As a young nation, the United States found its new club carried certain requirements, including the practice of bribing pirates of the Barbary Coast in North Africa to leave their ships alone. Naturally, the rebellious Americans bristled, and in a huffy show of force they dispatched a huge frigate to the waters off Tripoli, where the pirates' master -- the Bashaw -- held court. But they weren't as intimidating as planned, as the captain grounded the vessel, tossed over the cannons in a frantic attempt to free his ship and ultimately surrendered without a shot fired. A few hours later and the tide would have lifted his ship off the shoals; instead 300 American sailors were enslaved.
So the story has some resonance -- Americans taken hostage by defiant Muslims -- but Jefferson had more options than Jimmy Carter. As he went through the motions of diplomacy, Jefferson also launched the first of many covert American missions aimed at overthrowing a foreign government. As Richard Zacks writes, "Eaton's mission marked the first tentative steps by a deeply idealistic government trying to wrestle with ugly problems overseas. When is secrecy justified? What about assassination?"
Eaton hooked up with the Bashaw's exiled brother in upper Egypt, rounded up a ragtag army, both Muslim and Christian, and set out across a vast desert to conquer Tripoli. And the story only gets more improbable from there, with Zacks making the most of it, tapping into a variety of firsthand accounts that have survived and bringing that dangerous, fascinating part of the world back to life.
But why does the world still celebrate Lewis and Clark while Eaton has been forgotten? (Except, of course, for the line from the Marine Corps' hymn, "From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.")
After returning home, Eaton was filled with bitterness and played in politics, making enemies of both Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Such controversy kept him from lasting glory -- but as epic journeys go, his is right up there with the best.