatures. Hence their role as a “cooling vessel” for public passions in legislation. It was only in 1913 that the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave the power of electing Senators to the voters directly, instead of the state legislatures.

[vi] It was assumed that any Presidential candidate would be a man. The people in the Electoral College are called “electors” because their purpose is to elect the President.

[vii] The original system used in 1788-1800 was different in that the votes for President and Vice President were not distinguished. This created controversial problems in the elections of 1796 and 1800. The current system was put into place with the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. There have been other minor changes since then.

[viii] A candidate who gets more votes than any other candidate is said to have won by a plurality. If the candidate wins over 50% of the vote, the candidate is said to have won by a majority. Every majority is a plurality, but not every plurality is a majority. For example, in a three-way race, a candidate who wins 40% of the vote while the other two candidates won only 30% of the vote apiece has won by a plurality, because the first candidate’s 40% share is bigger than either of that candidate’s opponents.

[ix] The correspondence between population and size of a state’s delegation in the House of Representatives is not exact for three reasons. First, the number of Representatives has been fixed by law at 435 since 1929, and fractional representation isn’t allowed; there are going to be rounding errors. Second, each state is guaranteed one Representative no matter how small its population, which means some small states are disproportionately overrepresented. Third, there are several possible algorithms to apportion the remaining seats, but none of them gives a perfect result.

[x] This has been true only since the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1961, with the additional provision that the District can never have more electoral votes than the least populous state. Under current circumstances, both rules give the District three electors.

[xi] Maine and Nebraska are currently exceptions. They award Electoral College votes both by statewide election and by the vote in each Congressional district. So, for example, if candidate A wins the statewide vote in Maine and in Maine’s 1st Congressional district, but candidate B wins in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district, candidate B would get 1 electoral vote from Maine, while candidate A would get 3 (1 for the Congressional district, 2 for winning the state as a whole).

[xii] Note this description does not fit the 1824 election, in which no candidate took a majority of the Electoral College. 1824 is a special case discussed later in the text.

[xiii] The most recent cases have been protest votes in which the elector didn’t vote or voted for another member of their party. The last elector to vote for another party’s candidate was in 1972. Technically, the rogue electors of 1836 did change the election, since their actions forced the election into the Senate (see footnote xvii), but the candidate who should have won in the Electoral College did win in the Senate.

[xiv] The development of nationwide political parties was not anticipated by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. And given the slow communications and the large size of the nation back then, the rise of a number of regional parties probably appeared more likely.

[xv] After an elector cast a protest vote in 2004, Minnesota changed its rules so that electoral votes could be reviewed before being certified. To date, this mechanism has not been tested by a rogue elector trying to cast a vote for the wrong candidate, so its legality at the Federal level is uncertain. The Supreme Court has held that states can require electors to pledge to support a candidate, but has not ruled in favor of any mechanism to enforce that pledge.

[xvi] There was a tie in 1800, but that was under the older system. See footnote vii.

[xvii] What about the Vice Presidency, you ask? If no candidate wins a majority, that election is thrown into the Senate, where each Senator casts an individual vote. This has happened once, though not in 1824, surprisingly. It was in 1836, when the Democratic candidate, Richard Mentor Johnson, fell one vote shy in the Electoral College, but was elected by the Senate. Johnson was a controversial figure because he had lived with a mixed-race slave as if she were his wife, and that caused several electors to drop him from their ballots, although they still voted for his running mate, who became President Martin Van Buren. The most curious possibility that might arise in the 2016 election would be if no candidate won a majority in both the Presidential and Vice Presidential races, while the Democrats managed to recapture the Senate. If both chambers stuck to party loyalty, the result could be a Republican President and a Democratic Vice President. The last time the President and the Vice President came from different parties was in the election of 1796! (One could argue that John Tyler and Andrew Johnson were subsequent examples, but they ran on the same party ticket as the Presidents with whom they were elected.)

And now a change of topic: the Shakers go west

There is a blog called We’re History that offers historical insights written by historians for the general public. I occasionally contribute. Today’s post was mine, about the Shaker missionaries to Kentucky in the winter of 1805. It’s quite a little adventure that helped make the Shakers among the most successful communal groups in American history. You can get to it by following this hyperlink.

Shakers performing one of their famous dances during worship

Shakers performing one of their famous dances during worship

Barbary corsairs and the United States

The USS Enterprise vs. the corsair Tripoli, August 1, 1801

The USS Enterprise vs. the corsair Tripoli, August 1, 1801

Americans in the Middle East are being captured by terrorists. They are tortured, abused, enslaved, held for ransom, used as pawns in international politics, and even killed. The United States sends in its military, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat. So the Federal Government decides to topple a hostile regime and put our puppet in charge. You’re thinking maybe ISIS today, or Iraq in 2003, or maybe the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, or even the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953? Think again: 1801-1805, when the United States went to war against the Barbary pirates.

Muslims and Christians had been at war for centuries in the Mediterranean. Sometimes this led to a clash of navies, notably in the 16th century. But always there was commerce raiding, seizing ships that belonged to the other side and raiding their coasts. Captives were enslaved. The richer ones might be ransomed. The poorer ones would end their days as slaves. Ironically, they might end up serving as galley slaves, forced to row on the very ships that had taken them prisoner. These raiders weren’t just run-of-the-mill pirates. They were corsairs, really more privateers, sponsored and organized by governments. On the Christian side, the Knights of St. John of Malta were the most notable corsairs. And on the Muslim side were the Barbary “pirates.” They sailed from four realms on the North African coast: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (the last in modern Libya). In theory, these realms were monarchies that recognized the Ottoman sultan as their suzerain; in practice, they generally ran their own affairs.

American commerce had been protected against the Barbary pirates by the British so long as they were loyal colonies. But with independence, the Americans lost that protection and fell prey to the corsairs. The American government had three choices: let American commerce be strangled in the Mediterranean, pay tribute, or send a naval squadron to intimidate the Barbary states into leaving Americans alone. Of course, it helps to have money in the Treasury or warships mighty enough to take on the pirates, and in the early years of the Republic, the Americans had neither. American merchantmen suffered, and the cries of families of men enslaved by the “barbarians” put pressure on the new Federal Government to come to terms. After years of negotiation, the United States concluded treaties with all four Barbary states in the 1790s, agreeing to pay tribute to keep American ships safe.

But once you start paying tribute, you set yourself up to demands for more tribute. The Pasha of Tripoli decided the $56,484 he had received wasn’t enough. He wanted $225,000, and an annual tribute of $20,000. When President Jefferson refused, the pasha declared war by cutting down the flagpole in front of the American consulate in Tripoli.

Despite Jefferson’s belief that the United States should only deploy small gunboats as a defensive measure, the Navy had built some frigates, medium-sized warships with two gun decks and between 28 guns and 55 guns. These the Navy deployed in 1802 to blockade Tripoli’s harbor as a way of shutting down the corsairs and strangling Tripoli’s commerce. It looked like it might be a simple war, if a prolonged one.

And then disaster struck. On October 31, 1803, the 36-gun frigate Philadelphia ran aground on a reef outside of Tripoli harbor. The corsairs captured the ship, took the crew hostage, and brought it into the harbor to be repaired and join the Tripolitan fleet. It mortified the U.S. Navy to see one of their few ships about to become a powerful addition to their enemy’s fleet. But they could see no way to recapture the Philadelphia, stationed as it was under the shore batteries in the harbor. But there was a way, maybe. Lt. Stephen Decatur volunteered to try to sneak in under the cover of night and destroy the Philadelphia. At least that way the enemy wouldn’t have the ship. It was a desperate ploy, for the American sailors would have to approach in an unarmed ketch. If they were detected, they would be dead men.

The "Philidelphia" burns

The “Philidelphia” burns

In fact, they were detected when they attacked on the night of February 16, 1804, but it was too late to help the pirates. Decatur’s men fought their way on board the Philadelphia, and managed to fire her before retreating to the ketch and rowing their way back out of the harbor. Stephen Decatur became the Navy’s first hero, and went on to serve valiantly until his death in a duel in 1820.

Blockading Tripoli harbor, even apart from the Philadelphia fiasco, was not working fast enough. So in a plot that combines elements of a Cold War spy novel and farce, “General” William Eaton, an American diplomat, was sent to Egypt in March, 1804 to organize an army of mercenaries to topple the Pasha of Tripoli and place his elder brother on the throne instead. (The older brother had been deposed in 1793 by the Ottomans in favor of his younger brother.) Supported by eight U.S. Marines and two Navy midshipmen, Eaton led his ragged army across hundreds of miles of desert coast to seize Tripoli’s second city, Derna, on April 27, 1805.

The American attack on Derna

The American attack on Derna

That was enough for the Pasha of Tripoli. He signed a peace treaty with the Americans on June 10, 1805, forswearing tribute in exchange for the Americans withdrawing support for his brother. Eaton was displeased, but most Americans were satisfied. It didn’t end Barbary pirates preying on American ships, but it was the beginning of the end. Another short war with Algiers in 1815, with Stephen Decatur once again on the scene, ended the threat to American merchantmen for good.

What I couldn't find: the Tripoli Monument

What I couldn’t find: the Tripoli Monument

Although forgotten by Americans now, the war left some enduring marks on the Marines and Navy. The Marines celebrate “the shores of Tripoli” in their hymn, and their dress uniform still includes a Mameluke-style sword to commemorate Lt. Presley O’Bannon’s role in the march on Derna. In 1806, the Navy erected an elaborate marble monument in Washington, D.C. to commemorate their officers who died in the war. I read about this monument when I was a teenager, and with my love of history went looking for it repeatedly in Washington, unaware that it had been moved to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1860!

A new history e-magazine and the Secret Service

Everyone remembers Lincoln and Kennedy, but few recall the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.

Everyone remembers Lincoln and Kennedy, but few recall the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.

A new history e-magazine, We’re History, has just started up. Its objective is to present history written by historians for a general audience. And wouldn’t you know, one of their newest articles is by your truly, on how the United States Secret Service got the job of protecting the President. And if you enjoy that, check out some other articles on the site as well.