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“General” Eaton And His Improbable Legion
Weary of his humiliating job—American pay-off man to the piratical Arab states—this bold Yankee civilian raised his own army and won our strangest foreign war
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Proceeding along the coast from the Dey to the Bey, Eaton again removed his shoes, kissed lhe Tunisian’s hand, and was sharply taken to task for delays in the arrival of some of America’s “gifts.” The consul gave reassurances and meanwhile tried to renegotiate a particularly frivolous treaty demand of the Key’s, namely that one barrel ol good LJ ni ted States gunpowder be delivered lor every single gun salute tendered by a Tunisian vessel or shore battery to any visiting American. (Tunisian sloops were virtually smothering arriving American vessels with saluting gun smoke in order to build up their own ammunition stocks thereby; the nine salutes due a United States consul or commodore, for instance, meant nine barrels for the Bey.)
Flushed and shoeless on the Bey’s carpet, Eaton soon found himself in bitter wrangles on this point. “[I said that] the article considered in relation to the expense was a trille; but as it was unprecedented in any of his treaties with other nations, it would be humiliating in us to agree to it, and not very honorable in him to demand it: we trusted, therefore, he would not insist on so singular a demand for so trifling a consideration.”
“ ‘However trifling,’ said he, ‘it may appear to you, to me it is important. Fifteen barrels of gunpowder will furnish a cruiser which may capture a prize and net me $100,000.’ ”
Eaton retorted that both justice and our national honor forbade such degrading terms as these.
“ ‘You consult your honor,’ said he, ‘I my interest.’ ”
Eventually Consul Eaton reached a compromise with the Key, only to find the next-door chieftain at Tripoli breathing dollar-hungry fury and dispatching an ultimatum for his share. Seized by moral revulsion, the Yankee on the spot rebelled against all our past policy in Xorth Africa and lashed out in private and public philippics against the disgrace of our submission. “Barbary is Hell,” he told his private journal (adding as a staunch New Englander that “So, alas, is all America south of Pennsylvania, for oppression, and slavery, and misery are there.”) The Barbary chieftains, he wrote, “are under no restraints of honor nor honesty. There is not a scoundrel among them, from the prince to the muleteer, who will not beg and steal.” Soon angry letter after letter went forth from him to Secretary Pickcring. “When has a tyrant ever been known to lift his foot from the neck of a voluntary slave? Where is the evidence of Barbary’s being satisfied with the generosity of its friends ? Does Spain, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, exhibit it? Will the United States ever exhibit it? Xever, so long as they have powder to give, and want the energy to burn it!” And then this rousing summons, of a sort not to be expected in the reports of mere consuls: “We must either bribe their avarice or chastise their audacity. Giving only increases their avidity for more … it is devoutly to be hoped that the United States may have the honor (very easily obtained) of setting the first example, among the tributaries, of chastising the insolence of their lords.”
In his wrath, Eaton sometimes became overheated and sounded like a thumping xénophobe. Algiers was “a vulture”; Tunis and Tripoli were “dog kennels”; Britain, France, and Arab and Jewish trading interests were arrayed in an “infamous league” against us; and as for the Turkish su/erains of Barbary, they were “a contemptible military, and at sea, lubbers .”
Yet, back in the capital, President Adams went on swallowing his pride and copying the European example of paying rather than fighting. A cautious Congress, with a small war against French privateers already on its hands, had no starch for further trouble. Adams fired Secretary Pickering as a troublesome meddler, which left Consul Eaton virtually without an addressee for his eruptive, warning messages.
To be sure, Adams’ rival, Thomas Jefferson, had cried out some time back in a moment of ardor: “Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these Barbary pirates. Why not build a navy and decide on war? We cannot begin with a better cause or against a better foe.” But by 1800, sensing the home temper, Jefferson had reversed himself and run for office on a platform proclaiming that “Peace is our passion.” Between a penny-wise Adams and a pacifist Jefferson, there was little lor a smoldering Eaton in faraway Barbary to choose from. On Adams’ very last day in office, a Federalist Congress had passed a bill laying tip a major part of our small Navy, along with half of its captains—and Adams had signed it. The incoming anti-Federalist was in no mood to reverse it.
“There is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror .” So Eaton had written home about the Barbary pirates. But the elections of 1800 told both him and the Arab chieftains that America was probably not going to apply “terror” or anything like it. What other possibilities were there, then?