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
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
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
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
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.
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