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The Fickle Fate of Tobias Lear



Haiti & the Barbary Coast

President Thomas Jefferson offered Lear the unofficial position of American consul to Santa Domingo, an island crucial to the "triangle trade" of molasses to rum to slaves upon which much of the economy depended. Moving from the frying pan into the fire, Lear and his son Benjamin arrived in the West Indies just as the black revolutionary Touissant L'Ouverture was at his peak. Fearful that a black independent state would set an irreversible precedent, Napoleon Bonaparte chose this moment in history to send a French armada with 20,000 troops to quell the rebellion. Lear, who had intended to profit from his unofficial, unsalaried position, was forced to retreat to Virginia as the French navy destroyed the capital city and put down the rebellion. Lear spent the next year petitioning the Congress to forgive his mounting personal debts that he claimed were incurred while he was on a patriotic mission for America. He was politely turned down.

At the age of 41 Tobias Lear started over. This time President Jefferson offered him a political plum -- Consul General to the infamous North African coast. It was a dangerous mission, but the salary and expense account were enticing, and Lear was allowed to conduct private business on the side. In 1803 the United States was essentially paying blackmail to the notorious Barbary Coast pirates to prevent them from interrupting American trade.

Lear's luck held for the moment. He married for the third time and prepared to sail for Algeria on the ship USS Philadelphia, changing his travel plans at the last minute to the USS Constitution.  The Philadelphia was captured in the Mediterranean Sea and its nearly 300 crew members held hostage. Col. Lear became the primary figure in the protracted negotiations that lead to the release of the hostages in exchange for a healthy fee in the historic Treaty of Tripoli years later.

The Lears spent nine apparently profitable years at their comfortable home in Algiers. Their job was to keep peace with the local "dey," a man who was known to decapitate those who displeased him, leaving their headless bodies at the palace entrance. In the end, Tobias Lear too fell out of favor when the dey who demanded more than his standard bribe. The Lears were forced to flee their home, grabbing what possessions they could carry onto a ship headed back to the States. The year was 1812 and, as they returned home. President James Madison was declaring  war on England.

Death of George Washington 

Washington In Flames

The last chapter of Lear's life found him back in the thick of things. After a slow re-entry through Virginia and Washington, DC, the Lears found their way past British blockades for a visit to Portsmouth, NH.

Tobias Lear's final post was as secretary to the War Department. He and his beloved third wife Fanny and his son Benjamin, now a lawyer, leased a home just blocks from the White House, soon to be taken over by British forces. As the War of 1812 dragged on, Lear kept the financial books. He complained bitterly that the military was being over-billed by profiteering suppliers. Even as Lear added up the overdue military budget, the poorly defended capital city was attacked and many buildings were burned to the ground by the British.

The war ended in a stalemate in 1815 with neither side gaining any territory. Though apparently wealthy at last, happily married, and auspiciously employed, Tobias Lear V shot himself with a pistol in his garden on October 11, 1816 . He was known to have suffered from severe headaches and bouts of depression. He was endlessly vilified by the media. But it was a curious exit all the same. After a lifetime of prolific writing and scrupulous record keeping, Lear left no suicide note and no official will.  

SOURCE: While hundreds of books have been written about the life of Washington, just one biography is dedicated to the life of Lear. The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear by Ray was published in a small edition by the Portsmouth Marine Society in 1984 and is currently out of print. 

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores.

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