Interlude: 1797-1800

Soon after assuming the presidency, John Adams dispatched new consuls to North Africa:  James Cathcart to Tripoli, William Eaton to Tunis, Richard O’Brien to Algiers, and James Simpson to Morocco.  Cathcart, Eaton, and O’Brien had a particularly unhappy time living in North Africa and heavily criticized what they deemed the idleness, laziness, and military ineptness of North African men.  They also advocated using military force against the Barbary States instead of paying tribute.

See below for a June 23, 1800 letter by Eaton to the Secretary of State that encapsulates his frustration and expresses his vision for more robust policies.  What type of rhetoric does Eaton use?   How does he portray the United States?









A national uproar occurred when, in September 1800, the Dey of Algiers forced the George Washington to transport Algiers’s tribute to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople.  Outnumbered by the Algerian navy, Captain William Bainbridge had no choice but to comply.  Diplomat Richard O’Brien recorded the contents of the tribute:  African slaves, four horses, one-hundred fifty sheep, twenty-five horned cattle, four antelopes, four horses, four lions, four parrots, four tigers, and one-million dollars’ worth of goods.[1]  However, the trip ended on a positive note.  The sultan had never heard of the United States and was eager to learn about the new country.  He gave Bainbridge a firman (a royal decree) granting the American captain safe conduct through the Mediterranean.

Back in the United States, the public was outraged.  Newspapers published articles that castigated the John Adams Administration for leaving the American navy vulnerable in the Mediterranean and called for retaliation.  Adams lost his bid for reelection, but by the time Thomas Jefferson became president in March 1801, the United States was primed for war.  Americans wanted to unleash the resurgent American navy against the Barbary “pirates” in order to prevent another incident like the George Washington from happening again.

[1] Richard O’Brien to William Eaton, 19 October 1800, Naval Documents I: 384.


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  • Anonymous

    Eaton uses passionate, emotionally-charged language to
    express his embarrassment over the United States accepting a subordinate status
    to the Barbary States by paying tribute: 
    the government “must either send a show of force” or be “a slave!”  He doesn’t consider the Barbary pirates his
    equals; they are “begging thieves” who would cower under a display of American
    military might.  My favorite line in this
    letter is “it is a burlesque upon every thing manly or political to see nations
    pouring into the ports of these kingdoms…”


    What do you think about Eaton’s rhetoric?

  • Anonymous

    There is a connection between this Bainbridge and the U.S.S. Bainbridge which was connected in the freeing of Americans and the capture of their captors, pirates from Somolia about a year-and-a-half ago. The ship is named for this naval officer.

    Bainbridge had been captured with his crew when he ran his ship onto a sandbar while attempting to enter the harbor at Tangiers. Mordecai Noah was sent by Pres. Madison to free Americans and others enslaved by the Dey. He managed to raise the needed ransom but then had a difficult time getting reimbursement. Noah had borrowed the amount from the British envoy in Tangiers, and could have been imprisoned as a debtor in England for that, but the British diplomat let him go to retrieve the money from the U.S. government.

    The reason why he was having problems getting the payment from the government was that Stephen Decatur, an old school-chum of Noah, had invaded and occupied Tangiers, nullifying the reason for the money, but it had already been delivered to the Dey. It was a happy reunion for Noah and Decatur, but it created a problem who was serving as a plenipotentiary representative of the U.S. government. In fact, Decatur innocently passed on a packet of letter for Noah, and in it was a letter severing Noah’s service to the government from the Secretary of State. Until this day, no official reason has been found for this strange severance of service.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for mentioning the U.S.S. Bainbridge’s efforts in the Somali pirate conflicts- what a neat bit of historical coincidence!

      Regarding your other comments, I’d recommend checking out Frank Lambert’s The Barbary Wars for a good synopsis of the basic events.  William Bainbridge’s ship (the Philadelphia) got stuck on a sandbar while in pursuit of a Tripolitan ship, not while trying to enter Tangier, Morocco.  He, along with the rest of the crew (except five who converted to Islam), were held hostage until Tobias Lear negotiated a treaty with the Tripolitan bashaw that officially ended the Tripolitan War.  

      Also, Decatur never invaded Tangier; the United States had peaceful relations with Morocco during this time.  Decatur fought naval battles against the Tripolitan navy and, most famously, led the covert operation to destroy the captured Philadelphia so that the Tripolitans could not outfit it for their navy.

      As for Mordecai Noah, he served as a diplomat to Tunis starting in 1813.  He was not in involved in the Tripolitan War of 1801-1805.

  • Hynes3

    I am just finding this site after watching a lecture of yours on youtube.  A great site and lecture, I had only really been exposed to the Barbary wars before through michael oren’s book on the middle east, written about 4 years ago.  Great site, I will continue to follow it.  

  • dinoscabs

    John Hook-Family history states hewas taken prisoner in Morocco during the Tripolitian Wars. He was put to the hardships meted out by the Muslems on Christians. He was hitchen to plow with others and as a result came home broken in health and hastened his death in 1807. Can you advise me where to search for info about our relative?

    • jasonthebarbarypirate

      Hi there. is a great resource for genealogy matters. It helps to have as much info about your relative as possible (such as which city he lived in), so that the website can narrow results. I wonder if he sought treatment at the Seamen’s Hospital that Congress created in July 1798? Do you have any papers or documents from John Hook? Best wishes with discovering more information!