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From the shores of Tripoli

The importance of some words in a treaty

By George A. Ricker

By coincidence, my birthday, May 26, falls on the anniversary of the date in 1797 on which the Treaty of Tripoli was communicated to the United States Senate for its consideration. Treaties are negotiated by the executive branch of our government but must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate and, subsequently, signed by the president before they go into force. Once adopted, they are included, according to Article VI of the Constitution of the United States in the body of law that is considered the “…supreme Law of the Land.”

While a treaty is in force, all judges and all state governments are bound by it just as they are bound by the other provisions of the Constitution. So treaties are important, even short-lived ones such as the Treaty of Tripoli.

This treaty, along with several others, was negotiated to prevent the piratical actions of the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripolitania (whose capital was Tripoli) on American shipping in the Mediterranean and the nearby Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. The Barbary pirates had been harassing merchant shipping through the area for many decades, confiscating cargo and taking crew and passengers as hostages who were either sold as slaves or held for ransom.

Although the British navy could easily have wiped out the pirates, Great Britain had preferred to simply pay a modest annual tribute to purchase safe passage for its ships. Vessels from the American colonies had fallen under that protection as well, but with the establishment of the United States as a free and independent nation, U.S. merchant ships began to suffer substantial losses from the pirate raids. Since the Congress did not want to spend the money it would have taken to launch a naval expeditionary force to deal with the pirates, treaties were negotiated that would secure safe passage for U.S. shipping with payment of a tribute. At least, such was the hope behind the negotiations. The Treaty of Tripoli was one of those treaties.

The arrangement was short-lived, however. In 1801 the pasha of Tripoli, whose demands for an increase in the tribute were refused, declared war on the United States on May 14. President Thomas Jefferson sent warships to the Mediterranean and in 1805 a new treaty was signed that stipulated no tribute payments. Jefferson, it should be noted, had objected to the idea of paying tribute in the first place.

So the Treaty of Tripoli was only in force for a short time, and it is doubtful we would remember it at all were it not for a relative handful of words in one of its articles.

Article 11 of the treaty states: “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 Mussulmen; and, as the said States 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.”

The intent of the article was clearly to forestall any apprehension on the part of a Muslim state that religious opinions would lead the United States to launch hostile action against it. In view of the history that followed, it seems a naive, if entirely understandable, effort.

Today the words “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” have been invoked by secularists against the claims of those religionists who do claim that our government was founded on Christianity. However, it is an argument that must be made with care or it is self-defeating. We should recognize what the document says, to be sure, but we must understand those words in the context in which they were written. That’s a caution, incidentally, that ought to be observed by all parties to the discussion.

The Treaty of Tripoli says absolutely nothing about the religious beliefs of the citizenry of the United States at the time it was adopted. It is clear from even the most casual reading of history that Christianity was the dominant religion in U.S. society at the time. It is also clear that Christianity played an important role in that society. So anyone who claims the Treaty of Tripoli “proves” anything about the religious beliefs of the people of this nation at that time is distorting what the treaty does say. Now I know most nonbelievers do not make such a claim. But I also know that some Christians like to claim that we do so that having erecting that straw man, they can defeat it with great vigor.

When it comes to what the treaty actually does say, though, some Christians try to evade the plain meaning with a few well-chosen red herrings. I will get to those in a moment.

It seems to me the most significant thing about the Treaty of Tripoli is what it tells us about the understanding of the senators who ratified it. This is important because many of those same men had served in the convention that created the Constitution. Their insight, coming less than a decade after the new government had been established, is invaluable in attempting to understand what the Founding Fathers intended to be the relationship between the government and religions.

I need hardly leave it to your imagination to understand what would be said if such wording were put forth in a treaty today. Why, there would be marches on Washington. Editorial writers across the land would be denouncing the godlessness of the administration that proposed it. The talking heads on Fox News would be apoplectic. Fund-raising campaigns would be launched to defeat such a scurrilous declaration. Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and most of the fundyvangelists working today would be in a state approaching hysteria over the Satanic forces at work in our nation’s capital.

Yet, the U.S. Senate in 1797 heard no such objections, either from within the chamber or outside it. The treaty was passed unanimously by a recorded vote. There were no criticisms of the language in the press either. Indeed, as far as can be determined, there was no one in the entire nation who had any problem at all with the statement “As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion… .” No one was offended, upset or even slightly concerned about those words.

Now here’s where the red herring comes in. Some Christian scholars (I use the word loosely) claim that there is some controversy over whether those words were actually in the treaty. They may have been omitted from the Arabic version, they say, so the treaty may not have been valid. The evidence for this claim is sketchy at best. Apparently, in 1930 it was discovered a page of gibberish had been substituted in the copy of the treaty in the archives of Tripoli. Whether the page was part of the treaty at the time it was signed at Tripoli is unclear.

However, even if that claim is true, it has no relevance to the argument I am making. There is no doubt the English-language version of the treaty did contain those words, and that version received unanimous approval from the Senate.

What all of this suggests to me is that those who founded our national government established it on a basis that was intended to be secular and not sectarian. That does not mean religions had no role to play in the society of the time. Obviously they did. However, theirs was a role that would, for the most part, be played outside the halls of government.

The other red herring that seems always to make an appearance in these discussions is the claim our nation is founded on a “Judeo-Christian” heritage. I say this is a red herring because, whether true or not, this notion has nothing whatever to do with the language of the Treaty of Tripoli. The “nation” is not just the “government of the United States of America.” It is much more than that. Our “Judeo-Christian” heritage certainly contributed to the values on which the original 13 colonies and later the United States were based. Those values were part of the cultural inheritance brought to these shores by colonists from England, Holland, Germany and other nations. I submit that the so-called “Judeo-Christian heritage” was not the sole basis for the cultures of either Europe or the United States. There were many other influences at work, and even when understood narrowly, the “Judeo-Christian heritage” was an amalgamation of ideas and influences that, in many cases, had little or nothing to do with the religious dogmas of either Judaism or any Christian sect.

But be that as it may, the claim has nothing to do with the Treaty of Tripoli and does nothing to weaken the thrust of my argument. The Treaty of Tripoli is not important because of its status or its place in the legal history of the United States. It is important because of what it tells us about the understanding of the respective roles of government and religion on the part of the senators who unanimously made the words “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” a part of the supreme law of the land, even if only for a short time.

What I find remarkable in all of this is that it should be thought at all remarkable. The plain fact is that those who authored the Constitution of the United States of America aimed to establish a government that derived its legitimacy from the consent of its citizenry and not from any god or any religious dogma. The words contained in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli reflect that view. Regardless of the religious opinions of the people of the United States, our national government is founded on no religion, not in any sense.

We are a nation of diverse opinions about gods and religions, more so now than then. Isn’t it ironic that many politicians today see nothing wrong with attempting to shoehorn their religious opinions into government at all levels? At a time when fairness and equality demand that government stand neutral on religious matters, some politicians are unable to grasp the difference between private beliefs and public policies. They call for national days of prayer. They insist on slapping religious mottoes on our money, inserting a religious reference in the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and making religious opinions the basis for secular law. They seek government endorsement of the Bible and make the claim, which is absurd on its face, that the Ten Commandments is the foundation of law and morality in our society.

As our society becomes more and more secular, many Christians seem more and more desperate to secure every possible foothold for their religious opinions in government rites, rituals and displays. Although it was clearly the sentiment of the Founding Fathers that our national government should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, fundamentalist Christians in and out of our government misread our history to make it appear the words only sought to prohibit the establishment of a national church instead of the more general prohibition against any religious establishment that was clearly the meaning of the words as written.

Across the centuries, the language of the Treaty of Tripoli reminds us that our government is not founded on Christianity or any other religion. It is a reminder that today’s politicians should heed before they attempt to legislate their religious opinions and impose them on those who do not share them.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker

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