Watchman Willie Martin Archive

                    Treaty of Tripoli

                    by David Barton

                    Over the last several months we have noticed with increasing interest how often

                    the Treaty of Tripoli, specifically article XI, is being misused in editorial columns,

                    articles, as well as in other areas of the media, both Christian and secular. We

                    have received numerous questions from people who have been misled by the

                    claims that are being made, namely, that America was not founded as a Christian

                    nation. Advocates of this idea use the Treaty of Tripoli as the foundation of their

                    entire argument, and we believe you deserve to know the truth regarding this

                    often misused document.

                    The following is an excerpt from David’s book Original Intent:

                    To determine whether the "Founding Fathers" were generally atheists, agnostics,

                    and deists, one must first define those terms. An "atheist" is one who professes

                    to believe that there is no God;1 an "agnostic" is one who professes that nothing

                    can be known beyond what is visible and tangible;2 and a "deist" is one who

                    believes in an impersonal God who is no longer involved with mankind. (In other

                    words, a "deist" embraces the "clockmaker theory" 3 that there was a God who

                    made the universe and wound it up like a clock; however, it now runs of its own

                    volition; the clockmaker is gone and therefore does not respond to man.)

                    Today the terms "atheist," "agnostic," and "deist" have been used together so

                    often that their meanings have almost become synonymous. In fact, many

                    dictionaries list these words as synonym.4

                    Those who advance the notion that this was the belief system of the Founders

                    often publish information attempting to prove that the Founders were irreligious.5

                    One of the quotes they set forth is the following:

                         The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the

                         Christian religion.GEORGE WASHINGTON

                    The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli is the source of Washington’s supposed statement. Is

                    this statement accurate? Did this prominent Founder truly repudiate religion? An

                    answer will be found by an examination of its source.

                    That treaty, one of several with Tripoli, was negotiated during the "Barbary

                    Powers Conflict," which began shortly after the Revolutionary War and continued

                    through the Presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.6 The

                    Muslim Barbary Powers (Tunis, Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Turkey) were warring

                    against what they claimed to be the "Christian" nations (England, France, Spain,

                    Denmark, and the United States). In 1801, Tripoli even declared war against the

                    United States,7 thus constituting America’s first official war as an established

                    independent nation.

                    Throughout this long conflict, the five Barbary Powers regularly attacked

                    undefended American merchant ships. Not only were their cargoes easy prey but

                    the Barbary Powers were also capturing and enslaving "Christian" seamen8 in

                    retaliation for what had been done to them by the "Christians" of previous

                    centuries (e.g., the Crusades and Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of Muslims

                    from Granada9).

                    In an attempt to secure a release of captured seamen and a guarantee of

                    unmolested shipping in the Mediterranean, President Washington dispatched

                    envoys to negotiate treaties with the Barbary nations.10(Concurrently, he

                    encouraged the construction of American naval warships11 to defend the

                    shipping and confront the Barbary "pirates"—a plan not seriously pursued until

                    President John Adams created a separate Department of the Navy in 1798.) The

                    American envoys negotiated numerous treaties of "Peace and Amity" 12 with the

                    Muslim Barbary nations to ensure "protection" of American commercial ships

                    sailing in the Mediterranean.13 However, the terms of the treaty frequently were

                    unfavorable to America, either requiring her to pay hundreds of thousands of

                    dollars of "tribute" (i.e., official extortion) to each country to receive a

                    "guarantee" of safety or to offer other "considerations" (e.g., providing a warship

                    as a "gift" to Tripoli,14 a "gift" frigate to Algiers,15 paying $525,000 to ransom

                    captured American seamen from Algiers,16 etc.).

                    The 1797 treaty with Tripoli was one of the many treaties in which each country

                    officially recognized the religion of the other in an attempt to prevent further

                    escalation of a "Holy War" between Christians and Muslims.17 Consequently,

                    Article XI of that treaty stated:

                        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.18

                    This article may be read in two manners. It may, as its critics do, be concluded

                    after the clause "Christian religion"; or it may be read in its entirety and

                    concluded when the punctuation so indicates. But even if shortened and cut

                    abruptly ("the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on

                    the Christian religion"), this is not an untrue statement since it is referring to the

                    federal government.

                    Recall that while the Founders themselves openly described America as a

                    Christian nation (demonstrated in chapter 2 of Original Intent), they did include a

                    constitutional prohibition against a federal establishment; religion was a matter

                    left solely to the individual States. Therefore, if the article is read as a

                    declaration that the federal government of the United States was not in any

                    sense founded on the Christian religion, such a statement is not a repudiation of

                    the fact that America was considered a Christian nation.

                    Reading the clause of the treaty in its entirety also fails to weaken this fact.

                    Article XI simply distinguished America from those historical strains of European

                    Christianity which held an inherent hatred of Muslims; it simply assured the

                    Muslims that the United States was not a Christian nation like those of previous

                    centuries (with whose practices the Muslims were very familiar) and thus would

                    not undertake a religious holy war against them.

                    This latter reading is, in fact, supported by the attitude prevalent among

                    numerous American leaders. The Christianity practiced in America was described

                    by John Jay as "enlightened," 19 by John Quincy Adams as "civilized," 20 and by

                    John Adams as "rational." 21 A clear distinction was drawn between American

                    Christianity and that of Europe in earlier centuries. As Noah Webster explained:

                         The ecclesiastical establishments of Europe which serve to support

                         tyrannical governments are not the Christian religion but abuses and

                         corruptions of it.22

                    Daniel Webster similarly explained that American Christianity was:

                         Christianity to which the sword and the fagot [burning stake or hot

                         branding iron] are unknown—general tolerant Christianity is the law of

                         the land!23

                    Those who attribute the Treaty of Tripoli quote to George Washington make two

                    mistakes. The first is that no statement in it can be attributed to Washington

                    (the treaty did not arrive in America until months after he left office);

                    Washington never saw the treaty; it was not his work; no statement in it can be

                    ascribed to him. The second mistake is to divorce a single clause of the treaty

                    from the remainder which provides its context.

                  It would also be absurd to suggest that President Adams (under whom the treaty

                    was ratified in 1797) would have endorsed or assented to any provision which

                    repudiated Christianity. In fact, while discussing the Barbary conflict with

                    Jefferson, Adams declared:

                         The policy of Christendom has made cowards of all their sailors

                         before the standard of Mahomet. It would be heroical and glorious in

                         us to restore courage to ours. 24

                    Furthermore, it was Adams who declared:

                         The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence

                         were. . . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . I will avow that I

                         then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of

                         Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and

                        attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as

                         unalterable as human nature. 25

                    Adams’own words confirm that he rejected any notion that America was less

                    than a Christian nation.

                    Additionally, the writings of General William Eaton, a major figure in the Barbary

                    Powers conflict, provide even more irrefutable testimony of how the conflict was

                    viewed at that time. Eaton was first appointed by President John Adams as

                    "Consul to Tunis," and President Thomas Jefferson later advanced him to the

                    position of "U. S. Naval Agent to the Barbary States," authorizing him to lead a

                    military expedition against Tripoli. Eaton’s official correspondence during his

                    service confirms that the conflict was a Muslim war against a Christian America.

                    For example, when writing to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Eaton

                    apprised him of why the Muslims would be such dedicated foes:

                         Taught by revelation that war with the Christians will guarantee the

                         salvation of their souls, and finding so great secular advantages in

                         the observance of this religious duty [the secular advantage of

                         keeping captured cargoes], their [the Muslims’] inducements to

                         desperate fighting are very powerful.26

                    Eaton later complained that after Jefferson had approved his plan for military

                    action, he sent him the obsolete warship "Hero." Eaton reported the impression of

                    America made upon the Tunis Muslims when they saw the old warship and its few


                         [T]he weak, the crazy situation of the vessel and equipage

                         [armaments] tended to confirm an opinion long since conceived and

                         never fairly controverted among the Tunisians, that the Americans

                         are a feeble sect of Christians.27

                    In a later letter to Pickering, Eaton reported how pleased one Barbary ruler had

                    been when he received the extortion compensations from America which had

                    been promised him in one of the treaties:

                         He said, "To speak truly and candidly . . . . we must acknowledge to

                         you that we have never received articles of the kind of so excellent

                         a quality from any Christian nation." 28

                    When John Marshall became the new Secretary of State, Eaton informed him:

                         It is a maxim of the Barbary States, that "The Christians who would

                         be on good terms with them must fight well or pay well." 29

                    And when General Eaton finally commenced his military action against Tripoli, his

                    personal journal noted:

                         April 8th. We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with

                         confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can

                         be otherwise than enemies to Musselmen. We have a difficult


                         May 23rd. Hassien Bey, the commander in chief of the enemy’s

                         forces, has offered by private insinuation for my head six thousand

                         dollars and double the sum for me a prisoner; and $30 per head for

                         Christians. Why don’t he come and take it?31

                    Shortly after the military excursion against Tripoli was successfully terminated,

                    its account was written and published. Even the title of the book bears witness

                    to the nature of the conflict:

                         The Life of the Late Gen. William Eaton . . . commander of the

                         Christian and Other Forces . . . which Led to the Treaty of Peace

                         Between The United States and The Regency of Tripoli32

                    The numerous documents surrounding the Barbary Powers Conflict confirm that

                    historically it was always viewed as a conflict between Christian America and

                    Muslim nations. Those documents completely disprove the notion that any

                    founding President, especially Washington, ever declared that America was not a

                    Christian nation or people. (Chapter 16 of Original Intent will provide numerous

                    additional current examples of historical revisionism.)


                    1. American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, s.v. "atheism."

                    2. Id., s.v. "agnostic."

                   3. Id., s.v. "deism"; see also American College Dictionary (1947), s.v. "deism."

                    4. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1964), see synonym for "deist";

                    Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary(1963), see synonym for "atheism"; The Century

                    Dictionary and Cyclopedia(1895), Vol. I, see synonym for "atheist"; Funk & Wagnalls Standard

                    Dictionary of the English Language (1966), see synonyms for "skeptic."

                    5. Society of Separationists, "Did you know that these great American thinkers all rejected

                    Christianity?" (Austin, TX: American Atheist Center); see also Los Angeles Times, August 3,

                    1995, p. B‑9, "America’s Unchristian Beginnings," Steven Morris.

                    6.Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Claude A. Swanson,

                    editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1939), Vol. I, p. V.

                    7. Glen Tucker,Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U. S. Navy

                    (Indianapolis: Bobbs‑Merrill Company, 1963), p. 127.

                    8. A General View of the Rise, Progress, and Brilliant Achievements of the American Navy, Down to the

                    Present Time(Brooklyn, 1828), pp. 70‑71.

                    9. Tucker, p. 50.

                    10. President Washington selected Col. David Humphreys in 1793 as sole commissioner of

                    Algerian affairs to negotiate treaties with Algeria, Tripoli and Tunis. He also appointed Joseph

                    Donaldson, Jr., as Consul to Tunis and Tripoli. In February of 1796, Humphreys delegated power

                   to Donaldson and/or Joel Barlow to form treaties. James Simpson, U. S. Consul to Gibraltar, was

                    dispatched to renew the treaty with Morocco in 1795. On October 8, 1796, Barlow commissioned

                    Richard O’Brien to negotiate the treaty of peace with Tripoli. See, for example, Ray W. Irwin, The

                    Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers (Chapel Hill: The University of

                    North Carolina Press, 1931), p. 84.

                    11. J. Fenimore Cooper,The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia:

                    Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co., 1847), pp. 123‑124; see also A Compilation of the Messages and

                    Papers of the Presidents: 1789‑1897, James D. Richardson, editor (Washington, D. C.:

                    Published by Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, pp. 201‑202, from Washington’s Eighth Annual

                    Address of December 7, 1796.

                   12. See, for example, the treaty with Morocco: ratified by the United States on July 18, 1787.

                    Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America: 1776‑1949,

                    Charles I. Bevans, editor (Washington, D. C.: Department of State, 1968‑1976), Vol. IX, pp.

                    1278‑1285; Algiers: concluded September 5, 1795; ratified by the U. S. Senate March 2, 1796;

                    see also, "Treaty of Peace and Amity" concluded June 30 and July 6, 1815; proclaimed

                    December 26, 1815, Treaties and Conventions Concluded Between the United States of America

                    and Other Powers Since July 4, 1776 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), pp.

                    1‑15; Tripoli: concluded November 4, 1796; ratified June 10, 1797; see also, "Treaty of Peace

                    and Amity" concluded June 4, 1805; ratification advised by the U. S. Senate April 12, 1806.

                    Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States

                    of America and Other Powers: 1776‑1909, William M. Malloy, editor (Washington, D. C.:

                    Government Printing Office, 1910), Vol. II, pp. 1785‑1793; Tunis: concluded August 1797;

                    ratification advised by the Senate, with amendments, March 6, 1798; alterations concluded March

                    26, 1799; ratification again advised by the Senate December 24, 1799. Treaties, Conventions,

                    International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States of America and Other

                    Powers: 1776‑1909, William M. Malloy, editor (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office,

                    1910), Vol. II, pp. 1794‑1799.

                    13. Gardner W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company,

                    1905), pp. 33, 45, 56, 60.

                    14. Allen, p. 66.

                    15. Allen, p. 57.

                    16. Allen, p. 56.

                    17. (See general bibliographic information from footnote 17 for each of these

                    references)Morocco: see Articles 10, 11, 17, and 24; Algiers: See Treaty of 1795, Article 17, and

                    Treaty of 1815, Article 17; Tripoli: See Treaty of 1796, Article 11, and Treaty of 1805, Article 14;

                    Tunis: See forward to Treaty.

                    18. Acts Passed at the First Session of the Fifth Congress of the United States of America

                    (Philadelphia: William Ross, 1797), pp. 43‑44.

                    19. William Jay,The Life of John Jay (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), p. 80, from his "Charge to

                    the Grand Jury of Ulster County" on September 9, 1777.

                    20. John Quincy Adams,An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport at

                    Their Request on the Sixty‑First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (Newburyport: Charles

                    Whipple, 1837), p. 17.

                    21. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis

                    Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), Vol. IX, p. 121, in a speech to both

                    houses of Congress, November 23, 1797.

                    22 Noah Webster, History of the United States (New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1832), p. 339.

                    23. Daniel Webster, Mr. Webster’s Speech in Defence of the Christian Ministry and In favor of the

                    Religious Instruction of the Young. Delivered in the Supreme Court of the United States, February 10,

                    1844, in the Case of Stephen Girard’s Will (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1844), p. 52.

                    24. John Adams, Works, Vol. VIII, p. 407, to Thomas Jefferson on July 3, 1786.

                    25. John Adams, Works, Vol. X, pp. 45‑46, to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813.

                    26. Charles Prentiss, The Life of the Late Gen. William Eaton: Several Years an Officer in the United

                    States’ Army Consul at the Regency of Tunis on the Coast of Barbary, and Commander of the Christian

                    and Other Forces that Marched from Egypt Through the Desert of Barca, in 1805, and Conquered the City

                    of Derne, Which Led to the Treaty of Peace Between the United States and the Regency of Tripoli

                   (Brookfield: Merriam & Company, 1813), pp. 92‑93, from General Eaton to Timothy Pickering,

                    June 15, 1799.

                    27. Prentiss, p. 146, from General Eaton to Mr. Smith, June 27, 1800.

                    28. Prentiss, p. 150, from General Eaton to Timothy Pickering on July 4, 1800.

                    29. Prentiss, p. 185, from General Eaton to General John Marshall, September 2, 1800.

                    30. Prentiss, p. 325, from Eaton’s journal, April 8, 1805.

                    31. Prentiss, p. 334, from Eaton’s journal, May 23, 1805.

                    32. Prentiss.

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