I am reading about the First Barbary War from both Swedish and American perspective. I have what I believe to be a very reliable source in Swedish, and it says that the Pascha of Tripoli declared war upon the USA on 9 January 1801. But when you read other sources, such as Wikipedia, it claims that the war was declared by the Pascha 10 May 1801.

It's an important difference since Jefferson was inaugurated 4 March 1801. That is, either the war was declared before Jefferson became president, or Jefferson had it declared by refusing to pay as president.

It seems to me that it was actually John Adams who ceased paying the tributes? The story that some authors seems to convey is that Jefferson had waited for a chance to defy the Barbary states for a long time, and took the chance as soon as he got it (as he was strongly ideologically opposed to their behaviour). But at the same time the demands from Tripoli were becoming ridiculously high, and a war was more or less a matter of time?

Was the start of the First Barbary War a result of John Adam's presidency, or a decision made by Thomas Jefferson once he was president? Where can I read more about these crucial months late 1800 - mid 1801?


2 Answers 2


Short Answer

Tripoli declared war against the United States on 14 May 1801.

Detailed Answer

At first glance this seemed like a trivial question. Surprisingly, the answer appears to be shrouded behind several contradictory dates in internet circulation. I'll try to explain why I believe those answers are incorrect below.

(A) 9 January 1801

I didn't actually find a reference to this date, but there doesn't appear to be any evidence for it. Let us refer to the letters of the James Leander Cathcart, United States Consul to Tripoli until 24 May 1801this date is a hint. Cathcart wrote on this exact date that, having secured tribute from Sweden:

Thus has the Bashaw established his grand point - that is a permanent annuity; and those are the terms, or similar ones, which he demanded from the United States of America, Danes and Batavians ... If the Dey does not interfere in this affair, I see no alternative but war.

- Cathcart, James L. Letter to Hon. William Smith, Lisbon. 9 Jan. 1801.

And yet he makes no mention of this war breaking out in the following letters. Instead, two days later he wrote:

Thus has the Bashaw established a permanent annuity, which has been his great aim ever since he usurped the throne of Tripoli, and these are the terms which he has declared (but not officially but by insinuations and hints from his emissaries) that he will exact from Denmark, the United States of America and the Batavian Republic ...

- Cathcart, James L. Untited Letter. 11 Jan. 1801.

So the demands had no even been pressed, officially yet. Besides, you would expect the Consul to mention that a war was going on, but there is no evidence of this from the rest of his January letters. Clearly, the war did not begin in January.

(B) 26 February 1801

I did find other sources claiming the war began prior to Jefferson's inauguration, in February:

1801 February 26 Tripoli decalres war on the United States, the American government having refused to meet the pasha's demands; a few weeks later Thomas Jefferson takes office as the third US president.

- Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Wars of the Barbary Pirates: To the Shores of Tripoli - The Rise of the Us Navy and Marines. Vol. 66. Osprey Publishing, 2006.

It is true that Tripoli threatened war twice in February, on the 8th and 16th. Specifically, on the 8th the Bashaw threatened to declare war within 40 days, upon the arrival of incoming presents form Algiers.

What actually happened was that the fickle Bashaw soon changed his mind. He decided to postpon the declaration so as to give the United States more time to fold to his bluff write a letter to Algiers first:

I have been informed, but not officially, that the Bashaw of Tripoli has written to Algiers, and does not intend to declare war against the United States until he receives news from Algiers, before which I hope our vessels will be under convoy.

- Cathcart, James L. Letter to Messrs. O'Brien and Eaton. 23 Feb. 1801.

It was estimated that the reply "will be in about eight weeks". Consequently, there appears to be no declaration of war in February. In fact, Cathcart would go on to write of "should a war ensue" and "if war is declared" in March and April. Again, unusual words if war had already been declared on 26 February.

This erroneous date may have came about because Cathcart wrote on the 26th that, if the Bashaw refused his terms, then "war is inevitable".

(C) 10 May 1801

This date, which Wikipedia uses, is kind of correct. Wikipedia's reference is this:

On May 10, 1801, the Tripolitans declared war on the United States in their own picturesque fashion - by hopping down the flagstaff in front of the American consulate.

- Miller, N. The US Navy: A History. Naval Institute Press, 1997.

The date is however slightly off:

On May 9, 1801, Cathcart received word that soldiers would come the next day to chop down flagpole in front of his consulate as a declaration of war, said to be the traditional way of doing it in North Africa. It was not until May 14 that they did arrive. While the men tried to break the flagpole in half, Cathcart sent word to the Pasha that he could offer $10,000 immediately to avoid war. Yusuf rejected the sum, and his men turned to hacking at the pole with axes, taking an hour to finally fell it. The fallen flagpole signaled that war now existed between Tripoli and the United States.

- Baumgartner, Frederic J. Declaring War in Early Modern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

In other words, Tripoli announced its intention declare war, but only carried it out ("the traditional way") on 14 May 1801, after a last ditch effort for peace failed. I would argue the latter date is the more formally correct one.

On the 10th May, 1801, the Bashaw sent Hadgi Mahomude la Sore, to Mr. Cathcart, with information, that "he declared war against the United States," and would take down the American flag staff on Thursday the 14th May; that if he pleased, he might remain at Tripoli, and should be treated with respect but might go away if he chose ... On the 14th the American flag staff was cut down, and war thus formally declared.

- Goldsborough, Charles Washington. The United States' Naval Chronicle. Vol. 1. J. Wilson, 1824.

Regardless of the date, this event marked the beginning of the First Barbary War. The United States Consul, James Leander Cathcart, left Tripoli ten days later, on 24 May 1801. His departure is also corroborated in the collection of his letters published by his daughter.

(D) Later Dates

Some sources gave the date as 10 June 1801:

The Dey warned that if Bainbridge didn't comply, he would declare war on the United States and would take the officers and crews of the George Washington into slavery. After Bainbridge refused, on June 10, 1801, Tripoli declared war against the United States.

- Dooley, P. ed. The Early Republic: Primary Documents on Events from 1799 to 1820. Greenwood Publishing, 2004.

But this seems to be contradicted by most other sources. For example, he appears to have been in the United States on 2 May, and appointed on 20 May to the command of USS Essex after war had begun.

Some sources also consider the United States Congress to have declared war when it passed the Act for Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States Against the Tripolitian Corsairs. But obviously that wasn't the start of the war, but rather the American reaction. And also less of a declaration of war and more of a force authorisation bill.

  • 2
    Hopping down or chopping down the flagpole?
    – AllInOne
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 14:51

When did the First Barbary War start?

Short Answer

There was no formal declaration of war by either the Pasha of Tripoli, or the United States to begin the First Barbary War.

The First Barbary War
on 10 May 1801, the Pasha declared war on the U.S., not through any formal written documents but in the customary Barbary manner of cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate.[

Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify."

I would argue that the war began either when Tripoli broke the 1796 treaty with the United States and began to seize United States Merchant ships. That's July 1800 when Tripoli seized the Catherine. or Feb 6, 1802 when Congress authorized the US Navy to take Tripoli ships in retaliation. The first corsair belonging to Tripoli taken by the US Navy occurred August 1, 1802 when the USS Enterprise did so, in a one sided battle. Any of these dates could be called the beginning of the first Barbary War, which had no formal declaration of war by either party.

The Jan 9 1801 date was a deadline the Pasha of Tripoli gave to James Leander Cathcart the Console of Tripoli for agreeing to terms on an annual payment schedule. The United States he argued had paid for the treaty of 1797, but had not paid for ongoing peace. If the United States had not come to terms by Jan 9 the Pasha warned, Tripoli pirates would go to war. Only when the Pasha issued that demand / ultimatum, his Barbary Pirates had already captured and American merchant ship the Cathrine, and broke their treaty with the US.

May 10, 1801 is mistakenly taken as the official declaration of war by Tripoli although no document was signed nor presented to the United States, nor it's agents. It is said to be the official date because that's the date in which the Pasha of Tripoli ordered the American Flag cut down at the American Consulate in Tripoli. Thus it was said symbolizing an official break with the US, declaration of war, in the "customary" Barbary Pirate fashion. This is not accurate however. The Pasha started seizing American shipping July 1800, almost a year earlier, and the US Consulate remained open for two more years.

It was said, in an earlier post that the Pasha closed the American Consulate May of 1801 when the Consol of Tripoli, James Leander Cathcart left Tripoli. Cathcart was the consul of Tripoli, but the Consul general who hired Cathcart originally as a consultant was William Eaton.

  • Consul General - a consular officer of the highest rank, as a person who is stationed at a place of considerable commercial importance or supervises other consuls.

Eaton was not officially assigned to Tripoli but was called to Tripoli when tensions started heating up. William Eaton stayed on in Tripoli as the American representative for another two years after Cathcart reportedly departed. Eaton was expelled, March 10, 1803; after the Pasha of Tripoli extorted $22,000 dollars from an American Commodore. Eaton's presence and business can be confirmed by the letter Carthcart sent to then Secretary of State James Madison, March 15, 1803 in which he identifies William Eaton as the consul of Tripoli and laments that the Pasha should not be permitted to choose the American Consul by dismissing Mr. Eaton and seeing him replaced.

The Pasha was always trying to get more money, and one can't get more money unless the other countries consolate is open and the consular officers are present to coerce and negotiate with. Cutting down of the US flag in May of 1801 thus had more to do with the Pasha's frustration that the American Consulate officer William Eaton had not paid a debt, rather than the beginning of hostilities which were nearly a year old at that point. In response to the Pasha's action (cutting down the flag) Eaton did (with a bridge loan) satisfy his debt in June of 1801. However during all these dates, the US Consulate remained open, and payments from the United States to Tripoli continued. ( First William Eaton's payment in June, and then Commodore Morris's payment in 1803 ).


Ultimately the first Barbary War wasn't a classical war. It wasn't about territory or gaining some specific item from the other. It was about extortion in order to coerce an increase in the annual tribute America was paying to Tripoli. By that measure formal declarations of war which never occurred are being intuited in order to make America's first foreign war seem more honorable. A dispute which might occur between any two nations and not what it was, probing, discerning weakness, extortion, capitulation, and submission. Everything the Pasha did was to probe the United States strength, or lack their of; and then coerce and extort money. The money the Pasha of Tripoli was seeking was an increase to ongoing tribute from America. The Pasha believed other Barbary states like Morocco and Tunisia had been given a larger annual tribute and he sought to address this difficency. Everything ultimately America did was to try to improve it's negotiation position to pay less money. Not less money than America was paying under the 1897 treaty but less money than was being demanded by the Pasha in 1800. That's ultimately what both America and Tripoli accomplished in that "war", settling on a price for recurring tribute which America could afford and the Pasha would accept.

My personal take away from the first Barbary war was neither nation acted honorable. The Barbary Pirates were classic gangsters who perceived weakness and jumped in to bleed the weak party up to and beyond their ability to pay. America far from standing up to the Pirates and refusing to pay extortion, was always willing and always paid that tribute even when it reached unbelievable percentages of the Annual budget of the US government. Even when it appeared that victory was nearly at hand for the United States, The Jefferson Administration represented by Tobias Lear preferred paying tribute than pursuing what appeared was a promising potential military resolution. The Jefferson Administration literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and agreed to renewed annual tribute in the face of a sucessful ground invasion of Tripoli. The only honorable thing in that entire war was the actions of William Eaton, a dunk, insubordinate, unlucky, ambitious former revolutionary war hero who moved heaven and earth and risked everything to do what he believed was honorable even when he had no personal interests at stake. William Eaton who was undermined at every step by bureaucracy and politicians. William Eaton who almost pulled it off. Not only did he almost win of the First Barbary War, which of coarse the United States lost, but almost made the war about standing up to extortionists and thugs, what history misremembers the war was about.

The interesting things about the first Barbary war wasn't America standing up to the Tripoli Pirates. Because that didn't really occur. America's commitment to the ground war which ultimately coerced the Pasha of Tripoli to accept a smaller increase in his annual payment than which he originally desired, was 8 marines. America's two most prominent displays of naval power in that war were displays of incompetence by the US Navy. First, Feb 1803, U.S. Commodore Morris's squadron entering Tripoli's harbor, after all reasonable dates for the beginning of hostilities/war had passed. The Commodore was captured when he entered Tripoli at the front of a lightly armed landing party. The Commodore then being forced to pay $22,000 dollars for his personal freedom before retreating like the bumbling fool he surely was. William Eaton said of the United States Navy, a squadron of Quaker meeting houses would have been just as effective. The second was October 1803, when the formidable gun ship USS Philadelphia entered Tripoli's harbor chasing and trying to capture a pirate corsair, only to run aground. It then surrender without firing a shot, hours before, according to a European diplomate in Tripoli, the tide freed the ship.

The interesting remarkable things about the first Barbary War wasn't about the states which fought. I also don't think it was about the Pasha's predictable behavior in furtherance of his extortion scheme. It was about the involvement of two functionaries.

William Eaton, what an uncompromising idealistic can-do exceptional block head, and how he nearly pulled it off. Organizing and executing a land invasion of Tripoli with 8 marines and a bold plan, ultimately capturing the second largest city in Tripoli. Secondly, Tobias Lear, one of the greatest and least known recurring scoundrels in American history and how he appears in yet another scandal and twists it to his seedy and base self interest.

Important Concepts:

  1. The Barbary Pirate States included:

    • Tripoli
    • Tunisia
    • Algeria
    • Morocco
  2. The Barbary Pirate states were united in piracy but not in governance. To make peace with one state was not to make peace with all. Each state conducted their own peace negotiations and received their own tribute.

  3. The First Barbary Pirate War was between the United States and the Barbary state Tripoli.
  4. The United States paid large annual tributes to the Barbary Pirate states before during and after the First Barbary War.
  5. The United States paid annual tribute to Tripoli before and after the first Barbary war.

Important Dates:

  • 1778 America Signs the Treaty of Alliance with France which protects America Shipping during the Revolutionary War from the Barbary Pirates.
  • 1783 The Treaty Alliance with France expires and American shipping is unprotected from the Barbary Pirate states in North Africa.
  • Oct 11, 1784 - America looses it's first ship, The Betsy to the Barbary Coast Pirates. Morocco takes the ship.
  • June 23, 1786 - The United States signs it's first treaty with a Barbary Coast State, Morocco.
  • July 25 1785 - Algeria begins taking American shipping, beginning with the Maria and then the Dauphin, enslaving their crew.
  • March 1786 - Thomas Jefferson and John Adams first start negotiating with the Barbary Coast Pirate state of Tripoli in London.
  • 1796, America signs it's first treaty with Tripoli and opens up a consulate there.
  • March 27, 1794 Congress passes the Naval Act of 1794 which funds the building of the first six ships of the U.S. Navy. they are.
    1. United States
    2. Constellation
    3. Constitution
    4. Chesapeake
    5. Congress
    6. President
  • 1795 - America ransoms 116 sailors from Algeria agreeing to pay 1/6th the entire US budget. This becomes an annual tribute and is paid for the next 15 years to Algeria.
  • Sept 3, 1798, Tripoli raiding party captures 12 year old royal Anna Porcile from San Pietro.
  • July 1800 Pasha of Tripoli breaks the treaty with the U.S and takes the American brig, the Catharine. Complaining that his annual payment was less than other Barbary Coast Pirate payments.
  • Oct 11, 1800, William Eaton at the American Consulate pledges America's credit for $5000, to secure Anna Porcile's release.
  • 1800, During the Adams administration congress passes the
  • March 4, 1801, When Thomas Jefferson is inaugurated, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, demands $225,000, about 33% of the Federal budget in annual tribute to not pirate American shipping.
  • May 10 1801, The Pasha of Tripoli cuts down the American flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli. This act is taken as some as a declaration of war kicking off the first Barbary Pirate War.
  • June of 1801, William Eaton obtains a bridge loan from a Tripolian merchant in order to pay his debt to the Pasha of Tripoli for Anna.
  • Feb 6, 1802, US congress passes "The Act for the Protection of the Commerce and Seamen of the United States, Against the Tripolitan Cruisers" authorizing the Jefferson to instruct US Navy ships to seize Tripoli ships on the seas. Not a formal declaration of war though.
  • August 1, 1802, The schooner Enterprise (commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Sterret) defeated the 14-gun Tripolitan corsair Tripoli after a one-sided battle.
  • Feb 1803, American Commodore Richard Morris is captured when his party leaves his warships and lands in the city of Tripoli. The Commodore is forced to pay $22,000, settling William Eaton's debt on his bridge loan, in order to secure his (the Commodore's) Freedom
  • March 10, 1803, William Eaton boards the USS Chesapeake to return to the US in disgrace. The Pasha of Tunisia casting him out of the country, given his debt was paid by U.S. Commodore Morris.
  • October 1803, Tripolian Pirates capture intact the USS Philadelphia forcing Thomas Jefferson to get creative in how to deal with them.
  • 1805, William Eaton at Thomas Jefferson's direction returns to North Africa with 8 Marines and successfully invades Tripoli capturing the second largest city in the Barbary state.

Longer Answer

I would suggest the May 1801 date for the beginning of the War is arbitrary. The very first time Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with the representatives of Tripoli pirates occurred in March 1786. At that time the Tripoli representative made it clear that the Pirates considered it a religious duty to prey upon Christian merchantmen.

The First Barbary War
It was written in their Koran, (that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

In the First Barbary War there never was a formal declaration of war between the Pasha of Tripoli and the United States. The Bey's act of cutting down the American Flag at the US consulate in Tripoli on May 10, 1801, is an arbitrary date taken as the beginning of the war. Prior to that date the Pasha of Tripoli had broken the treaty of 1897 and captured his first American Merchant ship the Catherine. After that date the United States continued to pay tribute to Tripoli. Even after May of 1801 the consulate in Tripoli remained open for business and the American officials remained in Tripoli. Cutting down the American Flag occurred from the Bey's perspective not out of an act of war with the United States but out of frustration and to motivate the American Consulate officer proximal to said flag, William Eaton to pay off his debt. Which is what Mr. Eaton did following this event.

It probable more realistic to take another date as the beginning of the war. I think a better date would be.

July 1800 when the Pasha of Tripoli breaks his 1897 treaty with the United States and captures the Brig, the USS Catherine. This was done however to apply pressure to the United States. To that effect the consulate remained open and extortion payments from the United States continued.

The answer to your question the wars origins where with the Adams administration given the primary American responsible for antagonizing the Tripoli pasha was appointed by Adams. But it was Jefferson’s clumsy mishandling which lost America’s first war after the Revolution.

So the American official who started all the trouble was William Eaton who interceded with the pasha on behalf of a 12 year old royal girl Anna Porcile who had been captured by the pirates in a raid on the island of San Pietro near Sardinia, September 3, 1798. After the child’s family failed to raise the ransom from appeals to the great powers of Europe their final appeal was to the newly minted republic of the United States and Mr Eaton pledged his country’s credit for $5000 to secure the child’s release (October 11, 1800). At the end of 6 months if the Porcile family could still not pay the United States would be responsible. In June of 1801 Eaton was forced to borrow money to bridge the debt owed to the Bey from a Tripoli merchant. In feb of 1803 when the debt was still not paid the Bey of Tripoli captured Commodore Richard Morris of the US Navy who had landed in Tripoli with a landing party. The Bey demands and receives $22,000 to pay Eaton’s debt.

Commodore Morris’s brother was a US senator from Vermont who had cast the final vote putting Thomas Jefferson into the White House.

March 10, 1803, Eaton boards the USS Chesapeake to return to the US. The Bey of Tunisia casting him out of the country.

Even before Eaton arrives back in the United States the Bey of Tripoli now believing the United States is an easy mark captures his first US Navy ship. The USS Philadelphia runs aground in the Tripoli harbor and surrenders without firing a shot or putting up any resistance. Eye Witnesses in Tripoli tell us the ship was freed within hours of the surrender when the tide came in. Jefferson desperate for intelligence on Tripoli, approaches Eaton and sends him with a wild plot to dethrone the Pasha.

Within two years, this disgraced diplomat (Eaton) would lead a band of eight marines, eight, and several hundred foreign mercenaries, the dregs of Alexandria, on a mad hopeless mission to march across the hell of the Libyan desert. He would try to finance the mission with the funds owed to him for ransoming Anna, the Italian slave girl. Thomas Jefferson would send Eaton on Americas first covert military op overseas, to try to overthrow the government of Tripoli in order to free the three hundred American sailors enslaved there. This man on the verge of personal ruin, joined by his handful of marines including violin-playing Presley OBannon, would surprise-attack Tripolis second largest city, and they would achieve a near miraculous victory. He would help stamp the then second class service, the United States Marines, with a new reputation for courage. His exploits would lead future generations of Americans to sing proudly: From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our countrys battles on the land and on the sea.



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