James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Eaton, 23 August 1802

From William Eaton, 23 August 1802

Tunis 23d. Aug. 1802.


Yesterday 2. oclock p.m. a Danish frigate anchored off cape Carthage. I happened to be at the Goulette, and at half past six boarded him: He was 12 days from Tripoli. Finding on board Mr. DeWitt a gentleman of my particular acquaintance, who had been a principal Agent in negociating the Danish peace at Tunis in 1801, and who had now returned from Tripoli where he had been employed in similar business, I used the freedom to enquire of him, what seemed to be the disposition of the Bashaw and subjects of that regency with regard to American affairs? He said, the Bashaw from what he could learn was desirous of peace; the subjects more so: but that the capture of the American brig had greatly elevated his pride, and in some degree pacified the discontentment of the subjects. That the Bashaw, however was much disturbed on account of the position of his brother. That on his being informed of the latter having secured himself at Malta and refusing to proceed to Derna, he was much agitated with the apprehension of a descent in his favor, supported by the Americans & Swedes; and that to be prepared for the event, he collected, with all possible expedition the whole force of his kingdom about the city; and that this force consisted, according to report of Tripoli, of nearly Sixty thousand men, chiefly arabs. That they remained incamped in the invirons of the city until the 8th. instant, when they dispersed to the mountains for want of provisions.

Mr. Dewitt further informed me, that during the time he was at Tripoli, the Swedish and American frigates cruised about nine or ten french leagues from the coast, that they were no real impediment to the entry and departure of vessels, that, a few days before the danish frigate left the port, a large imperial merchantman entered there from Leghorn, cleared out for Alexandria; laden with munitions of war and provisions, and that vessels were daily entering and departing without apparent molestation. I learn to-day that among the other military stores in the imperial were a number of gun carriages. Tripoli had great need of them. Three days ago a moorish vessel entered this port from Tripoli laden with the produce of that regency, on her way to Bona for ⟨corn⟩. Yet Tripoli is blockaded!

My first drogoman, who was an officer in the army of the Bey of Tunis, seven years ago, at the reduction of Tripoli, says; that the number of men above stated to have come to the assistance of that Bashaw must be greatly exaggerated; and that the whole number of fighting men whom he can bring to his obedience cannot exceed ten or eleven thousand: that it is impossible to keep them in the field any considerable time for want of provisions; that being chiefly mounted and totally undisciplined they are extremely terrified at the appearance of artilery. That a detachment of this Bey’s army, consisting of five hundred infantry and cavalry, with two field pieces, attacked, routed and totally dispersed two thousand of those mountaineers without the loss of a single man killed, and only four or five wounded. He says it ought not to discourage our project with Mahomet Bashaw that this collection of Arabs had dissembled obedience to the reigning Bashaw, That in answer to Mahomet’s letters these very people have assured him they will support his cause the moment they see his position formidable by sea: but, till then, prudence dictated that they should affect allegiance to the usurper. I know not, on what authority he founds these observations; though they correspond with intimations I had to day from the Bey’s commercial agent.

If to coerce Tripoli be an object with our government I venture to say even at the hazard of being thout presumptious, that the position I have taken with Mahamet Bashaw is well calculated to secure that object. Divide and conquer is an instrument which the French have used perhaps as efficaciously as their arms. If ever there was a war in which this policy might with justice be resorted to, is it not this in which we are engaged? We are contending with a perfidious usurper whose rightful sovereign may be used in our cause. If we suffer the occasion to be lost without an effort, it is a question worth consideration, What alternative shall be adopted equally promising? Is it not a circumstance, which should interest the friends to present administration, that the issue of this war will in some measure, stamp the character of the Executive? I most sincerely wish it may be honorable; and should wish so even if the real interest of our country were not so deeply involved in the issue. Can an occasion more favorable than the present offer to consolidate the affections and interests of the American people? In the present war there cannot exist any of those partial and national attachments and aversions which, on former occasions, have divided the sentiment of the UStates. In this there can be but one mind and one voice. It is only to be feared that the enemey are thought too contemptible to rouse exertion. But it ought to be considered, that we are combatting the commercial policy of all Europe. It is not only then in Barbary that we are about to fix a national character—it is in the world! Yield but in this instance and we are humbled perhaps for ages, and our European commercial rivals will exult not less in their intrigue than in our weakness. The question now at issue is, Whether we will defend our right of free navigation, or hold this privilege as tributaries and as tenants at will at the discretion of a Barbary pirate? But this is not all. Recede from the erect attitude we have taken and we consign the purse-strings of the national treasury to the disposition of these piratical chiefs; and with them the personal liberty of our fellow citizens: there will be no ⟨borne⟩ to their exactions, nor to their outrages.

Day before yesterday my Drogoman was at Bardo. The Bey told him that, as soon as he should have arranged his difficulties with Algiers, he would renew his demand for a small frigate (una frigatina) of the American Consul in terms which could not admit of a refusal! And ordered him to signify this to me in a manner to prepare my mind for an answer without arrogance! I shall yield no concessions. But, one of two events must result from this posture of affairs—concession, or war; except some happy event take place to impress reformed notions on the mind of this Bey.

France and England have accommodated their differences with Algiers. Such at least is the report of the day, confirmed by Azulai the Algerine Jew here. If true, Spain, of course, will compromise with Tunis. No longer held in check by those magnanimous powers, the field is open for these marauders to coersce the Americans into their views.

Our operations of the last and present year produce nothing, in effect but additional enemies and national contempt. If the same system of operations continue so will the same consequences. The obstinate posture and affected indifference to menace, which have hitherto been my tales-men in lieu of solid argument here no longer avail. The minister puffs a whistle in my face, and says, “We find it is all a puff! We see how you carry on the war with Tripoli!”

I have never ceased to give the alarm in due season, to suggest such measures as seemed to me indispensible to parry serious mischief, and to point out what I believed would be the consequence of neglecting that advice. I have now the melancholy reflection that my apprehensions have been but too well founded, and my predictions but too accurate.

My exile is become insupportable here. Abandoned by my countrymen in command—no advice from government to regulate my conduct—and my own exertions failing of effect—I am left subject, though not yet submissive, to the most intolerable abuse and personal vexation. Anxiety, perplexity and a climate unfavorable to my constitution waste my Health. The position I have taken and held with this Bey in regard to passports for his merchantmen to Tripoli has excited a temper and dispositions in this court to distress me in my personal concerns. I have frequently stated that my salary was an inadequate support. The check which Capt. Murray thought proper to put on my public measures has no less affected my public character. Thus situated I am consuming life property and perhaps public reputation here without the consoling prospect of having the merit of being useful to my country. Why should I remain at a post which is no longer tenable? Again I repeat my individual resources are insufficient barriers against the avarice of this Regency. From the first moment of my agency here it was apparent to me that submission to the demands of this Bey would only sharpen avidity. I stated this apprehension in my communications to Govt. It was thought too lively! My measures to chastise the temerity of a perfidious enemy are now branded by commanders as speculative; the effusions of a disordered fancy! Is it not enough that I have sacrificed almost four years to the service of my country in a state of painful sequestration from all rational enjoyment? Will any body alledge that I have not discharged my duty at least with an upright zeal? And are such the rewards of my services? To be branded, unheard in my own defence, and by a solitary captain of a frigate, with speculation and insanity? This is too much! I have the native rights, and I trust the feelings, of an American citizen. Let Murray leave to me my liberty and my honor. He may filch from me all the other appendages of life which can be useful to him. But, blasted as is my honor here by the weight of his authority and the breath of his scandal my very existence is insupportable. It were impossible to keep those things concealed here, even if they had been transacted with less publicity. The Bey says “I always told the American Consul he was a mad man” (because I have not been his very obsequious slave, as are half the consuls near him) “and it appears the commanders of his nation, are of the same opinion!” Gentle commanders! Ye have hitherto exhibited no symptoms of madness to these regencies! They are perfectly satisfied with your moderation: equally so with the blast, in cool blood, you have stamped on the character of a fellow citizen & fellow servant of your country!

But pardon, I beseech you, Sir, this rhapsody, and allow me to express, as I feel, the indignities I suffer. They involve, in a degree, the interest and reputation of my beloved country. I once stood erect he⟨re⟩ I flattered myself with the animating hope that a naval force would fortify me in that position. On the contrary, it has disarmed and pinioned me. I am constrained therefore not less by a regard to the interest and honor of my country than to my individual interest and honor to request the President will permit me to resign the trust I have the honor to hold under the Government of the UStates; except more active operations shall be resolved on against the enemy, in which case it would gratify me to remain on this coast till the issue be determined.

I shall with as much patience and firmness to my duty as circumstances will admit wait an answer to this request. In the mean time I cannot but hope that it will comport as well with the pleasure of the President as with the interest of the UStates to grant it, in case the system of the war continue on its present footing!

But one Amn. frigt. has appeared before Tripoli since the departure of the Boston It is presumed Comre. Morris is occupied on the ⟨Moorish⟩ coast. I have recd. no information from any of our Commanders since 3d. June. Five Tripoline gallies are at sea. But our merchantmen are all embargoed, I believe, on the coast of Europe, by Consuls. I have the honor to remain with profound respect Sir your mos Obedt. servt.

William Eaton

P.S. 28. Aug.

Yesterday I was called to the palace. The minister formally demanded of me a frigate of 36 guns. It need not be thought strange to see me in America this winter. I can neither yield to nor get rid of the demand.

William Eaton

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