Treaty with Tripoli (1797)
It was on this date, June 10, 1797, that President John Adams signed into law, promising thereby "faithfully to observe and fulfill ... every clause and article" the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. The Treaty with Tripoli,† as it is now known, a regency in what is now Libya, has become a key document in the debate over whether or not the United States is, or ever was, or was intended to be, a Christian nation, or even founded on Christian principles.
First, what are we talking about? Did George Washington say, "The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion"? No, he didn't. He did delegate to Joel Barlow (a Deist) the negotiation of a treaty with that Barbary leader to halt their plundering of US cargo ships off the north coast of Africa.
Second, the entire treaty has 12 articles, 860 words, and the questionable clause is from Article 11. In its entirety, Article 11 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 [hatred] against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] – and as the said States [America] have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.
Third, how can this be unclear? Detractors cite numerous politicians of the time proclaiming their Christian principles. One says that the article must be read "as a declaration that the federal government of the United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion," and that "such a statement is not a repudiation of the fact that America was considered a Christian nation." The logic of this is seriously flawed. The Declaration of Independence refers only to a creator, not to a Christian God, and has no force of law, anyway. And the Constitution is conspicuously godless – Jefferson wrote that an attempt was made to insert a reference to Jesus Christ, and that it was voted down.
Fourth, what if the clause means we're a Christian nation, but just not like other Christian nations: e.g., those who hate, and enter into wars against, the Muslims? That spin doesn't wash, either. All Christians read from the same book, and Muslims had no more reason to believe we would peacefully interpret our bloodthirsty Bible than we had reason to trust their conquering Koran.
The Treaty with Tripoli was not only adopted unanimously, but there was no debate, no dissention. Were the ratifiers pressed for time? One detractor says the ratifiers couldn't worry about "minutiae," which is an alarming confession! Such haste speaks ill of the importance of their cherished religion, for the treaty claimed something (supposedly) morally reprehensible – a denial of the Christian God! Well, did they merely overlook the clause? That doesn't help, either: it speaks ill of the competence of Congress as legislators.
True, the majority of Americans in 1797 were at least nominally Christian, even if no more than 10 percent of Americans were actually members of congregations. But, no, the United States is no more a Christian nation because most of its citizens are Christians than it is a "white" nation because most of its citizens are white. No religion defines us, just as no race or ethnicity defines us. We are Americans because we practice democracy and believe in republican government, not because we practice revealed religion and believe in Bible-based government. The Treaty with Tripoli, ratified on this date in 1797, is merely one immutable stone in the Wall of Separation – a separation between democracy and theocracy.
† Often called the “Treaty of Tripoli,” I can’t quite figure out how this abbreviation is derived from the full title: “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary.” It was a Treaty of Peace,” but not a Treaty of Tripoli, as if it comprised only that Barbary state. Perhaps it should be called the “Treaty Between Tripoli and the United States,” but I suppose that’s too many words for today’s short attention spans. Besides, when making a treaty, you make it with a country – as if two or more entities are doing something together – not of a country. Suffice it to say that the shorter preposition strikes a discord in my ear.
Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Throughout most of his legal life, his religious opinion can be said to have been Unitarian. Said Holmes, “the secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered that I was not God.”