Talk about the advantages of a broad liberal education: William Eaton was soon commissioned a captain in the United States Army. But his military career proved a checkered one, marked by charges and counter-charges of insubordination till he was court-martialed and ordered suspended from the service. Wisely the order was never carried out. Maybe the secretary of war understood that such a man might be useful in the future. And so he proved.
Appointed consul to Tunis, he began organizing a revolution against the pirate pasha in Tripoli, spending more than $20,000 to lay the groundwork. Then he returned to Washington to press his case for decisive action in his country's war against piracy only to find that the new administration of Mr. Jefferson preferred appeasement, confident it could invoke universal peace just by proclaiming its leader's angelic intentions. On his inauguration as commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces, the Sage of Monticello suggested putting all the American navy's frigates in dry-dock, as there would be no use for them any more under his peace-loving aegis.
In a letter to a friend, William Eaton professed himself much amused by these "predictions of a political millennium which was about to happen in the United States. The millennium was to usher in upon us as the irresistible consequence of the goodness of heart, integrity of mind, and correctness of disposition of Mr. Jefferson. All nations, even pirates and savages, were to be moved by the influence of his persuasive virtue and masterly skill in diplomacy." Sound familiar? The mood could have been that of Inauguration Day, 2009.
General Eaton was left to strike out on his own in 1804, pausing in Alexandria to raise a ragtag army before proceeding westward to the pasha of Tripoli's domains.
To quote one historian, the redoubtable Henry Adams: "So motley a horde of Americans, Greeks, Tripolitans and Arab camel-drivers had never before been seen on the soil of Egypt. Without discipline, cohesion, or sources of supply, even without water for days, their march of five hundred miles was a sort of miracle."
There was no "sort of" about it.
It's hard to think of any term but miraculous for the highly improbable series of cliffhanger victories General Eaton and his motliest of crews proceeded to pull off. Till the pasha of Tripoli decided that making peace with the infidels -- without being expressly paid for it this time -- was better than risking his throne and head. William Eaton proved a T.E. Lawrence ahead of his time, about two centuries ahead. Or maybe a David Petraeus. In any event, American honor was vindicated.
But for only the shortest of times. Because then, beginning a long American tradition, our diplomats bargained away the fruits of war for a fragile peace. The pasha of Tripoli wound up being paid $60,000, and General Eaton returned home -- to much applause but little reward. He would end life an embittered old man taking solace in drink and imprecations against craven politicians.
Once again, a force advances upon Tripoli to overthrow a minor but bloody tyrant. They say history repeats itself, but, please, let's not repeat the sad end of General Eaton's valiant campaign, shall we? On to the shores of Tripoli. Our dead await.