American exception? William Eaton and early national antisemitism.

Author:Peskin, Lawrence A.

William Eaton, U.S. consul to Tunis from 1799 to 1803 and one of the great heroes of America's First Barbary War in Tripoli, has received a fair amount of attention from historians over the years, but none has grappled with, and few have even acknowledged the deep and disturbing anti-Jewish tone of his letters. The closest this topic has come to receiving analysis is in a dismissive remark by authors Louis B. Wright and Julia H. MacLeod seventy years ago that reading Eaton's letters and those of his correspondents "out of context, one might assume that the consuls were three anti-Semitic Americans heaping insults upon the Jewish race." However, they add, "Actually these diatribes were directed at a particular group of Jewish bankers and not the race as a whole. (2) This view arguably ignores the virulence of the anti-Jewish sentiment of Eaton's consular correspondence, much of which is readily available in printed form. It is entirely off the mark when one considers the content and frequency of Eaton's anti-Jewish sentiments in his less easily accessible personal papers, which are stored at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. (3) These papers reveal a man who, during the period from 1799 to 1802, could hardly refrain from derogatory mention of the "particular group of Jewish bankers" as well as Jews in general, and who did not hesitate to make comments that today would be judged extremely offensive for the way they tapped into nasty stereotypes of Jews. Of course, as Wright and MacLeod rightly imply, one cannot judge early-nineteenth-century discourse by modern standards. Instead of condemning Eaton or dismissing his utterances as lacking wider import, it seems more useful to examine them closely and consider what they may be able to tell us about early American attitudes toward Jews and Jewry.

From 1799 to 1803, Eaton's letter books reveal a man obsessed with Jews, whom he believed were united in a conspiracy against him and the nation he represented. Dozens of his letters specifically discuss "Jews" or "Hebrews' or "covenant people" in derogatory terms, and many others apply those attitudes to individuals Eaton knew to be Jewish, most frequently, members of the Bacri banking family of Algiers and their associates. (4) Eaton often insults these Jews with standard antisemitic tropes, including references to "Shylocks" and "Christ killers," and also by implying that Jews employ their manipulative abilities across borders throughout the Mediterranean world. He insults gentiles by calling them "Jews" or claiming that they are somehow in league with the Jews or their "Sanhedrin" (the ancient Jewish court system). While it is certainly the case that much of his vitriol was reserved for the Jewish bankers, particularly the powerful House of Bacri and Busnach, he also made it clear that the Bacris were just one part of a larger Jewish conspiracy acting against him and his country and that they represented the larger race or "nation" of Jews. As such, Eaton's papers offer a valuable, albeit disturbing, view into what one important figure and his correspondents found acceptable in describing Jews. Historians should be disturbed not only because of the language, but also because, at first blush, Eaton's positions seem so contrary to the usual understanding of early American tolerance for Jews. In recent years, American historians have chipped away at the old consensus of a uniquely tolerant early republic through their examinations of political antisemitism and recurring literary tropes, but the language in Eaton's letters goes far beyond most of their examples. (5)

Furthermore, Eaton's papers and his correspondence with others are, so far as I know, the largest collection of letters written by an American gentile discussing Jews during this period. Most of our knowledge of anti-Jewish attitudes during the early republic comes from the public sphere: newspaper accounts, literary sources, and political/legal matter. When historians have used more private sources, such as letters and journals, they have mostly been the expressions of Jews. Occasionally, they have found snippets of antisemitism in the private writings of gentiles--for example, diarist Hannah Callendar Samson's remark that "this people, once the chosen people, [had become] the scum of the earth!" (6) The only collection that is even slightly comparable to Eaton's would be that of a fellow New Englander, Ezra Stiles, who became the seventh president of Yale College in the late eighteenth century. Although Stiles was not above criticizing Jewish religious practices and, at one point, revealed an extreme distrust of British Jews, in the context of the period, he should be seen as a philosemite who was deeply interested in Jewish religious practices (even if evangelism probably informed this interest). He had many Jewish friends, and he was a regular visitor to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. (7)

It should be quite clear, therefore, that the unusual qualities of Eaton's papers must force anyone using them to consider issues of representativeness. If the Eaton collection is unique, and if he was uniquely vituperative, is it appropriate to generalize about his attitudes? In other words, did others share his views and simply not articulate them? Perhaps there are other similar expressions hidden in archives that have not yet been discussed in the context of Jewish history. On the contrary, perhaps Eaton's views were completely aberrant and not shared by other Americans at all. Furthermore, since Eaton's wrath was aimed at non-American Jews, what can it tell us about American attitudes toward Jews generally, particularly when, like most subsequent commentators, Eaton touted America's exceptional tolerance of its Jewish minority? Before addressing these issues, it is necessary to delve into Eaton's utterances and outline the general nature and evolution of his obsession with Jews.

Born in rural Connecticut in 1764 and educated at Dartmouth College, Eaton served in the U.S. Army in Ohio and Georgia during the Indian wars of the 1790s, attaining the rank of captain. Despite a checkered record, including being court-martialed over a conflict with his superior, Eaton was appointed consul to Tunis in November of 1798. During his time there, the war with Tripoli broke out. Eaton put together a daring plan of marching a small army through what is now the Libyan desert to the seaport of Derne (now Derna) in order to meet up with forces from the U.S. Navy, capture that port, and install Hamet Karamanli, elder brother of the Bashaw of Tripoli, on the throne as a puppet of the United States. Eaton's improbable success in 1805 made him a national hero, but he died six years later, a bitter alcoholic, angry that his country had abandoned Hamet Karamanli and negotiated a peaceful settlement with the Bashaw, allowing him to continue ruling.

There is no evidence that Eaton met any Jews before arriving in North Africa in February of 1799. (8) His papers reveal him to have been an advocate for religious toleration and a critic of religious establishment. Shortly after his consular appointment, he pledged to "do away with the idea that Mahometans and Christians are natural enemies." He asked, "Who hath vested one man with a right to debar another from worshipping a shadow or a statue if his reason, fanaticism, or divine inspiration (which are synonymous in religion) inclines him to do it," and he expressed astonishment that "all wise men should not agree that a religion which induces partial attachments cannot be the inspiration for the universal God." At the same time, Eaton viewed Islam in North Africa as oppressive, noting that it "favours indolence by inspiring a reliance upon the supernatural interposition of their God in all affairs of state and police." Although a firm Federalist, he wrote, "Jefferson says it matters not to him whether his neighbor believes there is one God or twenty--I say so, too, provided he keeps his hogs out of my corn!" Indeed, Eaton appears to have leaned toward deism for much of his life, in large part as a reaction to what he viewed as the superstition of Christian clergy. (9)

Yet Eaton's voluminous papers soon became consumed with Jews and perceived Jewish plots. Some of this, as will be seen below, was a result of his unpleasant interaction with Jewish merchants whom he easily fit into familiar Shylock stereotypes. But Eaton's attitudes also drew on those of fellow Americans in North Africa, most notably, the American consuls to nearby Tripoli and Algiers, who were his most frequent and intimate correspondents. (10) Both of these men, James Cathcart (Tripoli) and Richard O'Brien (Algiers), were prisoners in Algiers for a dozen years before becoming American agents. As a result, they had assimilated some of the Algerian prejudices against the Jews--especially, the prominent merchants. In his letters, O'Brien often referred to the influence of a "Jew directory in Algiers." (11) Cathcart, who arrived in Algiers as a very young man and who served as the dey's (governor's) personal Christian secretary during his captivity, absorbed Algerian anti-Jewish sentiment even more than O'Brien, frequently warning Eaton of the Jews' perfidy. Additionally, Cathcart was heavily involved in trade, a pursuit that made Jewish merchants his rivals. Yet even Cathcart could also see Jews as unfortunate victims--for example, when describing a group of Islamic youths rioting against the Jews. "The boys, not content with their achievement at the synagogue, went into several of the Jews' houses, and broke their moveables, and hove stones at the poor creatures, who had no alternative but a precipitate flight," he wrote. Still, the Jewish victims were not entirely blameless. "Does not humanity recoil," Cathcart wrote, "at the indignity these poor Jews continually suffer, and yet they content...

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