Friday, February 11, 2005

Of God and the Constitution

In a February 3, 2005 column entitled "Our Godless Constitution" posted on The Nation's web site, Brooke Allen puts forth the case (which has been done often enough) of how the most of the Founders were not religious and that they intentionally left out references to God in the official documents that they wrote. As I said, this is well-covered ground and is not the focus of what follows. Instead, my antenna went up when, as part of her argument, Allen made much of a single treaty of the many that the United States signed with the Barbary powers.
In 1797 our government concluded a "Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary," now known simply as the Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11 of the treaty contains these words:

"As the Government of the United 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 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." [ed. I'm not sure why Allen put in the elipses as this appears to be the original text according to the link provided]

This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate's history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.
While it seems Allen got her facts straight, she ignored the historical context in which the treaty ratification occurred. It is entirely plausible that the disassociation from the Christian religion was made to assuage the "Musselmen" who definitely held the power in the negotiation and didn't themselves refrain from alluding to God in this instance or others.

They U.S. had no Navy to speak of to protect their merchant ships in either the Atlantic or the Mediterranean and relied on the Navies of other nations --Britain, France, Portugal-- (though some of these paid regular tribute) to keep the pirates in check. Additionally, the Barbary Pirates didn't agree to peace out of some high-minded idealism. Instead, by taking hostages and attacking U.S. merchant ships, they brought the U.S. to the bargaining table and extracted more material concessions:
twelve thousand Spanish dollars
five hawsers-8 Inch
three cables-10 Inch
twenty five barrels tar
twenty five d° pitch
ten d° rosin
five hundred pine boards
five hundred oak d°
ten masts (without any measure mentioned, suppose for vessels from 2 to 300 ton)
twelve yards
fifty bolts canvas
four anchors
Thus, the exclusion of a claim that Christianity was a founding principle of the U.S. in the text of the treaty can equally be viewed as a diplomatic maneuver and not necessarily as proof that the U.S. believed itself to be irreligious. Similarly, no mention was made of God in the 1789 Treaty with the Six Nations, the Chickasaw Treaty of 1805, or the Treaty with the Potawatami of 1828 (this last occurring during the Second Great Awakening), just to offer a few examples. Couldn't this be because one of the parties, the Native American tribes, didn't believe in a Christian God?

Another example can be offered with the opening of The Paris Peace Treaty of September 3, 1783
In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity.

It having pleased the Divine Providence to dispose the hearts of the most serene and most potent Prince George the Third, by the grace of God, king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, duke of Brunswick and Lunebourg, arch-treasurer and prince elector of the Holy Roman Empire etc., and of the United States of America, to forget all past misunderstandings and differences that have unhappily interrupted the good correspondence and friendship which they mutually wish to restore, and to establish such a beneficial and satisfactory intercourse , between the two countries upon the ground of reciprocal advantages and mutual convenience as may promote and secure to both perpetual peace and harmony. . .
Does this prove that Americans in 1783 viewed themselves as religious people, even Catholic(!!!???) because of the reference to the "Trinity"? Or does it prove that Americans agreed to a Treaty that opened with references to God and the Holy Trinity because France (a Catholic Nation, after all) was involved in the peace negotiations and probably drew up the document?

Ms. Allen is not conspicuous in her attempt to support her rhetoric with "historical proof." I've done it too. However, one of the standards to which we historians should aspire is to provide context --when we can and in whatever forum-- so that a more complete picture --a painting on a wider canvas, if you will-- can be revealed behind the rhetorical snapshot.

ADDENDUM: I happen to be doing research in the historical era of the Wars against the Barbary Pirates and stumbled upon this essay (originally published on 11 April 1997; updated 26 December 2004) in which much is made of the Treaty with Tripoli. Accorcding to the author, Jim Walker, Article 11 of the treaty also "proved" to him that the U.S. Government, as evidenced on an official document, proclaimed it was not a Christian nation. Walker does provide some additional detail concerning the American Agent, Joel Barlow, who drew up the treaty:
The preliminary treaty began with a signing on 4 November, 1796 (the end of George Washington's last term as president). Joel Barlow, the American diplomat served as counsel to Algiers and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations. Barlow had once served under Washington as a chaplain in the revolutionary army. He became good friends with Paine, Jefferson, and read Enlightenment literature. Later he abandoned Christian orthodoxy for rationalism and became an advocate of secular government. Joel Barlow wrote the original English version of the treaty, including Amendment 11. Barlow forwarded the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams concurred (now during his presidency), sending the document on to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797, and officially ratified by the Senate with John Adams signature on 10 June, 1797. All during this multi-review process, the wording of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty even became public through its publication in The Philadelphia Gazette on 17 June 1797.
Two points: First, the site from which this essay was linked is called It claims to be a site for "Freethinkers" but really appears to be anti-religious (if articles titled "The Dark Bible" and "Hitler's Christianity" are any indication). Thus, I believe we have the original source for Ms. Allen's information, or at the very least we have another outlet that just happens to have alluded to the same relatively obscure treaty to make an, um, talking point.

The second point is that, even if Walker has his facts right (I don't have the time to dig deeper myself), and even if Barlow was an atheist and he was being an "atheistic activist" in drawing up the treaty (to which I would agree, assuming Walker's facts concerning Barlow's atheism are correct), Walker doesn't seem to take into account the diplomatic circumstances surrounding the Treaty signing as I've already mentioned. He also fails to consider the logistics of treaty making in the late 18th Century. If the Congress disliked the wording of the 11th clause, and they decided to strike it, the Treaty would have to be returned for reconsideration to Tripoli. Meanwhile, more U.S. ships, such as those owned by prolific and important Massuchusetts merchants for whom John Adams ostensibly served, would have continued to be vulnerable to raids. In other words, I would venture that there was a degree of expediency surrounding the signing and that a feeling of "Let's get the damn thing signed" permeated Congress. As for the point regarding it being published in the papers with nary a protest, well, when was the last time you read the entire text of a treaty? I'd bet the average Philadelphian saw the headline, said "good, it's about time" and read on. (I also believe that there was an epidemic of Yellow Fever raging in Philadelphia, and possibly New York, at that time). This selective use of History is improper. I'm glad I caught it.

1 comment:

Chad said...

That is great research you have done on this. Good read!