Since 2014, the Journal of the American Revolution has recognized the adult nonfiction volume that best mirrors the mission of the journal with its national Book-of-the-Year Award. This year the editors are pleased to announce a winner and two runners-up. All three books are outstanding contributions to the history of the Revolutionary and Founding Eras.
The Washington administration was the rookie in the game of international diplomacy, and this fact could not have been more evident than in the case of the Barbary States and their capture of American seamen. Thomas Jefferson is frequently credited with having resolved this situation during his presidency, but he was powerless as Washington’s secretary of state to stop the enslavement of the unfortunate American captives. One man, however, was able to use his unusual position as the chief counselor to the Dey of Algiers. Jefferson credited the eventual release of many sailors held prisoner to James Leander Cathcart, “’the honestest and ablest consul we have with the Barbary powers: a man of very sound judgement, and fearless.’” (page 218)
The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War by Des Ekin certainly deserves the 2023 JAR Book Award. Ekin’s biographical sketch tells a story that many Americans are unfamiliar with. Cathcart was one of many captured on the high seas by the Barbary pirates, who were eager to take advantage of the young nation’s inexperience and weakness. The city of Algiers becomes a subject in the book, for its politics and physical layout made escape impossible. Ekin tells the story of how Cathcart was always in the right place at the right time. Being so fortunate, he readily took advantage of his situation to go from being the chief lionkeeper in the Dey’s personal zoo to becoming the Dey’s most important non-Muslim advisor and clerk. Although Cathchart had to endure the violent and unpredictable temperament of the Dey, he was able to take care of other American captives.
Cathcart’s true importance was as a liaison between Algiers and the American government under President George Washington. The administration appeared inept and unable to handle the captured sailors’ predicament, so Cathcart became instrumental in negotiating for their release. Although he could have purchased his own freedom at any time, Cathcart made sure that all the Americans were well-cared for. Ekin’s book is an easy and exciting narrative, making the reader eager to turn the page to see how long Cathcart’s luck would hold out. The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homelandfrom War is an excellent work about a unique man and America’s first foray into foreign affairs.
See our review of The Lionkeeper of Algiers
In many ways, the history of the United States is one of union and disunion. From the Civil War to rumors of secession in the present, it has long been an open question of whether America would be one nation or many. Eli Merritt’s Disunion Among Ourselves takes a deep dive into the origins of this ongoing drama, documenting “the centrifugal force of disunion” that the founders faced and how they overcame it. Merritt argues that the men who sat in Congress between 1774 and 1783 were constantly preoccupied by fears that the states would descend into conflict over borders and resources that would shatter the Union. As a result, “the American Union was an unwelcome alliance formed by bitterly conflictual colonies”; in other words, the creation of the United States was “a shotgun wedding.”
See our review of Disunion Among Ourselves
This reconsideration of the role privateers played in the American Revolution challenges their place in the accepted popular narrative of the conflict. Despite their controversial tactics, Kylie Hulbert illustrates that privateers merit a place alongside minutemen, Continental soldiers, and the sailors of the fledgling American navy. This book offers a redefinition of who fought in the war and how their contributions were measured. The process of revolution and winning independence was global in nature, and privateers operated at its core.