Treaty of Tripoli Speech by Ed Buckner

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Dr. Ed Buckner is a featured guest on our rountable show on fundamentalism.

Does the 1796-97 Treaty with Tripoli Matter to Church/State Separation?

Speech given to the Humanists of Georgia on June 22, 1997 and at the 1997 Lake Hypatia Independance Day Celebration.

By Ed Buckner, Ph.D.

We freethinkers are, I suspect, sometimes suckers for the big lie that the U.S. really was founded as a Christian nation. We've heard it so often that we tend to doubt our allies who dispute it as maybe just over-zealous, over-eager, well-intentioned-but-wrong atheists out to prove what they want to believe rather than to understand the truth. I know I suspected something like that when I first read "As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion..." as a quote from the Treaty with Tripoli. And I know of at least one cynical atheist, Frederic Rice (with his own website full of information:

Mr. Rice has even, in his profound ignorance, called me dishonest and urged me not to use the honorable label "atheist" for talking about the treaty. But careful research into the facts, accompanied by honest presentation of those facts, leads to important support for the thesis that the Constitutional framers intended this nation to have a government strictly neutral regarding religion.

The pirates of the Barbary coast in general and of Tripoli (in what is now called Libya) in particular were destroying U.S. shipping and holding as prisoners U.S. seamen in the 1790s. It was a serious problem and a series of negotiators were sent to try to put together an agreement to improve it.

On 4 November 1796, near the end of George Washington's second term, a treaty with the "Bey and People of Tripoli" was signed, promising cash and other considerations to Tripoli in exchange for peace. Leading the negotiations for the U.S. at that point was Joel Barlow, a diplomat and poet (he wanted very much to be remembered as America's epic poet). Barlow was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and of Thomas Paine (Paine hurriedly entrusted the manuscript of the first part of the Age of Reason to Barlow when Paine was suddenly arrested by the radicals of the French revolution).

Barlow was very likely by 1796 a deist, though he had served earlier as a military chaplain. There is considerable dispute about whether the Arabic version of the treaty read and signed by the representatives of Tripoli even had the famous words included (they are not present, as was discovered in about 1930, in the surviving Arabic version). No one knows why. The treaty remained in effect for only four years, replaced, after more war with Tripoli, with another treaty that does not have the famous words included. One or two later treaties even allude to the Trinity. *If* the major claim of separationists regarding the treaty were a legal one, these facts might be fatal. But no one claims that the treaty was the basis for our government being non-Christian--it is the godless Constitution, which calls on no higher power than "We the People," that is the necessary and sufficient legal basis. What the treaty does is to powerfully reaffirm what the Constitution and First Amendment intended. (The references in one or two later treaties to things such as the Trinity occurred in treaties with Great Britain and Russia, both officially Christian nations at the time; no declarations that the U.S. is a Christian nation were included.)

When I first read the words "As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion..." I was, as I said, skeptical. Why would such a thing be in a treaty? Why would some have claimed, as I later learned, that George Washington wrote them? (Apparently only because the words were written during Washington's second term.) Was there controversy in the Senate when the treaty was ratified, or did the language even appear in the version ratified? Or was it buried deep within a long, complicated treaty where perhaps it wasn't even noticed? Did the public even know the treaty was passed or what it contained, and what was the reaction? Was it possible for the public to know who voted for it, and what price did those supporting it pay?

Fortunately for me, my son (and only child), Michael, lived for several years in Washington, DC, only two blocks from the Library of Congress, and my wife and I visited him frequently. When we did, I spent time at the L of C, much of it reading up on the treaty. I found some answers in the official Journal of the Senate. The President (by then John Adams) sent the treaty to the Senate in late May 1797. It was, according to the official record, read aloud (the whole treaty was only a page or two long), including the famous words, on the floor of the senate and copies were printed for every Senator. (It should be noted that the controversy about the Arabic version is irrelevant here: all official treaty collections from 1797 on contain the English version, and all include the famous words of Article XI.) A committee considered the treaty and recommended ratification. Twenty-three Senators voted to ratify: Bingham, Bloodworth, Blount, Bradford, Brown, Cocke, Foster, Goodhue, Hillhouse, Howard, Langdon, Latimer, Laurance, Livermore, Martin, Paine (no, not Thomas Paine), Read, Rutherfurd, Sedgwick, Stockton, Tattnall, Tichenor, and Tracy. We should ask ourselves whether we should not consider these 23 (and President Adams) great freethought heroes. In a very public way, they voted to say that "As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion, . . ." the Muslims of Tripoli therefore need not fear a religious war from the U.S. The vote was recorded only because at least a fifth of the Senators present voted to require a recorded vote. This was the 339th time (I went through the Journal for the first five Congressional sessions and counted them myself) that a recorded vote was required. It was only the third time that a vote was recorded when the vote was unanimous! (The next time was to honor George Washington.)There is no record of any debate or dissension on the treaty.

President Adams signed the treaty and proclaimed it to the nation on 10 June 1797. His statement on it was a bit unusual: "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 and 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 other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof."

What happened then? Did our heroes pay a heavy price? Skeptical that the public even knew about the treaty, I went to the periodicals reading room of the Library of Congress in, appropriately enough, the Madison Building. After some poking about I found out how to get access to newspapers of the 1790s, mostly on microfilm, but in a few cases I saw the actual papers of the day.

I found the treaty and Adams' statement reprinted in full in three newspapers, two in Philadelphia and one in New York City and, in one case, held the actual newspaper (the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser for Saturday, 17 June 1797) in my hands. There is no record of any public outcry or complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.

And what of our heroes? Well, none suffered any known negative consequences, and I've read biographies of each. One Senator, Theodore Sedgewick of Massachusetts, went on to become the Speaker of the House (imagine Newt Gingrich endorsing such a treaty! Henry Clay is the only other American in history to be first a Senator, then Speaker). Another, Isaac Tichenor, became Governor of Vermont, and then returned to the Senate for many years. Georgia's Senator, Josiah Tattnall (Georgia's other Senator was absent), did not return to the Senate, but he did serve thereafter as one of the youngest Governors in Georgia's history, and has a county in Georgia and a number of streets, squares, etc., named after him. (His father was a Tory; his son by the same name was a famous officer in the Confederate Navy.)

From our perspective these men may be heroes, but in truth the vote they cast was ordinary, routine, normal. It was, in other words, quite well accepted, only a few years after first the Constitution and then the First Amendment were ratified, that "the Government of the United States of America was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." After a bloody and costly civil war and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment determined that citizens of the United States cannot have their rights abridged by state or local governments either, religious liberty for all was established. Governmental neutrality in matters of religion remains the enduring basis for that liberty.