The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli is the source of a declaration which some people assert was made by George Washington. We must ask the question “Is the statement accurate?” Did George Washington repudiate the Christian religion?
The 1797 treaty was one of several treaties with Tripoli. It was negotiated during a conflict Americans had with Barbary pirates known as the “Barbary Powers Conflict.” The conflagration began soon after the end of the American War for Independence and continued through the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Muslim Barbary Powers of Tunis, Morocco, Algiers, and Tripoli were waging war against a presumed adversary whom they claimed to be the “Christian” nations. The nations to whom they referred are England, France, Spain, Denmark, and the United States.
Tripoli actually declared war on the United States in 1801. This was the first official war which was waged against the fledgling independent republic.
The four Barbary Powers (Tunis, Morocco, Algiers, and Tripoli) regularly attacked defenseless American merchant ships. Their cargoes were taken and the “Christian” seamen were captured and enslaved. Glen Tucker in his work, Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U. S. Navy states that The Barbary Powers assertion that they were retaliating for offences which they claim had occurred to them in the preceding centuries. (The Crusades and expulsion from Granada during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella)
President George Washington dispatched envoys to negotiate treaties with the Barbary Powers. Washington was attempting to secure the release of captured seamen and make assurances that shipping would be unmolested in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1793 Colonel David Humphreys was selected to be the only commissioner of Algerian affairs. Humphreys, chosen by Washington, negotiated treaties with Algeria, Tripoli and Tunis. Joseph Donaldson Jr., was appointed as Consul to Tunis and Tripoli. Donaldson and / or Joel Barlow received delegated powers from Humphreys in February of 1796 to form treaties. In 1795, United States Consul to Gibraltar, James Simpson was dispatched to Morocco to renew the treaty. Richard O’Brien received a commission on October 8, 1796 from Barlow to negotiate a peace treaty with Tripoli.
Although Washington sought to construct naval warship to defend American shipping; it wasn’t implemented until the presidency of John Adams when the Department of the Navy was created in 1798.
Numerous treaties of “Peace and Amity” were negotiated with the Barbary Powers; but terms of the treaties were often unfavorable to American interests. American envoys attempted to ensure the protection of American commercial shipping from pirating in the Mediterranean Sea by the Muslim nations.
A treaty with Morocco was ratified by the United States on July 18, 1787.
A treaty with Algiers was concluded on September 5, 1795 and ratified by the U. S. Senate March 2, 1796.
The "Treaty of Peace and Amity" was concluded June 30 and July 6, 1815 and proclaimed on December 26, 1815.
A treaty with Tripoli was concluded November 4, 1796 and ratified June 10, 1797.
A "Treaty of Peace and Amity" was concluded June 4, 1805. The United States Senate advised ratification on April 12, 1806.
A treaty with Tunis was concluded August 1797 and the Senate advised ratification. Amendments to the treaty were added on March 6, 1798. Alterations were concluded on March 26, 1799. The Senate again advised ratification on December 24, 1799.
Gardner W. Allen states in his book, "Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs” that Americans were required to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in “tribute” to the four countries securing safety. Beside the official extortion demanded by the Muslim nation other “considerations” were expected. A warship was to be presented to “Tripoli” as a “gift” and Algiers was to receive a frigate as a “gift”. $525,000 ransom was demanded as ransom to free American seamen in Algiers.
In an attempt to prevent the escalation of the conflict into a “Holy War” each country officially recognized the religion of the participant countries. The recognition of religions of the participant nations in the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, one of several treaties, was made to prevent an escalation of hostilities into a “Holy War.”
See Articles 10, 11, 17, and 24 of the treaty with Morocco.
See the Treaty of 1795 with Algiers, Article 17 and the Treaty of 1815, Article 17. See the Treaty of 1796 with Tripoli, Article 11 and the Treaty of 1805, Article 14.
Article XI of the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli 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 [hatred] 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.”
The article can be read in two different ways. First, it can be read as the critics conclude the article after the clause “Christian religion.”
Secondly, it should be read in its entirety and therefore concluded as the punctuation indicates.
The abrupt shortened manner (“the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”) is not an untrue statement for it is referring to the federal government.
Although the Founders openly described America as a Christian nation; they included a constitutional prohibition against a federal establishment of religion. Religion was an issue left solely to the powers of the individual states or in other words “the people.”
One may read the article as a declaration that the federal government of the United States isn’t founded upon Christianity. This is not repudiation that America was considered as a Christian nation.
If one reads the entire clause of the treaty; it fails to weaken the fact that America was considered a Christian nation. Article IX of the treaty distinguishes the United States of America from European Christian nations which held animosity toward Muslims. The article assured the Muslim nations that America was not as the European nations of antiquity. It assured Muslims that the United States would not undertake a war of religion against them.
This was an attitude prevalent among American leaders such as John Jay. On May 8, 1823, Jay described the Christianity practiced in America as “wise and virtuous” in an address delivered to the Annual Meeting of the American Bible Society. John Adams, in a speech before both houses of Congress on November 23, 1797, described Christianity practiced in America as “rational.” John Quincy Adams in "An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport at Their Request on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence" declared that Christianity was “civilized”.
A lucid distinction was made between Christianity as practiced in America and religion practiced throughout Europe in previous centuries.
Noah Webster in the History of the United States explained:
"The ecclesiastical establishments of Europe which serve to support tyrannical governments are not the Christian religion but abuses and corruptions of it."
On February 10, 1844, Daniel Webster, delivered his speech “In Defense of the Christian Ministry and In Favor of the Religious Instruction of the Young” before the United States Supreme Court in the Case of Stephen Girard’s Will. Webster declared that in his opinion American Christianity was:
"Christianity to which the sword and the fagot [burning stake or hot branding iron] are unknown – general tolerant Christianity is the law of the land!"
Persons who attribute the contested article found in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli to President George Washington make two tragic errors. No statement in the Treaty can be attributed to Washington for he never saw the treaty. The treaty arrived in America months after he left office. Furthermore, no statement can be ascribed to him for it wasn’t his work.
It is intellectually dishonest to extract a single clause from the treaty removing it from the rest of the statement which gives it context. The treaty was ratified in 1797 during the administration of John Adams. To suggest that President Adams would endorse and assent to a provision which repudiates Christianity is absurd nonsense.
On July 3rd 1786, John Adams discussed with Thomas Jefferson the conflict with the Barbary pirates.
In fact, while discussing the Barbary conflict with Jefferson, Adams declared:
"The policy of Christendom has made cowards of all their sailors before the standard of Mahomet. It would be heroical and glorious in us to restore courage to ours.”
On June 28, 1813, Adams declared to Jefferson:
"The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were. . . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature."
Consequently, Adams rejected the foolish supposition that America wasn’t a Christian nation! He clearly asserts and confirms his belief that America is a Christian nation.
General William Eaton was appointed as “Consul to Tunis” by President John Adams. William Eaton advanced to an appointment of “U.S. Naval Agent to the Barbary States” from President Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson authorized Eaton to lead a military campaign against Tripoli. The writings of General Eaton provide irrefutable evidence through his testimony of how the conflict was perceived at that juncture in history. Eaton’s official correspondence during his term of service substantiates and verifies the conflict was a Muslim war against a Christian America.
The historical account that follows is found in Charles Prentiss’ work "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."
On June 15, 1799, correspondence between General Eaton and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering indicates why he believed Muslims would be committed 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 [the secular advantage of keeping captured cargoes], their [the Muslims'] inducements to desperate fighting are very powerful.”
On June 27, 1800, General Eaton complained to Mr. Smith. Although President Jefferson approved his military plan of action; he was sent an obsolete warship “Hero.” He recounts the impression the Muslims of Tunis had of the obsolete warship armed with a few cannon.
"[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."
Furthermore, On July 4, 1800, Eaton describes in a letter to Pickering how pleased a Barbary pirate had been after receiving the “tribute” (extorted compensation) which was promised in a treaty with America.
"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."
On September 2, 1800, General Eaton informed John Marshall, the new Secretary of State:
“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.’”
Military action finally commenced between the Americans under the command of General Eaton against Tripoli. On April 8, 1805, General Eaton made the following notation in his personal journal:
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. We have a difficult undertaking!
"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?"
After the military campaign against Tripoli ended successfully; the official account was published. 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 Tripoli.”
One can also examine the “Report of the Committee to Whom was Recommended on the Twenty-Sixth Ultimo A Resolution Respecting William Eaton", January 8, 1806.
Numerous documents concerning the Barbary Powers Conflict affirm that it was always seen as a conflict between Christian America and the Muslim nations of north Africa. The notion that Washington or any founding President declared that America was not a Christian nation or a Christian people is revisionist nonsense.