Founded on the Christian Religion?
A line from this treaty embodies the counter charge most frequently invoked (and most heavily relied upon) by critics in their attempt to disprove what history overwhelmingly documents. Asserting that America never was a Christian nation, they invoke a clause from Article XI of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli that declared:
The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion . . .
On its face, that clause appears to be nondebatable and final, but what the critics fail to acknowledge is that they have lifted eighteen words out of a sentence that is eighty-one words long, thereby appearing to make it say something that it does not say when replaced in the full sentence. Significantly (and much to the chagrin of the critics), when the borrowed segment is placed back into the full sentence, and when the full sentence is placed back into the full treaty, and then when the circumstances that caused the writing of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli are presented, the portion of a line that they invoke actually strengthens rather than weakens the claim that America was a Christian nation.
Barbary Powers War
The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli was one of several negotiated with during the “Barbary Powers War,” a war against Muslim terrorists that began toward the end of the Revolutionary War and continued through the Presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.1 During America’s original “War on Terror,” five Muslim countries (Tunis, Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Turkey) were making indiscriminate terrorist attacks against what they claimed to be five “Christian” nations (England, France, Spain, Denmark, and the United States). The conflict so escalated that in 1801, Tripoli formally declared war against the United States,2 thus constituting America’s first official war as an established independent nation.
The Barbary Powers (called Barbary “Pirates” by most Americans) attacked American merchant ships (but not naval ships) wherever they found them. (Prior to the Revolution, American shipping had been protected by the British navy, and during the Revolution by the French navy; but after the Revolution, there was no protection, for America lacked a navy of its own.) These unprotected American merchant ships, built for carrying cargoes rather than for fighting, were easy prey for the warships of the Barbary Powers.
The cargo of these ships was seized as loot and their “Christian” seamen3 were enslaved in retaliation for what Muslims claimed that Christians had done to them (e.g., during the Crusades, Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of Muslims from Granada,4 etc.). So regular were the attacks that in 1793, Algiers alone seized ten American merchant ships and enslaved more then one hundred sailors, holding them for sell or ransom.5
Barbary Powers Treaties
In an attempt to secure a release of the kidnapped seamen and a guarantee of unmolested shipping in the Mediterranean, President Washington dispatched envoys to negotiate terms with those Muslim nations.6 They reached several treaties of “Peace and Amity” with the Muslim Barbary7 powers to ensure “protection” of American commercial ships sailing in the Mediterranean,8 but because America had no navy and no threat of any power against the Muslims, the terms of the treaties were particularly unfavorable for America.
Sometimes she was required to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars (tens of millions in today’s money) of “tribute” (i.e., official extortion) to each Muslim country to receive a “guarantee” of no attacks. Sometimes the Muslims also demanded additional “considerations” – such as building and providing a warship as a “gift” to Tripoli,9 a “gift” frigate to Algiers,10 paying $525,000 to ransom captured American seamen from Algiers,11 etc.
In those treaties, America inserted various declarations attempting to convince the Muslims that as Christians, we were not pursuing a “jihad” against them – that we were engaged in a war on the basis of our religion or theirs. For example, in the 1784 treaty negotiated by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that eventually ended Moroccan hostilities against the United States, three separate clauses acknowledged the conflict as being one between Muslim and Christian powers;12 and the 1795 Treaty with Algiers contained similar acknowledgments.13 In fact, a subsequent treaty with Algiers even stipulated what would occur if captured America (or European) Christian seamen escaped from Algiers and found refuge on any of our ships:
If . . . any Christians whatsoever, captives in Algiers, make their escape and take refuge on board any of the ships of war, they shall not be required back again nor shall the consul of the United States or commanders of said ships be required to pay anything for the said Christians. As the government of America has, in itself, no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of any nation, and as the said states have never entered into any voluntary war or act of hostility except in defense of their just rights on the high seas, it is declared by the contracting parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony between the two nations; and the consuls and agents of both nations hall have liberty to celebrate the rites of their respective religions in their own houses.1
No Enmity Against Muslims
America regularly attempted to assure the Muslims that as Christians, we had no religious hatred of them – that we had “no enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility” of the Muslims, and that our substantial differences of “religious opinions shall [n]ever produce an interruption of the harmony between the two nations.” Furthermore, we inserted specific clauses into the treaties to ensure that our Christian diplomats in their Muslim nations could practice their Christian faith, just as their Muslim diplomats in America could practice their Muslim faith.15 Very simply, using multiple clauses, we attempted to reassure them that we were not like the Period II Christian nations that had attacked them simply because they were Muslims; America was not – and never had been – a party to any such religious war.
The 1797 treaty with Tripoli was just one of the many treaties in which each country recognized the religion of the other, and in which America invoked rhetoric designed to prevent a “Holy War” between Christians and Muslims.16 Article XI of that treaty therefore 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 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.17
Christian Religion Clause in 1797 Treaty
Critics end the sentence after the words “Christian religion,” thus placing a period in the middle of a sentence where no punctuation currently exists, stopping the sentence in mid-thought. However, when Article XI is read in its entirety and its thought concluded where the punctuation so indicates, then the article simply assures Tripoli that we were not one of the Christian nations with an inherent hostility against Muslims and that we would not allow differences in our “religious opinions” to lead to hostility.
(Significantly, even if Article XI contained nothing more than what the critics cite – i.e., “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” – this still would not refute America being a Christian nation since the article only refers to the federal government. Recall that while the Founders themselves openly described America as a Christian nation, they also included a constitutional prohibition against any official federal establishment of religion. Therefore, if Article XI is read as a declaration that the federal government of the United States did not establish the Christian religion, such a statement does not repudiate the fact that America was considered a Christian nation. However, the history of the Treaty, of the treaties negotiated before and after it, and the circumstances of the conflict discounts even that reading.)
Even though clauses such as Article XI in the 1797 treaty clearly demonstrate America’s efforts to distinguish itself from the historical European Christian nations that hated Muslims, the diligent diplomatic efforts proved unsuccessful – especially in the case of Tripoli (today’s Muslim Libya); terroristic attacks against American interests continued largely unabated.
The extortion payments became a significant expense for the American government. In fact, in 1795, payments to Algiers, including the ransom payment to free 115 American seamen, totaled nearly one million dollars18 – a full sixteen percent of the entire federal budget for that year!19 And Algiers was just one of the five Barbary Powers. Not surprisingly, American presidents and citizens resented remitting such extortion payments simply to enjoy rights already guaranteed them under international law. Preparations were therefore begun for a military remedy, thus embracing President George Washington’s axiom that:
To be prepared for war is onto the most effectual means of preserving peace.20
In the final year of his presidency, Washington urged Congress to undertake the construction of a U. S. Navy to defend American interests.21 President John Adams vigorously pursued those naval plans, earning him the title of “Father of the American Navy.”22 Nevertheless, Adams shied from a direct military confrontation and instead pursued a more pacific approach to the ongoing Barbary Powers encroachments.
By 1800, however, extortion payments to the Muslim terrorists accounted for twenty percent of the federal budget; so when Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he refused further payments and decided that it was time to take military action to end the two-decades-old terrorist attacks. Jefferson took General William Eaton (who had been appointed as “Consul to Tunis” by John Adams in 1799) and elevated Eaton to the post of “US Naval Agent to the Barbary States,” with the assignment to lead an American military expedition against Tripoli. Using the brand new American Navy to transport the U. S. Marines overseas, General Eaton led a successful campaign that freed captured American seaman and crushed the Muslim forces. After five years, in 1805 Tripoli signed a treaty on America’s terms, thus ending their aggressions.
Barbary Powers in the Early 1800s
It is from the Marine’s role in that first War on Terror that the U. S. Marines derive part of the opening line of their hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli . . .” Two centuries later, the Marines were again ordered into action in that same general region of the world in America’s second “War on Terror,” again fighting Muslim terrorists.
By 1807, Muslim Algiers had resumed attacks against American ships and sailors, and eventually declared war on America, but Jefferson was distracted with efforts to keep from going to war against Great Britain or France.
During the War of 1812
When President Madison took office, he, too, became rapidly preoccupied with the issues that led to the war of the War of 1812, and also was unable to respond with military force against the attacks. With the end of that War, in 1815, Madison dispatched warships and the military against three Muslim nations: Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Beginning first with Algiers, America quickly subdued them and brought them to the peace table where in July 1815 they ratified a treaty that freed all Christians and ended future slavery of Christians.23
The American fleet then departed for Tunis, to deal with them; promptly after the Americans departed, Algiers renounced the peace treaty. However, two of the other Christian nations being harassed by Muslim terrorist attacks (the British and the Dutch) brought their fleets against Algiers and attacked and subdued them.
In 1816, Algiers signed a new peace treaty in which the Muslims agreed that “the practice of condemning Christian Prisoners of War to slavery is hereby and forever renounced.”24 Significantly, when the treaty was signed, it acknowledged the date according to both the Christian and Muslim calendars:
Done in duplicate, in the warlike City of Algiers, in the presence of Almighty God, the 28th day of August, in the year of Jesus Christ, 1816, and in the year of the Hegira, 1231, and the 6th day of the Moon Shawal.25
In the meantime, the American fleet and Marines had subdued Tunis, who signed a treaty ending the Christian enslavement and terrorist attacks. The Americans then signed another treaty Algiers in December 1816, replacing the one Algiers had renounced, in which the Muslims agreed to end the slavery of Christians.26 This conflict ran the course of some thirty-two years, and it involved multiple incursions of the American military into the region, remaining there almost seven years, before the attacks against America ebbed.
Parallels Between Wars on Terror
Interestingly, there are many parallels between America’s two Wars on Terror. Perhaps U. S. Army Colonel Brian Birdwell – a decorated veteran of the modern War on Terror, later crucially-burned during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon – best explained the philosophy behind both Wars on Terror. Birdwell noted that America had only two options in the terrorists war of attrition against the United States: continue to deal with the mosquitoes coming out of the Middle East swamp, or go drain the swamp and thus prevent future mosquitoes from coming out of it.
In both 1801 and 2003, America had endured two decades of mosquitoes prior to its decision to go drain the swamp. Many Americans today forget that the 2003 invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was preceded by the 1983 Muslim terrorist attacks on the Beirut Embassy and the Marine Barracks; the 1985 Muslim terrorist attack on TWA flight 847; the 1985 attack on the Achillo Lauro cruise ship; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centers; the 1996 attacks on the Khobar Towers and multiple African Embassy bombings; the 2000 attack on the U. S. S. Cole, and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon.
Thousands of Americans across the world had been killed in those earlier two decades of terrorist attacks before America tired of dealing with the mosquitoes and decided to drain the swamp – just as did President Jefferson in 1801 after two decades of similarly harassing attacks.
General William Eaton
Significantly, not only the numerous treaties from the Barbary Powers conflict but also all of the official correspondence from the twenty year conflict leading up first to Jefferson’s and then to Madison’s attack on the Muslim Barbary Powers affirms that it was always viewed by both sides as a conflict between Muslim nations and a Christian one. For example, the writings of General William Eaton both in his early role as a diplomatic envoy under Adams and then in his later role as military theatre commander under Jefferson provide irrefutable testimony of this fact.
Eaton, when writing to President Adam’s Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, 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 [i.e., the secular advantage of keeping captured cargoes], their [the Muslims’] inducements to desperate fighting are very powerful.27 (emphasis added)
Eaton also explained why the Muslims found American targets so inviting. For example, when the American cargo ship “Hero” arrived in Tunis, the Muslims immediately noted that the heavy-laden ship was protected by only two tiny four-pound cannons. According to Eaton:
[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.28(emphasis added)
Very simply, this type of weakness invited continued attack – and thus the need (to that point) to negotiate the often extortive treaties to keep peace. Eaton told Secretary Pickering how pleased one of the Barbary rulers had been to receive the payments promised him by America 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.”29 (emphasis added)
Eaton’s Account of Battles
When John Marshall became the new Secretary of State in 1800, Eaton promptly 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.”30 (emphasis added)
When General Eaton finally commenced his military action against Tripoli at Jefferson’s order, 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 [Muslims]. We have a difficult undertaking!31 (emphasis added)
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?32 (emphasis added)
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 Tripoli33 (emphasis added)
The numerous documents and treaties surrounding the Barbary Powers Conflict confirm that historically it was always viewed as a conflict between Christian America and Muslim nations. Furthermore, the one line from Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli singled out by critics does not disprove that America was a Christian nation; to the contrary, when that line is reinstated back into the full sentence and its context, it proves exactly the opposite.
1 Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, ed. Claude A. Swanson (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1939), I:v.
2 History of the War Between the United States and Tripoli, and Other Barbary Powers (Salem Gazette Office, 1806), 88-89.
4 Glen Tucker, Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U. S. Navy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1963), 50.
5 Naval Documents, ed. Swanson (1939), I:55.
6 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, Gardner W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905), 46, 52-56; Ray W. Irwin, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1931), 84.
7 See, for example, treaties with: Morocco: ratified by the United States on July 18, 1787 (Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America: 1776-1949, ed. Charles I. Bevans (Washington, D. C.: Department of State, 1976), IX:1278-1285).
Algiers: concluded September 5, 1795; ratified by the U. S. Senate March 2, 1796; “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), 1-15).
Tripoli: concluded November 4, 1796; ratified June 10, 1797; “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, ed. William M. Malloy (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1910), II: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, ed. Malloy (1910), II:1794-1799).
12 The American Diplomatic Code, Embracing A Collection of Treaties and Conventions Between the United States and Foreign Powers from 1778 to 1834, ed. Jonathan Elliot (Washington: Jonathan Elliot, Jr., 1834), I:473-479, Articles 10, 12, & 24.
15 See, for example, The American Diplomatic Code, ed. Elliot (1834), I:493, 1815 treaty with Algiers, Article 15; Treaties, Conventions, ed. Malloy ( 1910), II:1791, 1805 treaty with Tripoli, Article XIV.
16 (See general bibliographic information from footnote 7 above 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.
17 Acts Passed at the First Session of the Fifth Congress of the United States of America (Philadelphia: William Ross, 1797), 43-44, “Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary,” signed November 4, 1796.
18 George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C Fitzpatrick (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1940), 33:385, to the Secretary of the Treasury, May 29, 1794; Gerard W. Gawalt, “America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe,” Library of Congress.
19 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, “Historical Statistics of the United States” (New York: Kraus International Publications, 1989), 2:1104.
20 Writings of George Washington, ed. Fitzpatrick, 30:491, “First Annual Address to Congress,” January 8, 1790.
21 James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co., 1847), 151. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents: 1789-1897, ed. James D. Richardson (Washington, D. C.: Published by Authority of Congress, 1899), I:201-202, George Washington, “Eighth Annual Address,” December 7, 1796.
23 Treaties and Conventions Concluded Between the United States of America and Other Powers Since July 4, 1776 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 13-14, 1815 treaty with Algiers, Articles XIII, XV, and XVII.
24 A Complete Collection of the Treaties and Conventions of Reciprocal Regulations at Present Subsisting Between Great Britain and Foreign Powers, ed. Lewis Hertslet (London: Richard Clay & Sons, 1905; originally printed in 1840), I:88, “Declaration of the Dey of Algiers,” August 28, 1816.
25 Collection of the Treaties and Conventions, ed. Hertslet (1905; originally printed in 1840), I:88, “Declaration of the Dey of Algiers,” August 28, 1816.
27 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: E. Merriam & Co., 1813), 92-93, from General Eaton to Timothy Pickering on June 15, 1799.
Still looking for answers? Visit our FAQ page
For decades accusations against the Founding Fathers have abounded. One of the common criticisms is that the Founding Fathers were a collective group of atheists...
If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable...
By the time it’s all said and done, very few years have been as momentous as 2020. Between pandemics, riots, elections, and more, it might be easy to forget the path that has led America to the position she finds herself in today...
Know the Truth and Protect Your Freedoms.
Still looking for answers? Visit our FAQ page
Stay Informed with the Latest Resources
Enter your email address to receive our regular newsletter, with important information and updates right in your inbox!