Righteous or Reckless?


In December, 1800, William Eaton bound himself to the Bey (monarch) of Tunis for $5,000 (a huge some of money at that time). This was his promise to pay the ransom of a twelve-year-old Sardinian (Italian) girl who was kidnapped by Tunisian pirates. The pirates were the infamous Barbary Pirates, organized by Bey Hammuda ibn Ali to seize Mediterranean shipping and to conduct coastal raids. The pirates brought their prizes to Tripoli, where the Bey protected the pirates. The Bey took an active role to communicate the demands for ransom (for a hefty fee). If the owners failed to pay the ransom, the ships, the goods, and the people aboard the ships were sold. For the people, that meant enslavement. This means to enrich himself and others of his realm worked especially well while Napoleon campaigned in Europe. It was easier for the kings of Europe to pay the ransom. It was not easy for a man of principle to do that.

An Historical Footnote

William Eaton, the principled man, was also the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia. From his consulate in Tripoli, he was compelled to hand over ransoms to free American ships and crews that were captured by the pirates. The United States was in debt following its revolutionary war, and President Jefferson had his hands full building the foundation of the new democratic nation. The President and Congress had little money to invest in the American Navy, a maritime defensive force, and not one capable of mounting a sustained campaign across an ocean. Yet, Ambassador Eaton, who was beseeched by the mother of the unfortunate girl, believed that the matter at hand was a test of the integrity of the United States. If rescuing the girl was the right thing for a man to do, then it was also the right thing for a just country to do.

President Thomas Jefferson

The president might not have ever known about Eaton’s diplomatic gesture. Eaton’s binding agreement gave the girl’s father time to raise the money in Europe. He had six months to do that. But, he did not do that, and the Bey expected Eaton to make the payment. Eaton did not have the money to pay. All along, he sent communications by ship to President Jefferson, in which he described the state of lawlessness in Tunis and how it was an opportunity for the United States to show the world its goodness. It took a long time for letters to be sent and replies to be received. But, Jefferson communicated a clear point to his ambassador. “You have made a personal loan guarantee. You have not bound the United States Treasury to that promise.” Eaton was not happy about that, but he accepted the decision. As the time grew near to pay the ransom, Eaton tried to raise the money himself. He wrote a letter to Jefferson, to tell him that. But, he also told the president that in Tunis, the Barbary Pirates lived by viewing the world in this way: “Act like a sheep, and the wolf will eat.” Jefferson understood Eaton’s point. When the powerful European nations were done sparring with Napoleon, it would be best if the United States did not look like a sheep. He consulted with the congress and obtained their concurrence to send three armed frigates to the coast of Tripoli – a show of force.

Righteous or Reckless?

American children are taught how the American Navy cleaned out the Barbary Pirates. The United States Marine Corps played a key role in the land portion of that campaign. U.S. Marines celebrate that role in a line of the Marine Corps hymn: “To the shores of Tripoli!” But, this was not a clean story. It is one of the more colorful threads in the fabric of the United States. Few tell that story better than author Richard Zacks, in his book, “The Pirate Coast”. From the beginning and throughout the tumultuous events that followed, William Eaton remained both righteous and reckless. The man was a world shaper. He showed one of our early American presidents the purity of a citizen’s resolve and the power of individual perseverance. Those are qualities on the other side of the coin labeled “reckless”. The people of the United States acquired a moral sense of themselves,and their government began to test the foundational principles of the constitution in the early nineteenth century because of the principled actions of William Eaton.


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