The Ottoman provinces of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and the independent sultanate of Morocco, known as Barbary States, terrorized merchant ships with piracy of cargoes and enslavement of their sailors throughout the early modern period. Barbary privateers, known as corsairs, justified their selective targeting of ‘kafir’ or ‘infidel’ merchant ships as waging ‘sea jihad’. Agents of empire struggled to reconcile principles of ‘just war’ in the natural law tradition with the negotiated payment of Barbary tributes for unobstructed passage through the Mediterranean. Resolving this Barbary threat by way of war or tribute involved American interests after 1783. This article examines the ways in which William Eaton, as the United States Consul for Tunis, intervened between Enlightenment and imperial responses to Barbary piracy. Eaton defied Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policies by engineering the first American attempt at coup d’état in a foreign government. In doing so, Eaton’s strategy of military interventionism offered an alternative to perennial Enlightenment and imperial designs for war and peace in the Islamic world.
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