[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I’ll write in today’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On why we should remember forgotten wars, and why perhaps we shouldn’t.
It’d be possible to make the case that the Second Barbary War just represented a second theater within the much more famous War of 1812. Algiers had allied itself and its significant naval might with England during that war; although the U.S. conflict with England was officially ended by the December 1814 Treaty of Ghent, the Battle of New Orleans took place a month after that event (news was slow to cross the Atlantic in those days), and President James Madison’s early 1815 request for Congressional approval of military action against Algiers was thus a partial response to the African nation’s role in that prior war. Yet the new war was also driven by other forces, especially ones related to U.S. shipping interests and experiences in the region: tributes that Algerian raiders were requiring of ships trading in the Mediterranean; a group of U.S. sailors that had been impressed into captivity and service on Algerian ships; and so on. In any case, Madison dispatched two armadas to engage the Algerians, and the force commanded by Stephen Decatur won a decisive victory and dictated the terms of the peace treaty in June 1815.
There are lots of reasons why we should better remember the Second Barbary War, starting with the always appropriate “Because it happened!” But I would argue that it’s particularly useful as a way to push back on any sense of an isolated American identity in this post-Revolutionary, Early Republic era. It’s true that the U.S. did not develop overt, globe-spanning international imperial ambitions until later in the century (although of course the continental imperial ambitions already well underway by this time were entirely international in their era as well). But that doesn’t mean that the U.S. didn’t have an extensive international presence throughout the 19th century, and indeed from its earliest post-Revolutionary moments; there’s a reason why all of our late 18th and early 19th century wars (with the exception of 1812, at the start of which we were invaded) were precipitated because of conflicts that began on the high seas, after all. Moreover, the slave trade and the related international relationships such as the Triangle Trade to which it connected also linked Early Republic America to the rest of the world very fully. All of those would be histories that would help us remember our longstanding, indeed originating, international ties, but the Second Barbary War provides a particularly clear example of the existence and effects of those links.
So we should remember it, on its own terms and for what it can help connect us to about our national identity. Yet I have to admit that I’m somewhat hesistant, in an era when so many Americans believe us to be at war with Islam (and concurrently fear the threat of “sharia law” and the like here on the homefront), to remind Americans that two of our earliest wars (both the Second and the First Barbary War, on which more tomorrow) were with Muslim nations. Of course the answer to ignorance isn’t more ignorance, and I’m not genuinely arguing that we should continue ignoring forgotten histories because they could feed into contemporary ignorance. But at the same time, histories that connect to such contemporary controversies and bigotries are especially in need of careful and nuanced presentation and analysis, of framing and contextualizing that can provide understanding as well as awareness. To remember the existence of the Second Barbary War, that is, is only the first of many steps we need to take when it comes to this forgotten war.
Next forgotten war tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?
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