Book Review: Lydia Bailey, by Kenneth Roberts

The year is 1798.  Albion Hamlin is a young American, recently graduated from law school: the experiences he is about to have will portray some aspects of American and world history that are not well-known by most people today…the Alien & Sedition Laws, the Haitian revolution, and the war against the Barbary pirates.

Although Albion studied law and has handled a few cases, he has decided he would much rather be a farmer than a lawyer . But a rider arrives at his uncle’s house (where Albion is living, both of his parents having died) and urgently requests the uncle to represent Thomas Bailey, a newspaperman who has been charged under the Alien & Sedition Law and is in serious trouble.  The uncle, who is a distinguished attorney,  is up and ready to go, immediately…but falls down the stairs and is hurt too badly to travel.  So Albion, although reluctant to get involved, is persuaded to go to Boston and represent the accused speech criminal.

The first part of the story is largely about Albion’s attempt to get justice for his client.who he finds bedridden and in extremely bad health, but still game for the legal fight.  The case is heard before Chief Justice Samuel Chase, who acts more like a prosecutor than a judge and whose whose courtroom behavior is portrayed in a way that is reminiscent of the Nazi ‘people’s court’ proceedings and of Stalin’s favorite prosecutor, Vishinsky.  (After Jefferson became President, Chase was impeached at Jefferson’s urging but he was not convicted.)  Not only is Bailey sent to jail…where he soon dies…but Albion is jailed as well, for the crime of representing his client too aggressively.

Albion is sprung from jail with the help of Bailey’s cousin, Harriet.  She asks for his help with another legal matter: Thomas Bailey had been an investor in a ship which was captured by the French (The French seized numerous American ships in retaliation for the US refusal to honor a treaty provision, which the French believed obligated this country to assist them in their war against the British.  Claimants argued that the decision not to honor the treaty had been made by the US government, and hence, the government should be on the hook for the losses. These claims, known as the French Spoilation Claims, were a very hot issue at the time)  The value of these claims, if any, will now devolve on Harriet, and she asks him Albion to pursue the matter with the government.  For his fee in this case, Albion requests only a small painting which he had seen in the Bailey house: it is a picture of a girl named Lydia Bailey, painted by the famed Gilbert Stuart.  Albion is fascinated both by the girl’s beauty and the way in which it was captured by the artist.  He had been greatly saddened when told by Bailey that she had died, having gone to Haiti as a governess for two children and caught the yellow fever there.  Still, Albion is obsessed with Lydia and takes the picture with him everywhere.

In the second part of the story, Albion meets with various government officials in an attempt to get reimbursement for the claims. He is not very impressed with those he meets with:

I hated everything about Washington–that raw, mud-smeared, newly created city.  I hated its blazing, steamy heat in spring, summer and autumn; its moist and biting cold in winter…the determined ignorance of a large part of the duly elected and appointed representatives of the people; the universal gossiping and backbiting among those who considered themselves socially superior; the unwarranted importance arrogated to themselves by public men whose mental attainments and value to the world were noticeably inferior to those of any competent journeyman carpenter.

He does like Thomas Jefferson, who shares a boarding-house table: Albion  finds him “a tall, angular red-headed, benevolent-looking man…apologetically asking for the butter and obligingly passing the salt.”   After Jefferson is installed as President (following a bitter Congressional dispute over who had really won the election), Albion feels he has some chance of getting somewhere with the claim.  But an official tells him that in view of the revolution then in progress in Haiti..and the former French officials there being absent…there is no way to certify the claim’s validity.   His search for information that could be useful in the case leads Albion to French refugees from Haiti who are now living in Philadelphia–and to the amazing information that Lydia Bailey is actually very much alive, having been seen in Cap Francois only two weeks prior.  But she is likely in considerable danger, given what is going on in Haiti.

Clearly, Albion needs to go to Haiti, both to find and if necessary rescue Lydia, and also to gather information that may help with the Claims.  And he quickly does so.

When he arrives in Haiti, the situation is chaotic: fortunately, he is befriended by a black man called King Dick.  This individual is noteworthy for his physical strength, his command of multiple languages, and his calmness in bad situations…at times when others are reacting with the worst blasphemies they can think of, Dick’s expression of concern is likely to be something as mild as ‘my, my’.  Via King Dick, Albion meets the leader of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint  L’Overture, with whom he is very impressed.

Haiti was a producer of great wealth, especially in the form of sugar and coffee, and the French were not going to give it up without a fight.  Moreover, Napoleon saw Haiti as a base of operations to establish a credible military presence in the Louisiana territory, and possibly to claim additional land in the United States.

As the French amass their forces to re-take the island, chaos and violence become worse, with many atrocities on all sides. (The bad feeling between mulattos and blacks is portrayed as equal to or worse than the bad feeling between blacks and white)    With Dick’s help, Albion locates Lydia, and she is as wonderful as he has dreamed.  They marry, in an impromptu ceremony, and locate a ship to take them out of the country.  But due to bad luck–and betrayal by a sea captain who resents Albion’s friendship with a black man–they are captured by Barbary pirates and become captives of Yusef  Karamanli, Bashaw of of Tripoli.  Albion finds that the Bashaw’s admiral, Murad Reis, is in reality a Scotsman named Peter Lisle, who following his own capture chose to convert to Islam and serve the Bashaw.  (Historically true)

The third part of the book, in my view the most interesting describes the depredations being committed by the pirates on the merchant fleets of the world, the ransom and extortion money paid out by their governments, and the conditions of captivity–basically, slavery–for the unfortunate victims.  The United States, under Jefferson, has decided that war against the pirates is preferable to tribute.


Most Americans probably have at least some idea of the naval portion of the anti-pirate campaign…which included the grounding of the frigate Philadelphia on a reef, after Captain Bainbridge decided to trust a local pilot, the vessel’s capture and the enslavement of its captain and crew, and the subsequent action by Commodore Prebel and Lieutenant Decatur, in which a commando force boarded the Philadelphia and set her afire, denying the Bashaw his prize.  But few, I suspect, have any idea  that this conflict also involved a land campaign.

William Eaton, former US Consul in Tripoli, was furious about the treatment of Americans by the Barbary States and despised the Bashaw.  He has proposed to Jefferson a plan for allying with the Bashaw’s deposed brother, Hamet, as part of an effort to overthrow the ruler.  Jefferson had provided  Eton with $40,000, a thousand rifles, and the title United States Naval Agent for the Barbary Coast.  Accompanied by 8 US Marines, Eaton has managed to locate Hamet and 100 of his followers.

The book vividly tells the story of the resulting campaign.   Additional followers and mercenaries were added to the force.  Despite desertions and endless money demands from the mercenaries and camel drivers,  Eaton’s scratch force is able to complete a 500 mile march and capture the coastal fortress of Derna, aided by covering fire from three American ships–the first time in history that the American flag was raised over conquered foreign territory.  A counterattack by the Bashaw’s forces is driven back, aided again the the ships’ guns.

But Tobias Lear, now in overall charge of US relations with the Barbary States, has been pursuing a diplomatic solution.  The fall of Derna has greatly alarmed the Bashaw, and he finally signs a treaty with Lear.  The treaty provides for the release of American captives, but at the price of additional payments to the Bashaw…who is to be allowed to remain in power.  Eaton is appalled by the news: he knows that Hamet and his followers will be slaughtered once the Americans are gone, and he initially refuses to leave.

But when the Constellation arrives bearing specific orders for Eaton to depart, he feels he had no choice, and..together with the Marines,  Hamet, and a few of his followers, they board boats which will take them to the anchored frigate in darkness.  When the populace saw what had happened, Eaton records:

The shore, our camp and the battery were crowded with the distracted soldiery and populace, some calling on the Bashaw [Hamet]; some on me; some uttering shrieks; some execrations.

Although Hamet himself was evacuated, his wife and family had to remain under the Bashaw’s eye in Tripoli    The affair prefigured America’s exist from Afghanistan, two centuries later, with the Constellation and her boats playing the role that would in our time be played by aircraft.  It would have been a more satisfying end to the war had the final act involved the hanging of Bashaw Yusef from the yardarm of one of the American frigates, but Jefferson had many other things to worry about and was not sorry to put the Tripoli affair behind him.

Eaton’s assault on Derna was the inspiration the a line in the Marine hymn: ‘to the shores of Tripoli.’   It was a small affair, with only 8 Marines involved, but a bold and effective one.

It seems to me that this book could make an excellent movie–the courtroom scenes, the Haitian revolution, the naval battles, Eaton’s march and the assault on Derna.  The book was published in 1947 and was a best seller; I wondered if anyone had ever gotten around to making a movie out of it.  Turns out that such a movie was indeed made, in 1952, but it focused entirely on the Haitian part of the story. It would be great to see the whole thing on film, but I doubt that it will ever happen.

I had never heard of the historical novelist Kenneth Roberts until I saw a mention of one of his books in a biography of Admiral Chester Nimitz–the bio mentioned that while the Admiral was in Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was reading a book by Roberts, specifically, Oliver Wiswell…and that the book, which is set in the time of the American Revolution, is unusual in that it’s protagonist is not a Patriot, but rather a Loyalist!  I was intrigued enough that I downloaded the book and read it; thought it was very interesting and well-written, but Lydia Bailey, IMO, is even more so.

For related historical reading about Tripoli, see:

Wikipedia article about William Eaton

More about Eaton here.

A more negative view of Eaton.

Also Brian Kilmeade’s book Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.





23 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Lydia Bailey</em>, by Kenneth Roberts”

  1. Mike K…OK, went back and looked at the first part of the book…I guess it was my assumption that Albion went to law school; looks like he actually gained his legal knowledge from assisting his uncle with cases.

  2. Other than relations with the UK and France, the biggest foreign policy issue of that period was the Barbary (North African) pirates. The US was so weak in naval forces–and at the same time so heavily involved in trade with Europe and the Med–that at times we depended on the Danish or Portuguese navies for protection from the pirates.

    One fine American heavy frigate was built and delivered to one of the beys who passed it on to the Sultan, just one instance of extortion and ransom in the form of vessels and naval stores of all kinds. It was under Jefferson that good-sized American squadrons were deployed to deal with the threat, which took decades.

    Frank Lambert’s “The Barbary Wars” is an excellent account.

    Linda Coffey’s “Captives” takes a broader view of Anglo-American relations with Islam over the span of about 1650-1800. For that period she stands old Edward Said on his head–the sentiment towards Islam (as represented by Barbary corsairs and pirates pillaging and kidnapping hundreds of thousands of Europeans from as far away as Ireland) was one of fearful resentment at a powerful antagonist–one that attracted converts to boot.

    In the UK and the American colonies, regular prayers in church were said for those known or thought to be in captivity, and rescue and ransom funds were always being raised,
    with a large number of newspaper and pamphlet narratives publicizing the problem.

    One problem with Britain’s short-lived Tangiers colony was that a lot of the garrison and workmen deserted and converted.

    Some people like to pretend that “Napoleon’s finest troops” were defeated by the heroic Haitians, but in truth the fantassins died like unacclimated Europeans always did in the tropics, with few shots being fired.

  3. I guess it was my assumption that Albion went to law school; looks like he actually gained his legal knowledge from assisting his uncle with cases.

    Law school was a novelty. Calvin Coolidge “read law” in a lawyer’s office while his friend Dwight Morrow went to the new fangled law school at Columbia.

  4. “Given the current vogue for Censorship, the part about the Alien & Seditions Laws seems sadly relevant.”
    Yeah, and the near-total silence of the GOPe is a disgraceful comparison to the reaction of the Democratic-Republicans.

  5. Ian Toll’s “Six Frigates” goes into background on the surrounding events. From the design of warships by people who had never built a warship, thru keeping said ships in drydock, because having a navy is all about the upkeep.

  6. Brian….not sure exactly who qualifies as GOPe, but here are Claudia Tenney, Elise Stefanik, Nancy Mace, and Rep. Brian Babin of Texas, along with several others, demanding some answers from Twitter re the Hunter Biden laptop story:

    Energy & Commerce committee members, re Biden use of private companies as a censorship arm:

    And, of course, the Texas law banning viewpoint discrimination by social media platforms:

  7. LOL, Claudia Tenney is my rep as of the old maps, and no, she is absolutely not GOPe.
    Where’s Mitch? Where’s any of the leadership? Where’s the CEOs of these companies hauled before congress and told they’re going to be smashed next year by the GOP if they don’t knock if off? The Dems even today are openly urging them to censor more, and the GOPe is doing their, oh let’s all just lay our hands off the media, pseudo-libertarian BS.

  8. Dad gave me a box set of Kenneth Roberts novels years ago, very good books. The one about the expedition overland across Maine in the winter led by Benedict Arnold, Arundel, was really memorable. Northwest Passage was made into a movie with Spencer Tracy.

  9. Kenneth Roberts was a huge best-seller in his day.

    Incidentally, he was also an admirer of Mussolini in the 1920s. His 1924 book Black Magic was an encomium to Fascist Italy. One chapter was devoted to ridicule of “The Beer-Fascists of Munich”, whom Roberts (a witness to the 1924 Beer Hall Putsch) regarded as pathetic imitators.

  10. This was my first adult fiction (not counting the steamy parts of Payton Place in 9th grade 1955). One of my favorite passages…

    “How her dress held to the upper part of her body was beyond my
    comprehension. It was supported by a filmy strap over each shoulder, but
    it had neither sleeves nor back. Her uncovered breasts rested in two silken
    cups that were supported God knows how ; and below those cups the
    flowered white silk of her dress clung so closely to her that only a blind
    man could fail to see she wore nothing whatever beneath the dress except
    pink stockings held up by blue garters with rosebuds on them.”

  11. John Johns…”How her dress held to the upper part of her body was beyond my
    comprehension”…that’s the description of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte. In the movie Lydia Bailey (which, as I mentioned above, is focused only on the Haiti part of the story), she is portrayed as an entitled and very unpleasant individual.

  12. I’m reading it now, based on David’s recommendation … and oh, my – the trial before the extremely partisan and vicious Judge Chase does bring to mind some recent trials of the J6 prisoners. And the savage lecture on what the Colonials were fighting for by an elderly Sam Adams does strike true.

    Eh. When I was a teenager, I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace of my own free will. I confess to skimming the long philosophical parts, in favor of the main dramatic parts, though.

  13. Thank you for this book recommendation, Mr. Foster. Although published way back in 1947 — and printed in Scranton, PA, of all places — I was able to find an excellent copy through Alibris for little more than the cost of postage.

    The book is well worth reading — fast-paced story, vivid descriptions. It is also somewhat disquieting, since much of the story revolves around the same kinds of official mendacity & incompetence we see around us today.

    220 years ago, even though the ink on the Constitution had only recently dried, Congress was already stuffed with partisan lawyers who passed the Sedition Act making it illegal for citizens to criticize them. The courts were run by partisan judges who had no hesitation about enforcing that clearly unconstitutional law. The US Navy had its share of incompetent officers, running ships onto rocks just as they still do today. The State Department was already forming a Deep State, going its own way regardless of the wishes of the elected officials. And the United States, in its first major overseas venture, encouraged and then abandoned its foreign supporters — shades of Vietnam and Afghanistan!

    “Lydia Bailey” is an excellent novel, with the fictional characters credibly interacting with real historical figures. Sadly, it leaves this reader with the feeling that the rot in the nation so obvious today set in very early in our history.

  14. As Wordsworth put it–commenting on things his side of the pond at the same time:

    “Now do I feel how all men are deceived,
    Reading of nations and their works, in faith,
    Faith given to vanity and emptiness.

    [ ]

    O laughter for the page that would present to future times
    The face of what now is.”

    OTOH, the US of A has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies–only permanent interests.

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