Frank Lambert's The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World is a look into a time when the United States was insignificant on the world stage; a time when the U.S. didn't even have a navy. The book literally begins with the tale of an American merchant ship named Betsey, which was captured by a band of Barbary pirates in November of 1784. The Crew, commanded by Captain James Erwin, were taken prisoner and held captive in the Moroccan port of Sale on the Atlantic coast. The newly independent United States of America was unable to act against this heinous act of piracy due to the fact that it had no navy. All naval ships authorized during the course of the Revolution had been sold off to help pay the expenses of the war. In 1784, the United States had no navy to speak of, and it's ships were at the mercy of anyone they encountered. And the British, who's powerful fleet once protected their American colonists, now sought to impede the trade of the independent United States of America. Americans had sought to create a "free trade" zone throughout the Atlantic, including the Mediterranean, but ran into the might of the Europeans who believed in trade that was restricted and controlled. Controlled by the Europeans of course, Americans were not welcome.
With the capture of the Betsey, Lambert discussed how the Americans came to realize their vulnerability to the predations of unfriendly nations around the world. The pirates who held this ship, and eventually several more, demanded payment and the negotiation of a treaty which would recognize continued tribute payments in exchange for free passage. Even when the Americans chose to pay, the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States at that time, gave no authority for the national government to raise the sums which were necessary to pay the numerous other bands of pirates infesting the waters of the Mediterranean. While the Americans would eventually be forced to pay individual smaller sums, the constant demand for more and more money was one of the factors Lambert asserted was involved in the rejection of the Articles of Confederation, in favor of the more centralized Constitution.
It was the Barbary pirates' attacks on American shipping which many, including Lambert, credit for the creation of the U.S. Navy. If it weren't for the pirates, the Americans wouldn't have needed to create a force to protect it's shipping. Throughout the 1790's the attacks on American shipping continued, and the costs to recover American ships and sailors rose ever higher. But with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, all that changed. Jefferson had always been an advocate of fighting the Barbary pirates, rather than paying tribute to them. However, prior to 1800, Lambert claimed that the U.S. had many reasons for not wanting to create an ocean going navy. Instead the U.S. had opted for smaller, faster, coastal ships to defend the shores of America. Jefferson, wanting to end the tribute system, dispatched a squadron of these smaller coastal ships to the coast of Africa. As Vice President James Madison justified in a letter to William Eaton, "…dispatching a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean would protect American commerce at a reasonable expense." (qtd. In Lambert 127) And as it turned out, these smaller ships were perfect for the kind of action required of them in attacking and destroying pirate ships along the African coast. "The Tripolitan War" lasted from 1801-1805, and with the heroic actions of American sailors like Stephen Decataur, saw the birth of the United States as a naval power.
One of the issues that Lambert made certain to emphasize was that as American ships began to trade around the globe, one of the main dangers they encountered was the British Navy. Since gaining independence, Americans not only lost the protection afforded by the British Navy, but were now seen by that vast naval force as competitors at best, and enemies at worst. Throughout the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from roughly 1789 to 1814, the British fleet was the most powerful, most feared navy in the world. British vessels constantly harassed and seized American ships, impressed American sailors into the British Navy, and intimidated American ships from entering the Mediterranean. Thomas Jefferson himself, expressed his awareness of American weakness by stating that American ships would be "…unable either to protect our commerce…