Empire of Liberty: Strange Bedfellows

“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last…

The great conflict of our time.”

~ Tsar Alexander I of Russia


Excerpt from “Bald Eagles in Arabia: A Brief History of the U.S. Middle East”

William Eaton was a consummate patriot and ardent Federalist. Hailing from New England, he ran away from home at the age of 15 to enlist in the Continental Army (though his main duties involved washing dishes) and then as part of the army expeditions into Ohio Country. After a stint as quartermaster of the fort overlooking Bridgetown on Barbados, he found Federalist patronage and finished a college degree at Dartmouth. He finished the Adams Administration as American consul to Tunis. There he made minor headlines across Europe as the man responsible for paying an exorbitant amount to secure the freedom of a young Sardinian girl after Yussef’s pirates sacked a small seaside town and took hundreds of civilians as slaves. Hoping the United States would repay him in this matter of honor, he was surprised to find himself on the hook for the debt and recalled from North Africa altogether.

But now, in 1803, Eaton’s audacity and knowledge of the region combined to give Jefferson a key homegrown ally. Further benefiting the Americans was the recent Louisiana Alliance, which permitted the US access to ports in Iberia, France, Italy and Egypt. With Hamet Karamanli somewhere in Upper Egypt with the reeling mamluks, French control of the region was a key U.S. asset.

Jefferson commissioned Eaton as a U.S. Navy Agent, granted him wide latitude to commission subordinate agents, draw on American credit, and granted him supplies and money in pursuit of his farfetched mission. For the typically “economical” Jefferson this was a drastic change of character but an indication of how seriously the president took the idea of changing the regime and freeing the hundreds of hostages.

Departing from Virginia, Captain William Bainbridge and the USS Philadelphia dropped Eaton and an expeditionary party of marines off in allied Alexandria in late 1803. Notable, as they entered the Mediterranean in October, Britain was declaring war on Russia for its astonishing attack on Constantinople that August. Eaton and Bainbridge’s squadron were entering a completely different world than the one they left in Virginia.


Excerpt from Ola Sulaimon’s “The Napoleonic Wars and the United States”, University of Lagos Press, 2016.

While Jefferson and Eaton’s audacious plan unfolded, more traditional military operations began in the western Mediterranean. In the summer of 1803, U.S. Navy squadrons established blockades of Tunis and Algiers. Correspondence between Jefferson and his Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, indicates that the president never seriously entertained ground operations in Algeria. The rough terrain of the Atlas Mountains, the sizeable inland population, and delicate relations with Morocco all combined to dissuade that option. However, both men believed Tunis to be a viable target for an amphibious assault. The tricky shallow harbor of Tunis, with its narrow entrance, forbid any major warships from entering and threatening bombardment, which meant that U.S. seapower could easily block, but not threaten, the Bey of Tunis. Dearborn drew up crude plans to land a well-equipped army at the ancient port of Carthage and march five miles inland to lay siege to Tunis. Jefferson reasoned that the capture of Tunis, in conjunction with American efforts in Tripolitania, would reverberate through the hinterland and pacify the larger Beylik.

Of course, mustering the navy and marines was one thing. For Jefferson, mustering an army to dispatch across the ocean was an entirely different proposition. It would take over a year to mobilize, equip, and train the Second Legion of the United States but by that point the situation across the Mediterranean would be vastly different.


Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

Britain’s declaration of war on Russia sparked a diplomatic crisis across Europe as the powers weighed their options. A Russian-dominated near east would be catastrophic for both France and Austria and intolerable to Britain. A British dominated near east would be catastrophic for France and Russia.

Austria, looking to expel the Russians and end the chaos on its borders, signed a treaty of alliance with Britain and entered the war in January of 1804. Naples, increasingly in the British camp since the end of the War of the Second Coalition, joined the alliance as well. Prussia opted to sit the war out, content to let its enemies bloody each other. This left Napoleon with a decision, one that could tip the balance of power in the coming war.

Historians had debated Napoleon’s decision for over 200 years and for good reason, history turned on his decision.

On one hand, Napoleon could declare for Russia and have its continental enemies where he wanted them. Austria would be fighting a war on two fronts, Naples would be exposed to an invasion which would allow him to unite all of Italy in the French camp, and his forces in Egypt and Greece were well on their way to partitioning Turkey. A Russo-French victory would eliminate Austria as a threat, partition Turkey, destroy the Holy Roman Empire and place the two allies as the dominant forces in Europe. Of course, there was the post-war problem of Russian dominance in the Balkans, the Bosporus and the likelihood that an Anglo-Russian alliance could outflank Napoleon diplomatically but those were future hypotheticals. Napoleon’s largest concern was the Royal Navy. If he declared for Russia, he could expect British ships, already on their way around Africa, to swarm the Mediterranean. Even with his American and Italian allies, the battle against the British would be tough and a loss would strand American forces in Tripoli and French forces in Greece, Egypt and Syria.

On the other hand, Napoleon could declare for the British and assist the allies in expelling the Russians. The combined power of the allies would surely knock Russia out as a threat for several years and any assistance lent to Ottoman Sultan Selim III would likely be contingent on the Ottoman cessation of North Africa and Greece. The French and British navies would wait to duke it out another day but France would be supporting a British return to the Mediterranean and the Austrian threat would remain.

For several days while Napoleon weighed the decision he appeared determined to ally with Tsar Alexander and gamble all on a decisive naval battle with Britain. With a fleet full of French, American, Dutch, Castilian, Italian and Aragonese allies, combined with Russia’s own formidable Black Sea Fleet, such a gambit was hardly unfeasible. Two decisive victories, one on land and one at sea, would have secured French hegemony across the Mediterranean. One more war with Russia and a few more victories would have ensured Napoleon’s legacy on the same Pantheon as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Which makes his decision to side with the allies against Russia all the more perplexing. Legend holds that a 30-minute meeting with James Monroe, American envoy to Paris, changed Napoleon’s mind at the last minute. While possible, it is highly likely that Napoleon was split on his decision and the desperate American pleas about their overextended naval strength due to the Barbary War tipped the scales in his mind. If everything hinged on a decisive battle against the preeminent naval power of the day, Napoleon would need every allied ship he could find.


Excerpt from the Minutes of Order Secretary John Marshall, Monticello, Virginia; January 18, 1804.

After explaining the complex situation in the Balkans, Pres. Adams introduced Monroe to discuss the espionage efforts on Bonaparte.

Monroe explained that the French Consul seemed likely to sign a treaty with Russia and spark a new coalitionary war. Monroe explained such a move would necessitate an American declaration of war on Austria, Britain and the coalition states; a war that everyone in the room knew we were unprepared to fight. However, Monroe said that Bonaparte’s mind was not determined on this course of action with complete resolution. Based on Pres. Adams’s report and his spywork, he proposed a technology vote to use the ring to convince Bonaparte to sign a treaty with Britain. Monroe explained that only the use of technology would allow Bonaparte to sign with the British, whom Bonaparte considers his chief enemy. Monroe finished his argument stating that a war with Britain now benefits France at the expense of the United States but a war alongside Britain now, against Russia, benefits the United States at the expense of France by allowing us to solidify our position in locales like Africa and India.

Pres. Adams proposed the requested vote and the measure passed unanimously. [1]”


Novel adapted excerpt from HBO’s miniseries “Vive L’Empereur”, broadcast summer 2015.

Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 3rd Duke of Portland and Prime Minister, found himself nodding off in the middle on ongoing parliamentary debates. A tory backbencher had been prattling on for nearly ten minutes about coastal defenses in Lincolnshire, as if old bony would sail the French halfway to Scotland before invading England. To make matters worse it was the dead of winter and a cold rain had been beating London for several days. War ought to be more exciting, but all the duke desired was a good book, a roaring fire, his study and a bottle of brandy.

The dreariness of parliamentary procedure, and the monotone drolling of the backbencher, were shattered by the echoing “thud” of a door and running footsteps. Wentworth roused upright and banged his gavel calling for order. Whispers and gasps of shock spread through the MPs as the source of the commotion was quickly identified: a dirty, shabbily dressed, boy no more than ten years old. The boy rushed through St. Stephen’s Chapel and towards the Speaker’s chair. Out of breath, he handed a letter to the prime minister [2].

“And what the devil exactly is this!” roared Portland, holding the letter high. “This is an official meeting of MPs and we shall not tolerate intrusions by dirty children!”

“Please sire,” cried the boy in a thick cockney accent. “The French messenger is an old man and he sent me to run this directly to you. He said it is quite urgent it is.”

French messenger? Urgent? Portland’s mind raced and he examined the letter a bit more closely. The whispers started again through the benches as the prime minister noticed a wax seal on the letter. In the red seal stood the flamboyant letter “N”, the mark of the First Consul himself. His mind racing, Portland realized that he likely held a declaration of war in his hand. But why send a child racing into parliament? And to his knowledge the French ambassador had not requested his passports, nor had the American envoy or those of Tuscany, Aragon, the Dutch…

Could it be…?

The prime minister broke the seal and the whole room, from the richest MP to the dirty peasant messenger, watched silently as the duke read.

Then the silence broke.

“Well gentlemen,” began Portland with a smile. “It appears Old Bony has opted to join the winning team.”


Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

Napoleon’s decision set the salons and barracks of Europe ablaze with rumor and gossip. The coming war that everyone had played out in their minds had suddenly been turned on its head. The two courts scandalized by the decision should be no surprise: Paris and St. Petersburg. In Paris, the reaction was excited, though confused. Anyone who knew Napoleon knew that he thought little of Britain, which he would continuously refer to as a “nation of shopkeepers”. The decision was perplexing but the excitement was palpable. The strained logistics officers, struggling to determine how to supply the armies in Greece and Egypt and guard the long Atlantic coast, breathed a sigh of relief. A few hardened military men lamented the lost chance to deal England a knockout blow but happily endorsed that, for once, France would be on the allied side.

In St. Petersburg, the toasting of the brilliant Tsar came to an abrupt end. The aging boyars suddenly realized that Alexander’s “bold move” against their historic enemy had suddenly made Russia, not France, the menace to Europe [3]. The escape of Selim and interference of the British had been a setback, but now Russia would have to figure out a way to counter the Holy Roman Emperor, the French Consul, the rightful Sultan and the vast resources of the allied navy.

A dispatch laid out the terms: Russia would withdraw its troops beyond its pre-invasion borders and recall Konstantin back to St. Petersburg. The new “Duchy of Belgrade” would be abolished to be replaced by either a “Serbian Republic” or a new “Kingdom of Serbia” under a neutral monarch pending a national plebiscite. Everyone knew the answer, the Tsar had risked too much and his reign was too young. Withdraw would be cowardice and weakness and surely would be the first step towards a rapid abdication, or perhaps even an assassination. After all, the Tsar’s own father was not yet three years dead from his own unfortunate end. As everyone expected, passports were requested and ambassadors were withdrawn.

The War of the Third Coalition had begun.

————- Author’s Notes ————

[1]: A few notes in this Order excerpt. Order elections occur in July of every year which means Guy Carleton was the president from Washington’s death through July 1802, following by William Briggs from July 1802 to July 1803 followed by John Adams from July 1803 to July 1804. This is also why John Marshall, not Alexander Hamilton is the secretary. John Adams was appointed the Committee Chairman for the Balkans Crisis way back in spring 1802 [see the chapter Double Edged Sword] and retains that position. However you’ll note that Marshall refers to John Adams as “Adams” and does not include the first name signifier between John and Samuel. This is because in 1803, in this timeline, like our timeline, Samuel Adams dies.

[2]: This is in early 1804 so the House of Commons was still meeting in St. Stephen’s Chapel in pre-1834 fire Palace of Westminster.

[3]: Gonzalez is using the term “boyar” anachronistically to refer to any Russian nobility. In reality the “boyars” were a powerful feudal nobility in medieval Muscovy and early Russia but their power came to an end during the reign of Peter the Great who began the consolidation of power under the monarch which continued throughout the 18th century. The collapse of boyar power under Peter the Great and ending with Empress Catherine largely marks the final consolidation of absolute power with the tsar.

Source Material

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast. Hyperion, 2005.

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