United States Treaties with the Barbary States
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Sep 23, 2007 at 01:10:56 PM EST
Back in April, as part of my series on historical revisionism in the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools (NCBCPS) course, I wrote about an article on WorldNetDaily entitled Bringing the Bible Back Into Public Schools, in which Chuck Norris, an NCBCPS board member and spokesman, regurgitated the erroneous claims found on the NCBCPS website's "Founding Fathers" page.

As Don Byrd reported here the other day, Norris is at it again. In two recent articles, "A 200-year-old lesson on 9/11" and "Is America a Christian nation?", Norris enlightens his WorldNetDaily audience with his take on the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli.

Rather than simply commenting on Norris's articles, I've decided to serialize, over the next three weeks, the chapter of my book, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, that covers the 1797 treaty and a number of other topics related to our early government's dealings with the Barbary States.

Chapter Seven

Treaties with the Barbary States

One of the most often used arguments that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation is Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. This is a pretty good argument, considering that the first sentence of that article begins with the words, "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion..." Because the authors of the religious right version of American history can't deny that these words are there, they attempt to dismiss them, usually using one, or a combination of, several popular arguments.

The first argument is really just a diversion, created by pointing out a mistake sometimes made by those who bring up this treaty. The mistake is attributing the words of Article 11 to George Washington. Because the treaty is dated January 4, 1797, two months before Washington left office, an assumption has often been made that he was the president who signed it. The treaty, however, did not reach the United States until after Washington left office, so it was actually signed by John Adams. It really doesn't matter, of course, whether it was Washington or Adams who signed the treaty. This doesn't change what it said.

Instances of this treaty being attributed to Washington can be found as early as the mid-1800s, not only in arguments about the separation of church and state, but also in articles about the Barbary conflict or treaties in general. With the exception of appearing on the websites of a few overzealous separationists who, like their religious right counterparts, copy quotes without checking their sources, the wrong attribution isn't seen much anymore. Nevertheless, the Liars for Jesus continue to use it as evidence that secularists are trying to rewrite history. This serves two purposes. First, of course, pointing out this error provides a way to dismiss the treaty. Second, there are only two separationist misquotes that have ever appeared with any frequency, and this is one of them. The second is an out of context sentence from a letter written by John Adams. Religious right authors who claim that there are many such secularist misquotes need to use both of these because they just can't find any other examples, although David Barton implies that he has found a third.

According to David Barton, in his book Original Intent:

Those who advance the notion that this was the belief system of the Founders often publish information attempting to prove that the Founders were irreligious. Some of the quotes they set forth include:
This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it. JOHN ADAMS

The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion. GEORGE WASHINGTON

I disbelieve all holy men and holy books. THOMAS PAINE

Are these statements accurate? Did these prominent Founders truly repudiate religion? An answer will be found by an examination of the sources of the above statements.

Barton throws in the Thomas Paine misquote to fill out his meager list of some of the quotes used by separationists, only to pretend, five pages later, that he thinks it might possibly be genuine, saying that "the real story is not the accuracy of Paine's quote, but rather how the other Founders reacted to Paine's declarations." Barton's source for this Paine misquote is an obscure document from the Society of Separationists, a document that is never actually used or copied by anyone. A search on Google for this misquote, for example, does not produce a single hit. Yet Barton implies that this is a commonly used misquote by presenting it along with the two misquotes that are actually used. Barton's main reason for adding this virtually unheard of Paine misquote, however, is to give him a reason to present several pages of quotes from founders who denounced Paine and his writings.

Barton's footnote for his three misquote examples says to "see also" an op-ed piece by Steven Morris entitled America's Unchristian Beginnings, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 3, 1995. Morris, however, did not misquote Paine, and did not wrongly attribute the quote from the Treaty of Tripoli to George Washington. He accurately quoted a passage from Paine's Age of Reason -- "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of...Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all" -- and correctly said of the Treaty of Tripoli that it "was during Adams' administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty."

There is no great number, or widespread use, of separationist misquotes. In fact, there are far more religious right websites pointing out and correcting the Adams and Washington misquotes than separationist websites that use them. Similarly, a search for Barton's sources turns up only rebuttals of the Steven Morris's op-ed piece and copies of Barton's citation of the Society of Separationists document, but no instances of anybody actually using or quoting from either. The only part of Barton's straw argument that has any merit is the use of the out of context quote from John Adams, which was, in fact, used by Morris in his 1995 article. This misquote still appears on a significant number of websites, and is occasionally seen elsewhere. The majority of separationists, however, know that this quote is taken out of context, and not only do not use it, but point it out to others as a misquote. For example, the foreword to one popular collection of separationist quotes, which is available in print and on the internet, contains the following statement: "All of these quotes have been thoroughly researched. None are 'out of context' or otherwise misleading. For example, the bogus John Adams quote, '...this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it ...' is not included."(1)

According to Barton:

The John Adams quote is taken from a letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817, in which Adams illustrated the intolerance often manifested between Christians in their denominational disputes. Adams recounted a conversation between two ministers he had known:
[S]eventy years ago....Lemuel Bryant was my parish priest, and Joseph Cleverly my Latin schoolmaster. Lemuel was a jocular [humorous] and liberal scholar and divine. Joseph a scholar and a gentleman....The Parson and the Pedagogue lived much together, but were eternally disputing about government and religion. One day, when the schoolmaster [Joseph Cleverly] had been more than commonly fanatical and declared 'if he were a monarch, he would have but one religion in his dominions;' the Parson [Lemuel Bryant] cooly replied, 'Cleverly! you would be the best man in the world if you had no religion.'

Lamenting these types of petty disputes, Adams declared to Jefferson:

Twenty times, in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!' But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.

Barton, in the process of putting the separationist misquote back in context, omits a few words himself, and does not indicate that he is cutting off the end of the second paragraph. The following are the entire two paragraphs from Adams's letter, with the words omitted by Barton in the first paragraph in bold. 

At that Period Lemuel Bryant was my Parish Priest; and Joseph Cleverly my Latin School Master. Lemuel was a jolly jocular and liberal schollar and Divine. Joseph a Schollar and a Gentleman; but a biggoted episcopalian of the School of Bishop Saunders and Dr. Hicks, a down right conscientious passive Obedience Man in Church and State.The Parson and the Pedagogue lived much together, but were eternally disputing about Government and Religion. One day, when the Schoolmaster had been more than commonly fanatical and declared "if he were a Monarck, He would have but one Religion in his Dominions" the Parson cooly replied, "Cleverly! you would be the best Man in the World, if You had no Religion."

Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it." ! ! ! But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell. So far from believing in the total and universal depravity of human Nature; I believe there is no Individual totally depraved. The most abandoned Scoundrel that ever existed, never Yet Wholly extinguished his Conscience, and while Conscience remains there is some Religion. Popes, Jesuits and Sorbonists and Inquisitors have some Conscience and some Religion. So had Marius and Sylla, Caesar Cataline and Anthony, and Augustus had not much more, let Virgil and Horace say what they will.(2)

Barton then says that Jefferson, in his reply to Adams, "declared that he agreed." The following was Jefferson's declaration of agreement.

If, by religion, we are to understand Sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, 'that this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.' But if the moral precepts, innate in man, and made a part of his physical constitution, as necessary for a social being, if the sublime doctrines of philanthropism, and deism taught by Jesus of Nazareth in which all agree, then, without it, this would be, as you say, 'Something not fit to be named, even indeed a hell.'(3)

The discussion of this subject in this particular exchange of letters between Adams and Jefferson had nothing to do with Adams lamenting "petty disputes" between members of different denominations, as Barton claims. They were discussing the events taking place in Connecticut, which, in 1817, fifteen years after Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, was finally separating church from state.

While Barton and other religious right authors are quick to point the finger at those who quote from Adams's letter only the sentence "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it," they don't seem to have any problem at all with people who quote only the sentence that follows it. Barton, on his WallBuilders website, even provides a link to a website that quotes the second sentence by itself -- James H. Hutson's Religion and the Founding of the American Republic exhibit on the Library of Congress website.

The following is Hutson's commentary, which appears beside a link to images of the handwritten letter:

John Adams, a self-confessed "church going animal," grew up in the Congregational Church in Braintree, Massachusetts. By the time he wrote this letter his theological position can best be described as Unitarian. In this letter Adams tells Jefferson that "Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell."

After successfully disproving the almost never seen assertion that Adams was a deist, agnostic, or atheist by putting the separationist misquote back in context, Barton moves on to the Treaty of Tripoli quote and its wrong attribution to George Washington.

Barton writes:

Amazingly, while the assertion concerning Adams was completely inaccurate, the words attributed to Washington are totally false ("The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion"). The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli is the source of Washington's supposed statement.

Barton points out that Washington did not write these words or sign this treaty, which is absolutely correct, but he also claims these words are out of context. While it is true that the words quoted are not the entire sentence, and are often followed by a period instead of an ellipsis, their meaning is not changed by this. Barton, however, attempts to prove that this does change the meaning.

According to Barton:

The 1797 treaty with Tripoli was one of the many treaties in which each country officially recognized the religion of the other in an attempt to prevent further escalation of a "Holy War" between Christians and Muslims. Consequently, Article XI of that treaty 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.

This article may be read in two manners. It may, as its critics do, be concluded after the clause "Christian religion"; or it may be read in its entirety and concluded when the punctuation so indicates....

Barton never actually gets around to giving a clear explanation of the difference in meaning when this clause is read by itself or read in the context of the entire article. And, for someone so concerned about what the punctuation indicates, it is very interesting that he removes so much of the punctuation in his own quote of the article. In all official printings of the treaty, the first three clauses of this article are separated by either semicolons or dashes, which were often used like semicolons at the time the treaty was first printed. Removing this punctuation, of course, reinforces the notion that the sentence is "cut abruptly" to change its meaning.

The following is how the sentence was punctuated in the original printing of the treaty for the Senate in 1797.

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 have 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.(4)

The first three clauses of this article said three separate things: 1. that the United States had no official reason to attack a Muslim nation because of religion; 2. that the United States had no unofficial reason to attack a Muslim nation because of religion; and, 3. that the United States had never entered into a voluntary war with a Muslim nation for religious or any other reasons.

Barton's claim that this treaty was "one of the many treaties in which each country officially recognized the religion of the other" is ridiculous. In his footnote for this claim, Barton just lists all of the Barbary treaty articles that mentioned religion in any way. None of these had anything to do with officially recognizing the religion of anybody. Examples of these articles appear later in this chapter.

Although the actual author of Article 11 of the 1797 treaty with Tripoli is not absolutely certain, most historians agree that it was Joel Barlow, the consul who concluded the final negotiations in Algiers and oversaw the translation of the treaty into English. It is also possible, but not nearly as likely, that it was Captain Richard O'Brien, who conducted the preliminary negotiations in Tripoli.

The second argument against the Treaty of Tripoli is that Article 11 in Barlow's English translation doesn't match anything in the original Arabic version, a discrepancy that was revealed when a new translation of the surviving Arabic version was done in 1930. What appears in the treaty book where the Arabic version of Article 11 should be is a letter from the Dey of Algiers to the Bashaw of Tripoli, roughly saying that the treaty had been concluded and recommending that it be observed. How this letter ended up in the treaty book in place of Article 11 is a mystery that will probably never be solved.

The problem with using this discrepancy to dismiss Article 11, however, is that Barlow's translation was the only version of the treaty that the Senate or John Adams ever saw, making its accuracy completely irrelevant. This was the translation, correct or not, that was unanimously approved by the Senate, and this was the translation that was signed by Adams. It was read aloud in the Senate, and copies were printed and given to each senator. There is no record of any objection to the not founded on the Christian Religion statement.

There is also no indication that the people of the United States objected to the wording of Article 11. This wasn't because they were unaware of what it said. A week after Adams signed the treaty it was published in several widely circulated newspapers, accompanied by the following proclamation.

Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all others citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfil the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.(5)

So, in 1797, less than a decade after the Constitution was ratified, the President, the Senate, and the people of the United States apparently accepted without question an official statement that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion...."

When religious right American history authors point out that George Washington did not sign the Treaty of Tripoli, they are, of course, left with the problem that John Adams did sign it. Some simply overlook this, confident that their readers will consider the wrong attribution to Washington a sufficient reason to dismiss the treaty altogether. Others attempt to vindicate Adams with a few quotes, edited or taken out of context to make it appear that Adams, on other occasions, did say that the United States was a Christian nation.

According to David Barton, in his book Original Intent:

It would also be absurd to suggest that President Adams (under whom the treaty was ratified in 1797) would have endorsed or assented to any provision which repudiated Christianity. 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 to restore courage to ours.

The date alone of the letter quoted by Barton makes it impossible that Adams was including the United States when referring to Christendom. By the "policy of Christendom," Adams meant the practice of the Christian nations of Europe paying annual tribute to the Barbary States to protect their merchant vessels from pirates. The United States did not begin to engage in this practice until a decade after Adams wrote this letter. Adams also referred to the sailors of Christendom as "their" sailors, and the sailors of the United States as "ours," a distinction that Barton apparently doesn't think his readers will notice.

As colonies of Great Britain, the United States had been covered by the tribute paid by Great Britain. But, when Great Britain officially recognized the United States as an independent nation in 1783, so did the Barbary States. The first American ship was captured in 1784 by Morocco, and several more were soon captured by Algiers. American merchants soon stopped sailing to the Mediterranean, opting for less profitable but safer markets. This began to drive down the price of American produce, the biggest export to the region, in an economy that was barely beginning to recover from the Revolutionary War. In their correspondence during the summer of 1786, foreign ministers Adams, in England, and Jefferson, in France, were debating whether it would be better to solve this problem by giving in and paying tribute to the Barbary States, or raising a navy and fighting them. Congress had already instructed Adams and Jefferson to negotiate a peace, so their opinions really didn't matter. Nevertheless, they engaged in a friendly debate about it for a while.

Both Adams and Jefferson wished the United States could fight the pirates, but only Jefferson considered this to be a realistic option. Jefferson even went as far as calculating how much the war would cost, and planning a possible coalition of smaller European powers to share the burden. The reason this coalition would consist of small nations only was that the larger powers like Great Britain didn't really want the piracy to end. The constant attacks on their smaller commercial rivals more than made up for what they spent on tribute payments.

As foreign ministers in the 1780s, Adams and Jefferson were finding out that not all of the nations of Europe were ready to recognize the United States as a world power. This made the job of negotiating treaties of commerce difficult. There were some nations that wanted to wait and see if the United States was even going to survive, and a few that weren't even aware that a bunch of English colonies halfway around the world had had a revolution. Defeating the Barbary pirates would quickly elevate the status of the young United States in the eyes of the world. This is one thing that Adams and Jefferson were in complete agreement on. But, as much as Adams liked to imagine a United States navy heroically sailing into the Mediterranean and standing up to an enemy that the great powers of Europe had given in to, he thought it would be more practical just to pay the tribute like everyone else.

The following excerpt from Adams's letter includes the quote used by David Barton -- along with the sentences leading up to it.

At present we are Sacrificing a Million annually to Save one gift of two hundred Thousand Pounds. This is not good Œconomy. We might at this hour have two hundred ships in the Mediterranean, whose Freight alone would be worth two hundred Thousand Pounds, besides its Influence upon the Price of our Produce. Our Farmers and Planters will find the Price of their Articles Sink very low indeed, if this Peace is not made. The policy of Christendom has made cowards of all their sailors before the standard of Mahomet. It would be heroical and glorious to restore courage to ours....(6)

Adams wasn't talking about a religious war in which the United States was fighting on the side of Christendom. He was talking about the United States showing up the nations of Christendom by standing up to an enemy that they were all giving in to.

To be continued...


1. Quotations that Support the Separation of State and Church, compiled by Ed and Michael Buckner, foreword by Clark Davis Adams. Other examples include the Positive Atheism website, on which the Adams misquote is described as an "Oft-Misquoted Adams Quip." Another popular separationist website includes it in a list of six "Problematical Separationist Quotes." The other five items on this list are the wrong attribution of the Treaty of Tripoli quote to George Washington, a Jefferson quote which is authentic, but sometimes attributed to the wrong letter, a Jefferson quote to which some words from an editor's commentary were accidentally added at some point and copied by others as part of the quote, and two other Jefferson quotes which this website suggests should not be used because they haven't been traced to primary sources.
2. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817, Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 509.
3.Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 5, 1817, ibid., 512.
4. One later printing copied the original punctuation from the 1797 printing &endash; Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, vol. 8, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1867), 155. Two used semicolons rather than dashes -- Walter Lowrie, ed., American State Papers: Foreign Relations, vol. 2, (Washington D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), 19; The Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United States of America, vol. 9, 5th Cong., Appendix, (Washington D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1851), 3095-3096.
5. David Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, vol. 2, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931), 383.
6. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 3, 1786, Cappon, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 139.




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