James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Eaton, 4 May 1802

From William Eaton, 4 May 1802

Tunis 4. May 1802.


Day before yesterday it was announced to the Bey that an American frigate had captured four Coasting Vessels belonging to his Subjects, bound to Tripoli, laden with wheat, barley, oil and other provisions. I was called to the Palace. Immediate restitution of Vessels and cargoes were demanded by the Bey. Yesterday and to day have been consumed in discussion on the subject—detail of which would be too tedious. The Bey asserted a right to carry provisions in all cases to his brethren. I denied its application to U States, by saying that if this principle were established between him and his brethren, it did not extend to those who were not included in that relation. He quoted the Venitiens in the war with him. I told him we did not admit them as authority, and quoted examples of the English and French. He asserted the principle of free bottoms free goods—I answered that this principle was never construed to extend to a blockaded port. He referred to the President’s Letter to him of 9th. Sep. last, and inferred from it an implied order to respect his flag, Vessels and Subjects in all Situations. I did not suppose this construction would bear, and that a fair construction could only imply that respect so long as he or his Subjects respected the laws of neutrality. I had given seasonable and formal advise of the blockade of Tripoli: if; after this, he permitted his subjects to carry provisions to that port it was taking the responsibility on himself—if they took these enterprizes without his consent, it was a voluntary risque on their part and they had no reason to complain in case of capture. But the Captures being made agreeably to acknowledged maxims of war were of course good prize to the Captors, and were undoubtedly before this moment, disposed of as such. Reclamations therefore on the Commandant would avail nothing. The Bey talked of reprisals. I told him, in such case I should know what steps to take. If he chose to embroil himself with US it would become our duty, however reluctantly, to meet his hostility by retaliation. He said he would transfer his claims to the American Government. I assured him they would there meet a righteous discussion. He desired me to write to the Commodore to Capture no more of his Vessels, but turn them away in case he found them bound to Tripoli. I told him Our Commanding Officers were Subordinate to no orders but those of the President of the United States; my advise therefore would be disrespected except exactly conformable to those orders. Such are the outlines of our discussion; and thus we stand here.

I am convinced this Regency dare not attempt a System of reprisals; but am of opinion that indemnity will be hereafter reclaimed. The captures, I believe, have been made by Capn. McNeill. He is doing his duty. Whatever restitution may be in future conceded, this is not the moment to yield in the smallest matter that will go to diminish that opinion of our energy with which these pirates begin to be impressed. It will be Seasonable enough to be generous when they shall be taught to appreciate duly our generosity. I left the Bey in apparent good humor. Our Ally the Sweede; has also Captured one of the Bey’s merchantmen; but he says he knows perfectly well how to manage the Sweedes. I have heard nothing from the Bashaw of Tripoli’s brother since he sailed, as we suppose for Malta, on the 31. March. I have the honor to remain with perfect respect, Sir, Your Mo. Obed. Servt.

William Eaton

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