The Treaty of Tripoli

Does the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli say that "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion?"

Yes, but separationists need to be careful in explaining the historical background of this treaty.

In 1797, six years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the United States government signed a treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli that contained the following statement (numbered Article 11 in the treaty):

As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen; and as the states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mohometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever produce an interruption of harmony existing between the two countries.

So far as can be found, the inclusion of these words in the treaty had no negative political ramifications for the treaty whatsoever. On the contrary, the treaty was approved by President John Adams and his Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, and was then ratified by the Senate without objection.

According to an information sheet provided by Ed Buckner of the Atlanta Freethought Society:

The Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the United States Senate clearly specifies that the treaty was read aloud on the floor of the Senate and that copies of the treaty were printed "for the use of the Senate." Nor is it plausible to argue that perhaps Senators voted for the treaty without being aware of the famous words. The treaty was quite short, requiring only two or three pages to reprint in most treaty books today--and printed, in its entirely, on but one page (sometimes the front page) of U.S. newspapers of the day. The lack of any recorded argument about the wording, as well as the unanimous vote and the and the wide reprinting of the words in the press of 1797, suggests that the idea that the government was not a Christian one was widely and easily accepted at the time.

Accomodationists frequently note that Article 11 appeared only in the English version of the treaty; in the Arabic version a letter-like page of gibberish appears where Article 11 should be. The Arabic version was translated by Joel Barlow, the diplomatic representative that negotiated the treaty on behalf of the United States. Barlow was a good friend of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Monroe, and was most likely a deist or atheist. It is almost certain that he authored Article 11 in the English version.

Many accomodationists seem to think that the absence of Article 11 in the Arabic version has something to do with Barlow, and that this absence should somehow blunt the separationist impact of the English Article 11.

In point of fact, we have no idea if Barlow is connected to the page of gibberish in the Arabic version. The "substitute" page was not discovered until 1930; what happened to the treaty before that time is unknown. The Article, if it was originally in the Arabic version, could have been lost at any time between 1797 and 1930. And there is certainly no reason to assume that Article 11 wasn't in the original Arabic version: A Muslim nation would surely have welcomed Article 11 as an assurance of American intentions with respect to religion.

More generally, we can't imagine how the absence of Article 11 in the Arabic version effects the separationist argument. It was the English version of the treaty that was approved by President Adams and Secretary Pickering, and this version unquestionably contained Article 11. Similarly, when the Senate ratified the treaty, they did so knowing full well that the English version declared that the United States was not a Christian nation. The separationist implications of the treaty can't be escaped by arguing that the Arabic version may not have contained Article 11; the President, Secretary of State, and Senate thought it did, but approved the treaty anyway.

The treaty of Tripoli remained on the books for eight years, at which time the treaty was renegotiated, and Article 11 was dropped.

Research and Writing by Tom Peters. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Ed Buckner of the Atlanta Freethought Society for sharing with us his own research on this issue. This article was rewritten on 9/24/96 to incorporate a number of Mr. Buckner's conclusions. The original article is available here

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