Does the Treaty of Tripoli Disprove a “Christian” Founding of America?

“The general Principles on which the Fathers achieved Independence were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united; and the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.”
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28th, 1813

Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11 - Barlow copyWhen discussing the Founding of America and the language of the founding documents, especially with skeptics and non-theists, the issue often comes up of whether or not America was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs/principles, which also speaks to the question of whether or not America can legitimately be called a “Christian nation”. Once in a while, a more historically-informed skeptic will point to the Treaty of Tripoli as proof that America was never intended to be “Christian”.

Before I address the treaty itself, some background/context is in order….

Following the American Revolutionary War, the new nation of the United States of America went about securing agreements of trade, peace, and mutual defense with nations everywhere, thereby establishing itself on the world stage. At the time, Europe was dealing with the Barbary States of North Africa, who made their living via piracy and extortion. Even Britain and France had agreed to pay annual tribute to the leaders of these states in exchange for them leaving their ships/goods/people alone. That’s right, the Barbary pirates even captured and enslaved European and American sailors and citizens. In fact, the white slave trade was big business! Did I mention that the Barbary States were Muslim?

Anyway, the British (sore-losers) encouraged the Barbary pirates to attack the U.S. ships. (Algiers even declared war on the U.S. in 1785.) It became quite a problem. Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, tried to organize an alliance of less-powerful nations whose combined naval forces would attack and defend against the Barbary pirates. He was unsuccessful, due largely to British and French influence. America’s leaders realized that, in order to (sort of) guarantee safe passage of their ships in the area, they would have to negotiate similar agreements. Early attempts at diplomacy were doomed by incompetence, bad timing, and just plain bad luck.

The “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” with Tripoli was initiated under George Washington’s administration in 1796 and completed/signed by President John Adams in 1797. Unanimously approved (without discussion or argument) by the Senate on June 10th of that year, it consisted of 12 articles in total, dealing mostly with matters of commerce and maritime trade. But, there was one part towards the end that briefly addressed matters of state and is our current concern. Here is the relevant section of the Treaty (see also image above):

Article XI: “As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility, of Musselmen [i.e., Muslims], — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahomitan [i.e., Mohammedan, or Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever interrupt [alternately, ‘produce an interruption of’] the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Barbary CoastSome have argued that Article 11 merely reflects the views of Joel Barlow, U.S. consul-general to the Barbary States. It was Barlow’s duty to negotiate agreements with leaders in North Africa — particularly Tripoli, Tunis, & Algiers — and (hopefully) keep the U.S. from getting into armed conflicts. After an original drafting by Richard O’Brien, one of the first American seamen captured by Barbary pirates, Barlow finished negotiating the revised treaty with Jussof Bashaw Mahomet, Bey of Tripoli.

Unfortunately, peace under the Treaty of Tripoli did not last. Relations broke down due ostensibly to lateness of tribute payments, leading to renewed attacks on U.S. ships, U.S. naval blockades, and a new treaty. The corresponding article in this 1805 treaty, while stating clearly that the U.S. has no established church, contained no anti-“Christian nation” language.

Now, it is possible that the content of Article 11 was requested by the Bey of Tripoli or even suggested by the Bey of Algiers. Barlow himself, a Congregationalist-turned-Deist whose writings revealed a strong antipathy toward the idea of a “state church”, may have taken it upon himself to insert the article for his own reasons. Historians have yet to figure it all out. But, whether or not it reflected Barlow’s private prejudice, it seems to me that the wording is diplomatic-speak that served primarily to assure the Muslim Bey(s) that America did not consider Christianity its national religion, nor did it hold the same religion-based grudges as other “Christian” nations with whom Islam had tangled in the past.

History Professor Frank Lambert of Purdue University echoes this — or, I suppose, I echo him — when he asserts that the phrasing of Article 11 was “intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers.”

Looking at Article 11 in its entirety, I notice three things:

1) It is the U.S. “Government” that is declared “not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”. This supports the point I just made above.

2) It points out the “tranquility” of the “Musselmen”. Of course, they were not being tranquil, and that was the problem. But, once the treaty was in place, if any “Mahometan” nation acted aggressively toward America or her interests, thereby no longer displaying “tranquility”, the U.S. would have grounds to respond. (In fact, we did so then and do so now.)

3) It specifies that “no pretext arising from religious opinions” shall cause disharmony. But, if Muslim faith & practice inspires them to act belligerently toward America or her interests, it is not merely Christians who would want to defend themselves, and they would be quite justified in doing so for solely non-sectarian reasons. (Again, we did so then and do so now.)

In other words (and some of this is implied), as long as they play nice, the U.S. will leave them alone. (Unlike them, we were/are not out to conquer other lands and/or force obedience to a particular religion.) But, if they mess with our lives and livelihood, regardless of their reasons, we reserve the right to respond in kind.

Bible on Americna flagWith all of this in mind, I agree that the U.S. government was not “founded on the Christian religion”. Surprised? However, that is different from denying that the nation was founded largely on, or grounded in, Judeo-Christian principles (see opening quote above) — though, of course, influenced also by some Enlightenment thinking. As I have blogged on elsewhere, we were intended to have a “secular” government but not a “secular” society. Indeed, it is clearly evident from state constitutions and other official documents (state and federal), from the words and actions of America’s founders (and other influential leaders throughout our history), and from the general character of traditional American culture, that the U.S.  was intended to be a nation of religious — primarily, but not exclusively, generally “Christian” — people, ruled by a body of law grounded in a basic understanding of God and of biblical principles. While sometimes disagreeing on doctrinal specifics, a broad agreement on Judeo-Christian principles and beliefs was the cornerstone of (most of) the Founders’ reasoning.

In this sense, the United States of America was founded as a “Christian nation”.


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