The Treaty With Tripoli by Sherman D. Wakefield (June/July 1997)

 This June marks the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty with Tripoli, declaring the United States not to be founded on Christianity. This article first appeared in “Progressive World,” December, 1955.

By Sherman D. Wakefield

There frequently appears in the Freethought press, of whatever name, a quotation from or reference to that part of the United States Treaty with Tripoli of 1796-97 to the effect that the United States was not founded on the Christian religion. Generally the so-called quotations are misquotations and the words are attributed to George Washington as author. Since there is no evidence whatever that George Washington wrote the Treaty or any part of it, the most that can be said is that he approved of it. . . . He objected to atheists using this quotation and called it “a most flagrant misquotation for evil purposes.” To which it should be stated that the passage in question is genuine and is not used for “evil purposes” unless truth and Americanism are evil purposes. This does not refer to the original text of the treaty now in the Department of State files, with the Arabic text on the right-hand page and the English translation on the left, but to an outline drafted by Joel Barlow in English which he used in negotiating the treaty before it was drawn up and agreed to by both sides. Barlow did not alone draft the treaty as it stands, but he worked it out with the Moslem leaders and then translated it into English.

What are the facts regarding this important treaty? In the first place it was not written by George Washington or anybody else in the United States, but in Algiers and signed at Tripoli on Nov. 4, 1796, and at Algiers on Jan. 3, 1797, by Hassan Bashaw, dey or bey of Algiers, and Joel Barlow, U.S. Consul to Algiers. The original is in Arabic and the English text was translated by Joel Barlow. Both texts were submitted to the U.S. Senate on May 29, 1797, and the treaty was ratified and proclaimed in Philadelphia on June 10, 1797. George Washington was president when the treaty was signed at Tripoli, but by the time it reached the Senate for ratification John Adams was president, and it was the latter who presented it to the Senate. Joel Barlow (1754-1812), as U.S. Consul to Algiers, was co-author with Moslem officials of this treaty and sole author of Article XI which contains the non-Christian statement. He was a well-known poet and diplomat of the time and later was U.S. Minister to France (1811-12). Like the leaders among the Founding Fathers of the United States he was a Deist and non-Christian and well knew that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

The part of this treaty of special interest to Freethinkers is, of course, Article XI, but it is seldom quoted in full by them. The complete Article explains why the first part is mentioned and why the Musselmen or Moslems would make a treaty with a non-Moslem nation. The entire Article Xl in the original treaty reads as follows:

“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 laws, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen,–and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mohammedan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever interrupt the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Only since about 1930 has it become clear to scholars that the Arabic parallel to the English Article XI is not the original of the supposed quotation but has no relation to it. There is no Article XI in the original Arabic, and in its place is a crude letter of no importance from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. This discrepancy remains a mystery to this day.

Besides the original Treaty with Tripoli of 1796-97 there is a copy still in existence which has some variations from the original. It is called the Cathcart Copy, named after James Leander Cathcart, who became U.S. Consul to Tripoli in 1798. A third document is a translation of the Arabic into Italian, made for Cathcart which is a better rendering of the Arabic than Barlow’s English translation. A fourth document is the 4-page ratification and proclamation of the treaty by President John Adams and the U.S. Senate. In 1930 an annotated English translation of the Arabic text was made by Dr. C. Snouck Hurgronje, a scholar of Leiden, Holland, which can be considered the authoritative translation.

Long before the United States came into existence, the Barbary States of northern Africa had gained their revenue from piracy and the European nations had paid them money and gifts for immunity to their vessels. This practice was adopted by the young American republic, and tribute was part of the treaty of 1796-97. Article X of this treaty with Tripoli states that the money and gifts demanded by the bey had been paid. A “receipt” dated Nov. 21, 1796, and included in the treaty acknowledges the following: 40,000 duros (Spanish dollars), 13 watches, 5 seal rings, 140 ells of cloth, and 4 garments, in lieu of annual tribute to Tripoli. A “note” dated Jan. 3, 1797, also itemizes what the United States still needed to pay. The matter was finally settled by the United States paying the equivalent of $18,000 on Apr. 10, 1799.

But the bey of Tripoli still [was] not satisfied. By 1800 he thought he had succeeded in intimidating the Christian nations of Europe and thus thought he could impose new conditions on the United States through U.S. Consul Cathcart at Tripoli. Cathcart refused any more tribute, but on May 4, 1801, the American flag staff was cut down and Cathcart left on May 24. President Jefferson sent out a few frigates to defend American shipping, and in February 1802 was authorized to use all the ships that were necessary including private vessels. The port of Tripoli was blockaded by American ships and bombarded, but not taken. When the bey saw the Americans were too much for him a new treaty with Tripoli was drawn up and signed on June 4, 1805, which called for no further tribute. The treaty of 1796-97 had been annulled by the war. The treaty of 1805 does not have the passage: “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” but its Article XIV is practically the same as the previous treaty’s Article XI with that omission. Like the treaty of 1796-97 however, this later treaty also showed the government of the United States to be impartial in matters of religion–that it had no established religion, and that the question of religion and religious opinions was not to be considered in national affairs. It showed that it was not the policy of the government to compel those within its jurisdiction who are not Christians to act as though they were.

There have been some instances when Article XI of the treaty of 1796-97 helped diplomatic agents of the United States in their dealings with their own or Moslem nations. Mordecai M. Noah (1785-1851), who was special agent to Algiers (1813-15) and helped to secure the release of American prisoners held by the pirates, carried a point in his negotiations by pointing out that the United States government was not Christian. Later, however, he was called home by President Monroe because his Jewish religion was held to be an obstacle to the successful outcome of his work. Noah pleaded that Article XI of the 1796-97 treaty showed that Americans do not need to be Christians, but he had to return nevertheless.

A more important instance of the helpfulness of Article XI involved Oscar S. Straus (1850-1926) who was U.S. Minister to Turkey (1887-89 and 1898-1900) and Ambassador to Turkey (1909-10). In the Spring of 1899, at the beginning of the war with Spain, it was discovered that there were Moslems in the Philippines who might start a Holy War against the United States. Mr. Straus gained an audience with the Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid, and requested him as Caliph of the Moslem religion to act against this possibility. The Sultan sent a message to the Sulu Moslems of the Philippines forbidding them to fight the Americans as no interference with their religion would be allowed under American rule. The move was successful, and President McKinley sent a personal letter of thanks to Mr. Straus saying he had saved at least 20,000 American troops in the field.

Mr. Straus in his autobiography, Under Four Administrations (1922, p. 147) told how he accomplished this important diplomatic achievement: “In order to be able to take up the matter very fully with the Sultan, I had anticipated all kinds of questions and armed myself with pertinent information. Among them I thought he might seek some assurance as to our Government’s attitude toward Mohammedanism, and to reassure him I had come prepared with a translation into Turkish of Article XI of an early treaty between the United States and Tripoli, negotiated by Joel Barlow in 1796 . . . When the Sultan had read this, his face lighted up. It would give him pleasure, he said, to act in accordance with my suggestions, for two reasons: for the sake of humanity, and to be helpful to the United States.” It was fortunate indeed that Mr. Straus had the English version of Article XI translated into Turkish for this occasion rather than submit to the Sultan the supposed Arabic version of this Article already in the treaty!

To Representative Hiestand the discrepancy between the Arabic and English texts of Article XI invalidates the authenticity of this Article and what it says about the United States not being founded on the Christian religion. But it should be remembered that it was the Barlow version which was read by President Adams and the Senate and ratified by them. The American government, if not the Tripolitan, agreed that the government of the United States is not founded on the Christian religion.

John Adams, in his proclamation of the treaty, said he had “seen and considered the said Treaty” and “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, had agreed to accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof.” And even though the Barlow translation leaves much to be desired, the fact remains that it has been printed in all official and unofficial treaty collections since it appeared in the Session Laws of the Fifth Congress (1797) and in The Laws of the United States, edited by R. Folwell (1799). Article VI of the United States Constitution made this treaty doubly binding by saying: “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Thus Article XI was made valid for the United States, and it should now be treasured as a basic document for the American doctrine of the separation of Church and State.

Freedom From Religion Foundation