In the year 1800, Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States (U.S.). He was a founding father of our fledgling nation, a principal author of the Declaration of Independence Now, he was the elected leader of a people who had severed ties with the most powerful empire on planet Earth. He was an intellectual, a philosopher, and as the third President, he carried into that office his boundless energy, his insatiable interest in discovery, and an obligation to show the world that democracy and the principles of republicanism were cornerstones of a new government that would stand the test of time. Liberal in his views, Jefferson harbored a moral obligation to influence the world’s leaders to advance the cause of human rights in their nations. He understood that the whole thing could come crashing down if he allowed the young unprepared nation to become ensnared in another major war. Jefferson understood that Americans got their independence because Great Britain was tied down in a world war, and because her enemies had banded against her, plus they generously allied with the American colonials. The year 1800 was different. America was alone now, vulnerable, and Great Britain was still the most powerful empire on Planet Earth.
A Nation Defined by Principles
One of the ways that a country established its standing among nations was for it to plant its flag at outposts within the borders of those nations. This practice was called diplomacy. A building, even a modest one, on a compound, that displayed a U.S. flag that snapped in the wind, promoted the image and ideals of the United States of America. An Ambassador of America occupied the diplomatic post, and he protected U.S. citizens and their interests in that country. The ambassador treated with the leader of the host nation on matters of importance to America’s President and the Congress.
American Ambassador William Eaton occupied the post in the city of Tunis, which was the capital of Tripoli, a Muslim nation established on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, at the northern part of the continent of Africa. Ambassador Eaton was appointed to represent the leadership of President Jefferson, the laws passed by Congress, the principles (beliefs), and the strategic direction of the government of the United States. Eaton’s resources were few and his line of communication with the President and Congress was long. It took many months for letters to be sent by ship, read, discussed, debated, and then answered. A lot of things changed during the discourse of communications between an ambassador and the government of the United States in the year 1800.
A Nation in Debt
Eaton was a learned man, a graduate of Dartmouth University. He was blunt. Aged thirty-five years, he stood five feet and eight inches tall (tall for a man living in those times). He was principled, and that was a thing that President Jefferson learned about him. Ambassador Eaton’s principles profoundly affected his ability to discharge his duties. He saw everything as black or white, moral or immoral, Constitutional or outside of the principles of the Constitution. In other words, he very predictable, unbent, a powder keg in search of match. He was a decided risk to Jefferson’s presidency, and Jefferson did not know it until it was too late.
President Jefferson paid little attention to ambassadors who occupied posts at tiny nations. His mind was on the exploration of the vast territory that was west of the American continental east coast realm of the United States. He had his hands full trying to check the advancement of his principal political rival, Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young Federalist. Most of all, he struggled to grow the economy of the United States, for he knew that starving people would lose faith in their government. He feared and worked diligently to prevent civil unrest that could lead to a popular revolt against and subversion of the democratic government that had been so bravely fought and won. Advancing the economy, in the form of worldwide sea commerce, was another way for the United States to establish itself as a great nation. By promoting seaborne commerce, the government created avenues for powerful citizens to accumulate wealth. The government could tax this growing wealth, and in this way the government got the means to expand democratic principles. It also got the means to pay off its enormous war debt to the nations that had supported the American people by lending treasure, supplies, and troops during the bid for independence.
The Pirates of Tripoli
Regrettably, there was an annoyance, a potential disruption to free sea commerce in the form of pirates who operated in the southern Mediterranian Sea. The Tripoli pirates sallied forth from the port of Tunis. They raided ships at sea, captured those ships, took their cargo, made slaves out of the passengers and crew, and they ransomed all of these things to the rightful owners, who then must decide to pay the ransom or let those things go. The pirates also offered an alternative to nations. A regular and generous tribute could be paid to the pirates in advance. The payment by a nation dissuaded the pirates from disrupting the shipping of that nation. In 1800, it was the decision of the U.S. Congress and President Jefferson to pay the tribute rather than to commit nearly all of the resources of the small U.S. Navy to fight with the pirates of Tripoli. While this was not a happy policy, Jefferson believed that it was necessary in order to be able to advance the American economy and to not risk getting our navy beat up by the pirates. Should the pirates whip the U.S. Navy, Great Britain or some other enterprising European nation might view the U.S. to be a chicken to be plucked. Besides, the European nations paid tribute to the pirates as well. They were focused on each other as the principle threat.
In 1800, it was Ambassador Eaton who had to present tribute regularly to the pirates at Tripoli, and Eaton was a principled man. Now that your appetite is whetted for a good story, I will tell you just a bit more. There is a reason why the U.S. Marine Corps hymn includes a line that states: “To the shores of Tripoli.” What did Ambassador Eaton, a principled man of New England, do that landed the U.S. in a fight and himself in an impossible contest between his moral beliefs and the strategic vision of President Jefferson? Find out by reading “The Pirate Coast,” a thrilling historical fiction novel written by Mr. Richard Zacks.