On Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli
Video version!

In a late 18th century treaty reached by America with certain Muslim pirates of the African coast, one part of which, Article 11, 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 tranquility of 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 opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Years ago the "Christian nation" part of this was being passed around, falsely attributed as a saying of George Washington, but not so much now. At any rate, we should start with some data that all parties seem agreeable on.

With this information as groundwork, we can now boil down to two key issues.

  • Did Article 11 belong in the treaty at all?

    The evidence seems to indicate that it did not, crude attempts at textual criticism notwithstanding. However, several Skeptical sites follow the lead of one linked above and say:

    The fact which completely destroys [the religious right's] argument is that none of the Senators who read, accepted, approved, and ratified the Treaty could read Arabic. The official and only 1797 Treaty with Tripoli which was read, accepted, approved, and ratified by the Senate of the United States was the one penned by Joel Barlow in the English language. And, whether the so-called "religious right" revisionists like it or not, Article 11 of the official 1797 Treaty with Tripoli was in the Treaty in 1797 and is appropriately recorded in the official treaty book: "The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

    And another site here adds:

    The Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the United States Senate clearly specifies that the treaty of 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.

    The question here is a good one. Assuming that this Article has the meaning skeptics ascribe to it -- see below -- why would the treaty be approved if it was not acceptable to the Congress and to the President?

    In order to address this issue, it will be helpful to lay out certain events in chronological order, as well as look further into the background of this treaty. Note these dates to begin:

    • January 4, 1797 -- copy certified by Barlow
    • April 10, 1799 -- settlement delivered in Tripoli

    These are the dates we have so far, and note that the time span is significant -- over two years. Now we need to look more deeply into what this treaty was all about. Our main print sources are Peter Earle's book, Corsairs of Malta and Barbary [6-15], and Michael L. S. Kitzen's Tripoli and the United States at War [1-36]). What they offer, we parallel with data from various government and other reputable websites. Here there is a government site that describes the events that led up to treaties like this:

    Pirate ships and crews from the North African states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers (the Barbary Coast) were the scourge of the Mediterranean. Capturing merchant ships and holding their crews for ransom provided the rulers of these nations with wealth and naval power. In fact, the Roman Catholic Religious Order of Mathurins had operated from France for centuries with the special mission of collecting and disbursing funds for the relief and ransom of prisoners of Mediterranean pirates.

    Another site now offline adds:

    Since the sixteenth century, corsairs from the Muslim states of North Africa had controlled the Mediterranean sea lanes by force. At the time the United States won its independence, the states of the Barbary Coast--Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis--had been preying on the world's merchant ships for three hundred years. The Barbary pirates' methods were fairly simple: cruising the Mediterranean in small, fast ships, they boarded merchant ships, overwhelmed the crew, and took them captive. The crews were held in captivity until their home countries agreed to pay ransoms for their release. If no ransom was forthcoming, the crews were sold into slavery. Over time, most countries found it expedient simply to pay a yearly tribute to the sultans, thereby buying their ships free passage through the Mediterranean.

    Earle adds that the defining factor for the Moslem corsairs in attacking a ship was "that they worshipped a different God." [6] They were specifically after Christian shipping. To them, this was a "holy war" as much as the Crusades were. Keep this in mind for below.

    British and French ships protected American ships from these pirates until 1783. Then:

    As early as 1784 Congress followed the tradition of the European shipping powers and appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary states, directing its ministers in Europe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to begin negotiations with them. Trouble began the next year, in July 1785, when Algerians captured two American ships and the dey of Algiers held their crews of twenty-one people for a ransom of nearly $60,000.

    The site records the ideas of several Founders, notably Jefferson, to engage the pirates in war rather than paying their ransoms. Jefferson thought it would be easier to raise a fighting force than the money for ransoms, but other nations disagreed with the idea (see below), so the idea of an international coalition never came to pass.

    And so things got worse: "In 1795 alone the United States was forced to pay nearly a million dollars in cash, naval stores, and a frigate to ransom 115 sailors from the dey of Algiers. Annual gifts were settled by treaty on Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli."

    Readers should note that at this point, 1795, America was following the line of the other world powers in appeasing the pirates rather than fighting them. As Earle notes, a single British ship of the line could have blown the pirates to the sky, but they and the other nations had other ideas. Another site on Arab history (now defunct) notes why assembling a coalition with the other international powers was a bust:

    European powers had contended with the Barbary privateers for centuries, and nearly all of them were paying tribute to North African rulers to secure the safety of their fleets. In fact, Parker stated, the British and French were actively encouraging the privateers in order to limit commercial competition by smaller states. Foreign powers also issued slips of protection for other countries' ships, as well as licenses for raiding ships.

    One other note about these key years should be mentioned. In this time the US was in some other difficulties, according to Kitzen [9, 24]:

    1. The older nations were jealous of America's upstart successes; in 1785, Lord Sheffield of England actually opposed a free trade agreement with America and asserted that the pirates of the Barbary states had value because they kept down the competition from America.
    2. From 1796 to 1799, America was involved in a "Quasi-War" with France, in which the "debilitated" French navy was set against the "vastly outnumbered" American navy. America had a "cold war" going which could have turned "hot" in the blink of an eye.

    The point to be made here is that America was in no position, at this time in the 1790s, to worry about the minutiae of the Treaty. A treaty had to be negotiated, for as the site also notes, "The Barbary states considered themselves at war with any country that did not have a peace agreement with them." Delays in negotiation meant more piracy, more being at war with the pirates, and more possibilities of innocent Americans being captured and sold into slavery, and more economic burdens for businesses in the fledgling nation.

    With no help forthcoming from the international community -- who preferred to use the pirates, even against America, as lackeys to destroy the small fry -- and with treaties taking such an extraordinary amount of time to negotiate and agree to -- what would the American government be expected to do? Even if anyone objected to Article 11, it would have been foolish and counterproductive to send it back for re-negotiation. We would suggest that matters were weighed in the balance, and that it was considered more important to get the Treaty through than to rework it.

    With that said, it is well to note that when the Treaty was reworked 8 years later, Article 11 was conspicuously absent. In that context it is also well to note that by this time, America had the upper hand and was in a position to give the pirates the short end of the stick. The sites we have linked to tell the story. The following is a mixed and chronologized compilation of what they report:

    In 1796, the tributes to the sultans were modest; Tripoli's, for example, was $56,000. But the pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, believed he could demand higher tribute and sent a message to the United States demanding a new treaty. The demands arrived in March 1801, just after President Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated.
    ...[Jefferson] declared in his first annual message to Congress: "To this state of general peace with which we have been blessed, one only exception exists. 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 denounce 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. . . ."
    Jefferson sent a naval "squadron of observation" consisting of three frigates--the President, the Philadelphia, and the Essex--and the sloop of war Enterprise. The American fleet arrived in Gibraltar on July 1, 1801, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. Upon his arrival, Dale was informed that Tripoli had declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801. With his mission now shifting from a cruise of observation to a state of war, Dale ordered the bulk of his squadron to Tripoli.
    Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett, in command of the Enterprise, defeated the corsair Tripoli in an engagement on August 1, 1801. In the engagement, the Tripoli lost sixty out of eighty crew members, while the Enterprise sustained no casualties. This action demonstrated a major weakness of the Barbary pirates. Their light ships, manned by crewmen who were not well drilled in gunnery, were no match for naval vessels. However, though Sterrett's victory was clear, the United States had not yet officially declared war on Tripoli, and therefore could not claim the ship as a prize. The Tripoli was sent home after her guns were thrown overboard. The pasha greeted the defeated captain of the Tripoli with outrage. Upon returning to port he was publicly beaten, then forced to ride through the city backward on a donkey.
    In April 1802, Commodore Dale returned to the United States and resigned from the navy. He was replaced by Commodore Richard Morris. Morris arrived in Gibraltar in June with an additional fleet of seven frigates and a sloop. Morris's arrival in the Mediterranean with his wife and child aboard his flagship indicated that he did not intend to actively pursue the war against Tripoli. Though his orders were to "proceed with the whole squadron under your command and lie off Tripoli," he chose to continue Dale's policy of acting as escort to American merchant ships sailing to various destinations around the Mediterranean. Morris's only move toward Tripoli was to send Captain Alexander Murray with the Constellation to Tripoli with orders to observe the port. In September 1803, Morris was recalled to the United States. Furious at his lack of initiative, Jefferson dismissed him from the navy when a court of inquiry censured him for lack of diligence.
    The United States had now been at war with Tripoli for two years, without accomplishing much toward resolving the conflict. But the new commander of the Mediterranean Squadron would change the manner in which the U.S. Navy did business in Tripoli.
    The American show of force quickly awed Tunis and Algiers into breaking their alliance with Tripoli. The humiliating loss of the frigate Philadelphia and the capture of her captain and crew in Tripoli in 1803, criticism from his political opponents, and even opposition within his own cabinet did not deter Jefferson from his chosen course during four years of war. The aggressive action of Commodore Edward Preble (1803-4) forced Morocco out of the fight and his five bombardments of Tripoli restored some order to the Mediterranean. However, it was not until 1805, when an American fleet under Commodore John Rogers and a land force raised by an American naval agent to the Barbary powers, Captain William Eaton, threatened to capture Tripoli and install the brother of Tripoli's pasha on the throne, that a treaty brought an end to the hostilities. Negotiated by Tobias Lear, former secretary to President Washington and now consul general in Algiers, the treaty of 1805 still required the United States to pay a ransom of $60,000 for each of the sailors held by the dey of Algiers, and so it went without Senatorial consent until April 1806. Nevertheless, Jefferson was able to report in his sixth annual message to Congress in December 1806 that in addition to the successful completion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, "The states on the coast of Barbary seem generally disposed at present to respect our peace and friendship."

    More detail from another of the sites:

    The first attack took place on August 3. As the American gunboats engaged the Tripolitan gunboat fleet, the bomb ketches were to shell the city while the Constitution attacked the shore batteries. The Tripolitans had eleven gunboats available to meet the American attack. Already outnumbered, the American force was cut in half as shifting winds allowed only three of the attacking gunboats to enter the harbor. For two and a half hours the battle raged as the Americans approached, fired on, and then boarded six of the enemy vessels. Three enemy gunboats were captured, and three more were sunk. The Constitution's guns silenced the shore batteries and then turned their force on the pasha's castle. In the entire day's action there were only fourteen American casualties. During the month of August, four more attacks were executed and the city was shelled for two nights, terrifying the inhabitants. After each assault Preble sent a message to Karamanli suggesting negotiations and offering payments of $40,000 and then $50,000 in exchange for the American prisoners from the Philadelphia. Karamanli remained adamant, and Preble continued his attacks.

    Following a failed attempt to destroy pirate ships with a decoy ship loaded with explosives, there was a change in tactics:

    Commodore Barron continued the blockade of Tripoli, but stopped the attacks and developed a new approach to peace by undermining the authority of the pasha. The American consul in Tunis, William Eaton, suggested that they replace Yusuf Karamanli with his older brother Hamet, who was in exile in Egypt. Eaton assembled an army of mercenaries in Egypt, supported by a detachment of marines from the American ship Argus. After traveling five hundred miles, Eaton and Hamet reached the city of Derna in April. With the help of the Argus, the Hornet, and the Nautilus, Derna was captured and the back door to Tripoli was opened. Fearing that his overthrow was near at hand, Yusuf Karamanli agreed to negotiate a peace. On June 4, 1805, he accepted the last American offer of $60,000 for the release of the American prisoners and approved a new treaty that did not require tribute payments. Once the American objective had been accomplished, Hamet was left without support to continue the attempt to overthrow Yusuf Karamanli.

    America did not stop paying tribute to all of the pirates completely until 1815. But it is clear enough that by this time, where Tripoli was concerned, they had the upper hand that they did not have years earlier. This suggests that the reworking of the treaty without Article 11 should be regarded as better reflecting American sentiments than the earlier version, regardless of who wrote or negotiated it. It may be further noted that no such verbiage as Article 11 is found in any of the treaties with the other Muslim pirate states -- which throws a wrench into the idea offered by the above skeptical site that it belonged in the text and would have been welcomed by Muslims.

    So now we are led to a second question:

  • What was the meaning of this article in the first place?

    Let us grant that this article might have been a genuine part of the Treaty anyway, in spite of evidence that it did not belong and was only allowed to pass in the English, approved version because of pressing humanitarian, political and military concerns. By now it will be a good idea to revisit the Article:

    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,-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 opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

    A word to begin: We do not argue that eliminating Article 11 is the same as proving that America was indeed "founded on the Christian religion" -- whatever that may mean. For the present, please note that:

    • The article as it stands merely says that the government of America is not founded on the Christian religion. This does not mean that the American social/political network was not founded with Christian principles of mind, or that the peoples of America were not Christian to some degree; it merely addresses the government of America. Why?
    • It may occur to critics that the phrase "founded on the Christian religion" would have a certain meaning to those whose state were "founded on" the Islamic religion -- a "Mehomitan nation". The essential message would be that America was not a Christian theocracy, or a state where the church had political power, as the religious authorities in Muslim nations had power -- which is something no one argues for America.

    Our conclusion: Article 11 is a skeptical dud that proves nothing about the founding principles of this nation and says nothing about to what extent Christian influence has shaped us or our government.

    Other resources:

  • Comments by Mordecai Noah, U. S. Consul to Tripoli
  • Supreme Court decision that refers to the US as a "Christian nation"

    Update July 2008: We had a visit from Jonn Eidsmoe, author of the book Christianity and the Constitution, and he had some nice things to say about this article, and graciously gave us permission to add some observations he made. Here they are.


    1. Those who use the Treaty to prove that the United States is not founded upon Christianity argue that it it doesn't matter what the Arabic version of the Treaty said, because only the English version was read to and ratified by the United States Senate. I believe it does matter. A treaty is a contract between two (or more) nations, and an essential element of a contract is a "meeting of minds." If you contract to buy my house from me, and my copy of the contract lists the price as $200,000 and your copy lists the price as $150,000, we do not have a meeting of minds. On a major matter like the purchase price, this lack of a meeting of minds would probably mean the entire contract is invalid. On a less essential matter, it might mean only that the disputed provision is invalid. Likewise, the difference between the English and Arabic versions of the Treaty of Tripoli mean that, at the very least, the alleged Article 11 is invalid. However, I have to add that although the alleged Article 11 of the Treaty is invalid and has no legal force and effect, it might still be of some evidentiary value in understanding how the founders viewed the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States government.

    2. You make an excellent point when you note that the disputed Article 11 says the government of the United States is not founded upon the Christian religion. The government is not the nation, and the government of the United States is not the same as the state and local governments. In adopting the First Amendment, the Founders clearly intended that there be no established religion at the national level, but they left the states free to have their own establishments. A primary reason for the adoption of the First Amendment establishment clause was the different establishments at the state level -- Congregationalists in New England, Anglicans in the South, Baptists in Rhode Island, Catholics in Maryland, Quakers in Pennsylvania, etc. If I had been a Senator at the time of the ratification of the Treaty of Tripoli, I might have raised my eyebrows at the wording of Article 11, but I probably wouldn't have considered the statement categorically false. The statement does not directly contradict my understanding that the United States was founded upon Biblical values that were brought to America largely by Christians.

    3. You correctly note that the diplomat Joel Barlow was instrumental in the negotiation and drafting of the Treaty. My understanding is that Barlow was a religious skeptic, and he may have used this note from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli to insert this statement into the Treaty. I've also read that Barlow did not know Arabic.

    4. I appreciate the fact that you list my book Christianity and the Constitution as recommended reading in your bookstore. Pp. 413-15 of the book is an appendix on the Treaty of Tripoli.

    5. Those who cite the Treaty of Tripoli as evidence that this nation was not founded on the Christian religion, usually ignore the Treaty of Paris of 1783. This Treaty, negotiated by Ben Franklin and John Adams among others, is truly a foundational document for the United States, because by this Treaty Britian recognized the independence of the United States. The Treaty begins with the words, "In the Name of the most holy and undivided Trinity... ," and there is no dispute about its validity or its wording.