The Treaty of Tripoli is of particular interest as secularists attempt to use its wording as a definitive expression of the intent of America’s founders regarding religion and government. An in-depth examination, though, may prove this untenable.
On March 28, 1786, America’s new Congress of the Confederation received word from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson of their meeting in France with Tripoli’s ambassador regarding Muslim Barbary pirates raiding American ships in the Mediterranean.
Jefferson and Adams asked Tripoli’s ambassador, Abdrahaman, what the new nation of the United States had done to provoke them: “The ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of the prophet, that it was written in their qur’an, that all nations who should not have acknowledged islam’s authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and every musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Jefferson bought a Qur’an to learn why Muslim pirates attacked unprovoked.
Jefferson wrote to John Jay, 1787, explaining his efforts to ransom captured American sailors through the mediation of the Catholic Order of Mathurins, which was later disbanded during the French Revolution: “There is an order of priests called the Mathurins, the object of whose institution is to beg alms for the redemption of captives. They keep members always in Barbary, searching out the captives of their country, and redeem, I believe, on better terms than any other body, public or private. It occurred to me, that their agency might be obtained for the redemption of our prisoners at Algiers. …
“The General … of the order … undertook to act for us, if we should desire it. He told me that their last considerable redemption was of about 300 prisoners who cost them somewhat upwards of 1,500 livres apiece … that it must be absolutely unknown that the public concern themselves in the operation or the price would be greatly enhanced.”
Congress directed Jefferson and Adams to borrow $80,000 from Dutch bankers to pay tribute, as Jefferson wrote to John Jay, 1787: “If Congress decide to redeem our captives … it is of great importance that the first redemption be made at as low a price as possible, because it will form the future tariff. If these pirates find that they can have a very great price for Americans, they will abandon proportionally their pursuits against other nations to direct them towards ours.”
John Jay, who later would be the first chief justice, wrote to the president of Congress Richard Henry Lee, Oct. 13, 1785: “Algerian Corsairs and the Pirates of Tunis and Tripoli (would cause Americans to unite, since) the more we are ill-treated abroad the more we shall unite and consolidate at home.”
In 1788, Jefferson arranged for John Paul Jones, referred to by some as the “father of the American Navy,” to fight for Empress Catherine the Great of Russia against the Muslim Ottoman navy near the Crimean Peninsula during the second Russo-Turkish War, 1787-92.
Jefferson wrote to General George Washington: “The war between the Russians and the Turks has made an opening for our Commodore Paul Jones. The Empress has invited him into her service. She insures to him the rank of rear admiral. … I think she means to oppose him to the Captain Pacha, on the Black Sea. … He has made it a condition, that he shall be free at all times to return to the orders of Congress … and also, that he shall not … bear arms against France. I believe Congress had it in contemplation to give him the grade of admiral, from the date of his taking the Serapis. Such a measure would now greatly gratify him.”
John Paul Jones wrote in “Narrative of the Campaign of the Liman” of victoriously sailing his flagship Vladimir against the Turks near the Black Sea’s Dnieper River. The night before the battle, Jones and a Cossack sailor silently rowed out to scout the position of the Turkish fleet. On the side of one Turkish ship, Jones chalked in giant letters: “To be burned. Paul Jones.” In the next day’s battle, that ship was among those destroyed by Jones.
Jones was then appointed U.S. consul to negotiate the release of captured U.S. Navy officers held in the dungeons of Algiers.
When John Paul Jones died suddenly, Joel Barlow filled the post. U.S. Consul Joel Barlow tried to stop Tripoli’s Barbary pirates from continuing to terrorize the seas and capturing American sailors.
In 1793, Muslim Barbary pirates captured the U.S. cargo ship Polly.
The Muslim captain justified the crew’s brutal treatment: “… for your history and superstition in believing in a man who was crucified by the Jews and disregarding the true doctrine of Allah’s last and greatest prophet, Mohammed.”
In 1795, Muslim Barbary pirates of Algiers captured 115 American sailors. The U.S. paid ransom of nearly a million dollars.
Tripoli followed Shari’a law which prohibited them from making treaties with “infidel” Christians:
- Infidels are those who declare: “God is the Christ, the son of Mary” (Sura 5:17)
- Infidels are those that say “God is one of three in a Trinity” (Sura 5:73)
- Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends (Sura 5:51)
- Believers, do not make friends with those who have incurred the wrath of Allah (Sura 60:13)
- Infidels are your sworn enemies (Sura 4:101)
- Make war on the infidels who dwell around you (Sura 9:123)
- Prophet, make war on the infidels (Sura 66:9)
- When you meet the infidel in the battlefield strike off their heads (Sura 47:4)
- Muhammad is Allah’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the infidels (Sura 48:29)
Joel Barlow realized that Islamic law forbade Muslims from making friendship alliances with infidels. He therefore tried to separate in their minds that they were not negotiating with the Christian religion, but with a “nation-state.” This was a necessary distinction to make, as Muslims had been at war with the “Christian nations” of Europe for over 1,000 years.
The concept of a “nation-state” where citizens had freedom of conscience to join or leave a religion as they wished was unfamiliar and unwelcome to fundamental Muslims, as it still is today among groups like ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The wording of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 was not intended to devalue Christianity’s historical contribution to the founding of America, but rather it was an attempt to negotiate with Muslims using phraseology which would oblige them to honor the treaty.
With that background, the wording of the Treaty of Tripoli was: “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 law, religion or tranquility of the 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 opinion shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Noted religious critic and anti-theist Christopher Hitchens admitted in his work “Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates” (2007): “Of course, those secularists like myself who like to cite this Treaty must concede that its conciliatory language was part of America’s attempt to come to terms with Barbary demands.”
In grammar, a comma indicates a qualifying relationship between a dependent clause and an independent clause.
The phrase “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” is followed by a comma indicating that the preceding dependent phrase is qualified by the subsequent phrase which should always accompany it, “– as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of the Musselmen.”
Additionally, where the Treaty of Tripoli says the “government of the United States of America,” it was referring to the “federal” government.
This is significant, as Joel Barlow was negotiating on behalf of the “federal” government, which was prohibited by the First Amendment from having jurisdiction over religion, as religion was under each individual state’s jurisdiction.
In fact, it was the states’ jealous desire to keep religion under their jurisdictions that motivated them to insist a First Amendment be added to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit the federal government from inter-meddling.
This was not the case in most European countries which had established churches, or in fundamental Muslim countries which controlled citizens’ religious life through threats of death or dismemberment.
The original Arabic translation of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli revealed the Islamic understanding of religion and government being synonymous: “Glory be to God! Declaration of the third article. We have agreed that if American Christians are traveling with a nation that is at war with the well preserved Tripoli, and (the Tripolitan) takes (prisoners) from the Christian enemies and from the American Christians with whom we are at peace, then sets them free; neither he nor his goods shall be taken. …
“Praise be to God! Declaration of the twelfth article. If there arises a disturbance between us both sides, and it becomes a serious dispute, and the American Consul is not able to make clear his affair, and the affair shall remain suspended between them both, between the Pasha of Tripoli, may God strengthen him, and the Americans, until Lord Hassan Pasha, may God strengthen him, in the well-protected Algiers, has taken cognizance of the matter.
“We shall accept whatever decision he enjoins on us, and we shall agree with his condition and his seal; May God make it all permanent love and a good conclusion between us in the beginning and in the end, by His grace and favor, amen!”
Immediately after Jefferson was inaugurated president, the pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 to keep his Barbary pirates from seizing American ships, confiscating cargo and selling crews into slavery. When Jefferson refused to pay, the pasha declared war – the first war after the U.S. became a nation.
Jefferson stated in his first annual message to Congress, Dec. 8, 1801: “Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had permitted itself to (announce) war on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean, with assurances to that power of our sincere desire to remain in peace, but with orders to protect our commerce against the threatened attack. The measure was seasonable and salutary.
“The Bey (lord) had already declared war. His cruisers were out. Two had arrived at Gibraltar. Our commerce in the Mediterranean was blockaded and that of the Atlantic in peril. The arrival of our squadron dispelled the danger.
“One of the Tripolitan cruisers having fallen in with and engaged the small schooner Enterprise, commanded by Lieutenant Sterret, which had gone as a tender to our larger vessels, was captured, after a heavy slaughter of her men, without the loss of a single one on our part. The bravery exhibited by our citizens on that element will, I trust, be a testimony to the world. … We are bound with peculiar gratitude to be thankful to Him that our own peace has been preserved through a perilous season.”
On Dec. 29, 1803, the 36-gun USS Philadelphia was cruising the Mediterranean when it ran aground on an uncharted sand bar off the coast of North Africa. Muslims surrounded it and captured its crew. They imprisoned Captain William Bainbridge and his 307-man crew for 18 months.
To keep this ship from being used by Muslim pirates, Lt. Stephen Decatur sailed his ship, Intrepid, Feb. 16, 1804, into Tripoli’s harbor and set the USS Philadelphia ablaze. British Admiral Horatio Nelson called it the “most bold and daring act of the age.”
After negotiations, for $60,000 and 89 Muslim prisoners captured in skirmishes, the crew of the USS Philadelphia was released, less six who had died in captivity and five who converted to Islam, much to the annoyance of the rest.
When the pasha of Tripoli offered the five converts the choice of staying in Tripoli or returning to America, four decided to renounce Islam and return home.
Horror covered their faces as the insulted pasha ordered guards to drag them away, following the instruction in Hadith al-Bukhari: “Mohammed said, Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him.”
In April of 1805, Jefferson sent in the Navy and Marines, led by Commodore Edward Preble, Commodore John Rogers, Captain William Eaton, Lt. Stephen Decatur and Lt. Presley O’Bannon.
They seized the Barbary harbor of Derne and the terrorist attacks temporarily ceased, giving rise to the Marine anthem: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli …” Many “mamluke” slave-soldiers had their curved scimitar swords confiscated, which became the Marine “mamluke” sword.
Marines were called “leathernecks” for the wide leather straps they wore around their necks to prevent them from being beheaded, as Sura 47:4, stated: “When you meet the infidel in the battlefield, strike off their heads.”
Jefferson then had a new Treaty of Peace and Amity with Tripoli, April 12, 1806, but this time it was negotiated from a position of strength and therefore it did not contain the conciliatory wording of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli.
Francis Scott Key wrote a song to honor the Navy and Marines titled “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar,” published in Boston’s Independent Chronicle, Dec. 30, 1805, being written to the same tune that nine years later Key would use for “The Star-Spangled Banner”:
“In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d
Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d
By the light of the Star-Bangled Flag of our nation.
Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.
Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.”
During James Madison’s term as president, Muslims broke the treaty and a second Barbary war began.
In 1815, Congress authorized naval action with six European countries to fight Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Commodores Decatur and Bainbridge led 10 warships to the Mediterranean and forced the dey (ruler) of Algiers to release American prisoners, to stop demanding tribute and to pay damages. Tunis and Tripoli also agreed.
Of the negotiations, Frederick C. Leiner wrote in “The End of the Barbary Terror-America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa” (Oxford University Press): “Commodore Stephen Decatur and diplomat William Shaler withdrew to consult in private. … The Algerians were believed to be masters of duplicity, willing to make agreements and break them as they found convenient. … Commodore Stephen Decatur and Captain William Bainbridge both recognized that the peace could only be kept by force or the threat of force.”
The annotated “John Quincy Adams – A Bibliography,” compiled by Lynn H. Parsons (Westport, CT, 1993, p. 41, entry #194, The American Annual Register for 1827-28-29, NY: 1830): “Our gallant Commodore Stephen Decatur had chastised the pirate of Algiers. … The Dey (Omar Bashaw) … disdained to conceal his intentions; ‘My power,’ said he, ‘has been wrested from my hands; draw ye the treaty at your pleasure, and I will sign it; but beware of the moment, when I shall recover my power, for with that moment, your treaty shall be waste paper.'”
The Islamic term for treaty, “hudna,” has historically been observed, when weak make treaties till strong enough to disregard them. In 1816, Muslims again broke their treaty.
The Dutch and British, under Sir Edward Pellew, bombarded Algiers, forcing them to release 3,000 European prisoners. Algiers renewed its piracy and slave-taking, causing the British to bombard them again in 1824. It was not until 1830, when the French conquered Algiers, did Muslim Barbary piracy cease.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote in “Fear God and Take Your Own Part” (1916, p. 351): “Centuries have passed since any war vessel of a civilized power has shown such ruthless brutality toward concombatants … especially toward women and children. The Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast behaved at times in similar fashion until the civilized nations joined in suppressing them.”
After an honest examination of the history surrounding the Treaty of Tripoli makes it is clear that its unique wording was simply a futile attempt to negotiate with Muslims whose Islamic law precluded them from honoring treaties with “infidel” Christians.
Secondly, the Treaty of Tripoli was negotiated on behalf of the “federal” government and, prior to the 14th Amendment of 1868 and Justice Hugo Black’s 1947 Everson decision, religion was considered to be under each individual state’s jurisdiction.
Finally, if one insists on considering the Treaty of Tripoli as an expression of the Founders’ intent regarding religion and government, then all other treaties and acts of Congress should also be examined, such as the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War, ratified by the Congress of the Confederation, Jan. 14, 1784: “In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. It having pleased the Divine Providence to dispose the hearts of the most serene and most potent Prince George the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, … and of the United States of America, to forget all past misunderstandings and differences. … Done at Paris, this third day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-three.”
To read the rest of Bill Federer’s breakdown on America as a Christian nation, click here.
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