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Marius Kleinknecht


Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

“All the World’s a Stage:” Honor, Shame, and Publicity in US Relations with the Barbary States, 1785-1805 (Dissertationsprojekt)

Dissertation in Geschichte

Mentoring Team:
First supervisor: Prof. Sebastian Jobs
Second supervisor: Prof. Sönke Kunkel
Third supervisor: Prof. Lawrence A. Peski

This dissertation is an investigation of US relations with the so-called Barbary States. Situated on the North African coast, these were the independent Kingdom of Morocco as well as the Ottoman provinces of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. Between the 15th and 19th century, these states were in the practice of capturing and enslaving European sailors in the Mediterranean. Subsequently, captives could be ransomed, or annual tribute could exempt European nations from this practice altogether. After the United States lost British naval protection as a consequence of the Revolutionary War, Americans were likewise confronted with this impediment to commerce in the Mediterranean. Following the enslavement of American citizens by Algerian cruisers in the 1780s and 1790s (as well as their subsequent release through a costly ransom payment), the United States established a diplomatic network in the Mediterranean and appointed consuls to the Barbary States. In 1801, the Bashaw of Tripoli declared war on the United States, resulting in a military conflict that lasted until 1805.

By examining the correspondence of US diplomats, statesmen, naval officers, and captured sailors, this dissertation argues that the actions of those American foreign policy makers who were involved in diplomacy with the Barbary States were predominantly informed by the desire to establish, protect, and advance their personal honor as well as the honor of their country. The extant writings of the sailor-turned-diplomat James Leander Cathcart provide the foundation for a case study in the relevance of personal honor. This dissertation argues that Cathcart’s journals and correspondence constitute a prolonged attempt at having claims about his social rank as an honorable person validated by his peers or even the general public. However, Cathcart was by and large unsuccessful in this endeavor which resulted in rhetorical outbursts and rivalries throughout his career. As such, Cathcart’s extant writings demonstrate the consequences of honor claims not being recognized. Furthermore, they show that even common sailors adhered to codes of honor, testifying for the importance of the concept even among non-elite circles.

On the national level, perceived humiliations such as the capture of American sailors, the payment of ransom and annual tribute, as well as the inability of the United States to resist extravagant demands of Barbary rulers were frequently argued to constitute profound violations of US national honor. The supposed publicity of these ostensibly shameful episodes was given special consideration in this context. To remedy these perceived failures of American foreign policy, virtually all of those involved in either diplomacy or military operations frequently invoked the language of national honor to justify increasingly belligerent actions against the Barbary States. US relations with the Barbary States must then be understood as a protracted attempt at establishing the United States as a respectable – an honorable – nation in the eyes of imagined audiences, both in United States as well as Europe. In a larger sense, this dissertation also hopes to highlight the prevalence of national honor in foreign relations during the early modern period.

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft