Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Treaty of Tripoli

Piracy is an age-old scourge which has re-asserted itself in the 21st century. In the late 18th century, the young United States of America found itself in conflict with pirates on the Barbary Coast of the Mediterranean from the Muslim states of (what is now) Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. These pirates were also slave traders who sold Christians into slavery with particular relish. Under George Washington's administration, U.S. Consul-General to the Barbary States Joel Barlow was designated to negotiate a series of peace treaties. One of them, the 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli (Tripoli, Libya) stands out for its notorious Article 11.

Article 11 of the English translation of the document reads:


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,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This article has been the source of much discussion as to the views of America's Founding Fathers concerning whether America was founded constitutionally as a Christian nation. Several points must be noted:

1) The English translation of the document by Joel Barlow varies considerably from the wording of the Arabic original. There is some question as to whether Article 11 in fact exists in the Arabic original at all.

2) A copy of the treaty bearing George Washington's signature is clearly a fraud, since it was negotiated during his administration but not ratified and signed until John Adams was in office.

3) Gary DeMar points out that treaties involving the United States and Great Britain were signed in 1783 and 1822 which refer to a Trinitarian God in the preface, which would indicate some measure of profession of Christianity by our nation.

4) The 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli was read aloud to the U.S. Senate prior to a recorded vote which was unanimous in its approval and ratification of the document -- in its form as an English translation, the third such unanimous recorded vote by Congress in American history.

5) The 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli was broken by continued pirate attacks, and had to be renegotiated under Thomas Jefferson's administration; the 1805 Treaty of Tripoli omits the aforementioned language that America "is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion," it does include the following statement:


As the Government of the United States of America, has in itself no character of enmity against the Laws, Religion or Tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any voluntary war or act of hostility against any Mahometan Nation, except in the defence of their just rights to freely navigate the High Seas: It is declared by the contracting parties that no pretext arising from Religious Opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the Harmony existing between the two Nations; And the Consuls and Agents of both Nations respectively, shall have liberty to exercise his Religion in his own house; all slaves of the same Religion shall not be Impeded in going to said Consuls house at hours of Prayer.

What can be said about these facts? John Eidsmoe has an appendix on the subject in Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, pp. 413-415, and he also addresses the issue in response to William Edgar argument for National Confessionalism in Gary Scott Smith, ed., God and Politics: Four Views of the Reformation of Civil Government (Theonomy, Principled Pluralism, Christian America, National Confessionalism), p. 226. He considers Edgar's reference to this treaty to be "grasp[ing] at straws in order to debunk America's Christian heritage." David Barton in Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution and Religion, pp. 126-130, and Gary DeMar in America's Christian History, pp. 131-144, are equally dismissive of the relevance of this treaty.

DeMar's theory is that to the extent Article 11 is worth addressing it may reflect an effort to smooth over the negotiation process by alleviating fears that America would engage in a Crusade against the Dey of Tripoli.

A survey of the state constitutions, charterse, national pronouncements, and official declarations of the thirteen state governments would convince any representative from Tripoli that America was a Christian nation by law. The American consul in Algiers, Joel Barlow, had to construct a treaty that would assure the Dey of Tripoli that troops would not be used to impose Christianity on a Muslim people.
Tripoli may have feared a crusade-like invasion from the American navy. (Muslims well remembered the Crusades and the expulsion of Muslims from Grenada by Ferdinand and Isabella.) America was not founded as a Christian nation in the same way that Libya was founded as a Muslim nation. "Christianity was not an American state religion and therefore the United States government bore no official hostility toward Mohammadanism." The Dey of Tripoli had to be convinced that America would not impose its Christianity on the Muslim people by force. "Could it have been that in Article 11, America was assuring Tripoli and all of the Barbary states that the United States did not have a state church system and would therefore not attack Tripoli for religious reasons of forced conversion?" This seems to be the best explanation of the phrase found in Article 11 of the Treaty (ibid, pp. 137-138).

There is a significant problem with this theory, however; if Article 11 exists only in the English translation and not in the Arabic, one wonders how it would serve to reassure the Dey of Tripoli of anything.

The concession by DeMar that America is not a Christian nation in the official sense of that term is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer's proclamation in the case of Holy Trinity Church v. United States (1892) that (after listing a series of references and allusions to Christianity in official U.S. documents) "these and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation." (See also David J. Brewer, The United States: A Christian Nation, with an introduction by Gary DeMar.) It is also consistent with the understanding of Article 11 that the United States is in fact, as it plainly states, "not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; [and] it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen." America, it is admitted by "Christian America" proponents is not constitutionally and officially Christian; to be described as Christian, one must reach for a volume of unofficial utterances to substantiate that conclusion. If this be granted, then let it be granted also that the 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli simply affirms this too, that America is officially not a Christian nation, and as such has no official enmity grounded in religion with Muslim nations.

The heart of the matter is how one understands a nation to be "Christian." Brewer, for example, makes all sorts of acknowledgments that America is not Christian as understood in the conventional sense of the word, yet concludes that it is in some way actually Christian.

But in what sense can it be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it....Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christian. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in the public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions.

Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation -- in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world. (ibid, pp. 13-14).

What follows is a catalogue of references to Christianity in the colonial history of the United States and allusions to Christianity in connection with its birth as a nation through the Declaration of Independence and Constitution which are increasingly obscure as the effort to prove that the "Sundays excepted" within the constitutional requirements for legislation to become statutory law helps demonstrate somehow that America is a Christian nation shows (ibid, pp. 13-30).

To return to the Treaty of Tripoli specifically, the historical record of this treaty's negotiations and translation, it is to be admitted, is murky, and clouded unnecessarily by George Washington's alleged signature, but the fact remains -- a fact not addressed head-on by Eidsmoe or DeMar or Barton -- regardless of what the original Arabic document said, it was the English translation that was read aloud (it is a relatively short document), and unanimously approved and ratified, which included Article 11 as we see it here today. In fact, upon signing the treaty in 1797, John Adams issued the following statement:

Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.

So, again, what inferences can we draw from all of this? Clearly, it is the English translation of the treaty that must be reckoned with, and it was approved two branches of the United States government without any dissent being recorded, only full approbation. The faith of George Washington and John Adams and Joel Barlow aside (I will aim, Lord willing to address Washington and Adams' religious views in the future on this blog), William Edgar well notes the following:

This treaty clause does not by itself prove that the Founding Fathers had adopted a clearly defined secularist philosophy of government. It does show, though, that the first leaders of our country were ready to exploit the Constitution's silence regarding Christianity to smooth the way to peace with a Muslim state.

In our day, for reasons of political expediency we have forged alliances with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and so many others such nations, and even helped to rebuild Iraq as a Muslim nation constitutionally speaking. We have even recently resumed normal diplomatic relations with Libya following the state-sponsored bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. There is nothing in our national charter to prohibit this, nothing to hold us back from aligning ourselves with those nations who have raged, conspired and taken counsel against the Lord and his anointed (Ps. 2.1-3). But ought we to bind ourselves to aid the ungodly, as Jehoshaphat joined in affinity with Ahab (2 Chron. 18.1)? How much greater by far would it be for America to take the path of wisdom and kiss the Son (Ps. 2.12)? "This is the great duty of the Christian religion; it is that which is required of all, even kings and judges, and it is our wisdom and interest to do it" (Matthew Henry). It is a duty not only of individual persons to confess Christ as King, but also magistrates in their official capacity, and nations, which are political and moral bodies of persons who are subject to the King, to confess with a kiss their allegiance to Him. A nation that is truly Christian is, or ought to be, at enmity with nations that openly fight against God and not to seek peace with such at the expense of kissing the Son. Huguenot minister Matthieu de Larroque (1619-1684), quoted by Rene Voeltzel, Vraie et Fausse Eglise en les theologiens protestants francais du dix-septieme siecle:

It is much more advantageous for the Christian to be sometimes at war with man in order to have peace with God than to always be at peace with man and thus be continually at war with God.


  1. This is why I simply cannot, nor will I, pledge allegiance to a flag, but to Christ and His Kingdom. Thanks for this informative piece, Andrew.