Blogs > Cliopatria > One Nation Under Our Godless Constitution, Article II ...

May 15, 2005 5:12 pm

One Nation Under Our Godless Constitution, Article II ...

In"One Nation Under Our Godless Constitution," I suggested that Brook Allen's"Our Godless Constitution" The Nation, 21 February 2005, found crucial support for a secular reading of our national origins in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, adopted in 1797. It said:
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.
Commenting on this passage from the Treaty, Allen observed that:
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.
I disagreed with much of Allen's article. Underlying our founding documents is a long history of wisdom about human nature and human communities that led the founders to insist on a mixed system of checks and balances. Among other things, that wisdom traces back through a Calvinist sense of governance and human obligation to a biblical sensibility about human nature. Having said that, it still seems to me that the unanimous adoption of this language by the United States Senate in 1797 is remarkable and important to recall. It seems unthinkable that it might be adopted without objection in today's Senate.

But over at Spinning Clio, Marc did what historians do. He looked at the historical context in which the Treaty was adopted and found a little more complicated picture. He summarizes his findings in"Christianity as a ‘Founding Religion' Disavowed: What DID the 1796 Treaty Say (and when did it say it)?" Marc's findings are interesting. First, although Article 11 clearly was a part of official published versions of the Treaty of Tripoli, he sees some reason to doubt whether it was a part of the Treaty as it was submitted to the Senate in 1797. Secondly, even if it were a part of the Treaty as adopted by the Senate and signed by President Adams, he sees it as a placating assurance to north African rulers in order to achieve practical results in the release of American captives and the resumption of trade in the Mediterranean.

One of Marc's interesting findings is that the surviving Arabic version of the Treaty of Tripoli does not include the language cited above in the official versions of the Treaty as published in English. Rather, in the surviving Arabic version of the Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11 is"actually a letter, mostly gibberish, from the bey of Algiers to the ruler of Tripoli." It is otherwise described as"a letter, crude and flamboyant and withal quite unimportant, from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli."* What Marc doesn't see, I think, is that, if the language of the published English version of the Treaty's Article 11 doesn't appear in the only surviving Arabic copy of the Treaty, that undermines his claim that the language is there only to assuage the Muslim rulers of north Africa. It appears to me that there's need for additional research on the subject.

* In fairness to Marc, neither of these characterizations of Article 11 in the surviving Arabic version of the Treaty of Tripoli is his own. The prejudicial language is from old secondary sources.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 5/16/2005

Oscar, I've said elsewhere that the term "Christian nation" is an oxymoron -- that is, I know fewer things so debasing to Christianity as a marriage to nationalism. Some of my colleagues are so determined on a pure nationalism that they don't want it tainted with any religion, but particularly Christianity.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/16/2005


I'm beginning to realize that I may be misunderstanding your argument here, possible because the same phrases mand different things to us. When I see the phrase "not a Christian nation" in the treaty, I do not see it as a rejection of Christianity or a rejection of the importance of Christianity in the development of the United States.

I see it as careful and to some extent legalistic distinction between kingdoms and empires with an established religion and a virtuous republic without one. Other people are certainly reading more into it. Are you doing so, too?

Marc A. Comtois - 5/16/2005

Just want to thank you for noting my post and you, Oscar and Greg for bringing up a couple good points in this discussion. I've updated the post with some of your observations (on the bottom). In the end, I just want to stress that I'm not entirely convinced that the disavowment of Christianity was included in the text passed by the Senate and signed by Adams, which means I'm inclined to think it was included. Nonetheless, I hope someone with access to the Philadelphia and New York papers of the time can confirm or deny once and for all, for the record, if the controversial language was there. Finally, I think the larger point is that, even if Christianity was disavowed, as Oscar pointed out, that does not mean that the men of the Early Republic were disavowing the basic tenets of religion as a legitimate foundation and moral source for the U.S. The Republic of Virtue and all that...Anyway, thanks again!

Ralph E. Luker - 5/16/2005

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I'm working against a very strong desire on your part for a thoroughly secular origins of the United States and I suspect that that isn't going to be persuaded.
There is a problem with the simple citation of this passage from a book of quotations as if it were simply authoritative -- for lots of reasons -- and they call for additional research.
If it were the "fundamental step" in American history that you call it, you'd hardly have a grounds for complaint about the long staircase that moves in oddly different directions.

Greg James Robinson - 5/16/2005

On the contrary, if the language in question WERE in the Bey's copy and not the English one, it might be so perceived. If the Senate did approve the statement as issued by the President of the United States, its reasons for doing so are irrelevent, as it is still an official statement of policy. Many fundamental steps in American history have been taken as a result of outside pressures.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/16/2005

Greg, There is _some_ reason for uncertainty about whether the Senate approved Article 11 as published in official English versions; and, indeed, it does make a difference whether the Bey had a version that included Article 11 as published in official English versions because that goes to the issue of whether it was adopted merely as a concession to the Muslim rulers of North Africa or whether it can be understood as an authoritative statement of American understanding about the relationship of Christianity to the new nation.

Greg James Robinson - 5/16/2005

I mentioned a while ago that the Treaty with the Bey was cited in George Seldes' book THE GREAT QUOTATIONS--whether the version that Bey had was the same is indeed irrelevent for these purposes, since the Senate knowingly approved such language. Seldes's book contains a great deal of other citations from Adams, Jefferson and others on religion. I think that they were not anti-Cathiolic per se (although there is a hint of nastiness in their denunciations of fanaticism that recalls Voltaire's attacks on the Jews). In general, they saw Catholicism as the most powerful example of control over free inquiry and liberty by a reactionary priestly class. The leaders of the early republic were perfectly willing to take over Louisiana and to offer statehood, on the express condition that religious toleration be granted. They were also prepared to contemplate the absorption into the country of Catholic states such as Canada (i.e. Quebec).
The current controversy recalls for me the debates over the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson (literally) cut and pasted from the New Testament everything he thought was the authentic teachings of Jesus Christ the moralist, and excluded "additions" like the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, etc. Is this a sign of devotion to Christianity as the base of morality, or is it hostility to revealed religion?

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/16/2005

Your point about the question being ahistorical is well taken. That was one of the complications that had occurred to me. A Jewish state might, just might, have made it.

One point that the question does illumine is the lack in the original constitution (that is, pre Bill of Rights) of any mechanism for enforcing a religious orthodoxy. A Christian state without an ability enforce its Christianity strikes me as wholly contradictory.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/16/2005

Plus, of course, we have unconstitutional laws on the books; even ongoing unconstitutional practice often lingers until directly challenged.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/16/2005

Thanks, Danny, I think that page is correct. From time to time, some commentators try to make much of the fact that some states maintained established churches for decades after the adoption of the U. S. Constitution -- that it did not bar them from having an established church -- but I'd be surprised if any court in the United States would maintain that that would any longer be possible, especially after the adoption of the 14th Amendment, with its definition of citizenship and its "equal protection" and "due process" clauses.

Danny Loss - 5/16/2005

According to this page, Ralph, Connecticut disestablished its church in 1818. Massachusetts followed suit in 1833. I can't vouch for its accuracy, but this matches my vague recollections on when disestablishment took place in the New England states.

In any case, the point is that some states had established churches for decades after the Revolution. The implications of this fact are, of course, rather complicated and I lack the expertise to draw any conclusions from it.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/16/2005

Very well done, Oscar. As you know, established churches continued in some states after 1789. I think that Connecticut was the last state to end establishment in the 1830s. But your final question about whether a state could, under the Constitution, establish a non-Christian religion seems to me to be an ahistorical one, i.e., one so unlikely as to be, well, unlikely. Had Jewish immigrants early founded a separate colony, as Catholics did in Maryland, we might have had a test case. But whether the other colonies would have found common cause with a non-Christian colony in the Revolution would be an interesting prior question.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/15/2005

"what's the check on whether you believe this to be true simply because it is more satisfying to your own predispositions?"

A fair question that goes to the heart of doing history about beliefs. I doubt if I could provide conclusive proof or disproof of my conclusion. I think it a strong and logical conclusion based on the following. I'll try to make clear when I leave what I consider fact behind for supposition and conclusion:

1. Fact: The existence of a Supreme Being is an uncontroversial assumption in this period. Even Ben Franklin thinks there is one and probably a "future state of rewards and punishments" to use a phrase that he (I think) and others used in this period.

2. Fact: Most Americans are Protestant Christians, though divided among various denominations. Individual by individual, the importance of those divisions varies greatly.

3. Fact: Most Protestants and most Deists are deeply distrustful of Catholicism, though they might exempt Catholics they know personally from that generalization. Protestant distrust dates back to the reformation and the desire to cut through what they considered cant, pride, and hypocrisy. Deists in the US consider the reformation a giant step in freeing human reason from the tyranny from past authority and unquestioned monarchy.

4. Assumption I'm pretty certain of but needs further research on my part: For many educated Deists and Christians, the scientific desire to eschew past authority an dobserve nature directly is somewhat analagous to the Protestant desire to bypass the teachings of past religious authorities and study the Scripture directly.

1-4 take care of my assertion that a majority would not want to establish a state Christianity that includes Catholicism. I believe further evidence for that lies in early state provisions for church taxes to go to the taxpayers' church of choice. I won't swear that no state allowed such moneys to go to Catholic Churches, but I think it is pretty rare. I do need to look that up.

5. Fact: There is no established Church in the 1787 Constitution, and to my knowledge this lack is not one of the hotly contested items in the ratification debates. They surely argued about almost everything else at some length.
Conclusion: At minimum, most people are content to leave that to state soveriegnty. the continuation of tax supported churches even after passage of the Bill of Rights lends credence to that.

6. Fact: Every educated person in the new nation knows how murderously divisive religion can be. That knowledge is as much a part of their English heritage as is their belief in the rights of Englishmen.
Conclusion: most educated people will avoid institutionalizing religious conflict.

5 and 6 take care of the rest of my first post. Have I fully answered your question? Probably not. But as I think you know I am pretty good at respecting religious and doctrinal motivation. And I think I have demonstrated that I did not simply pull my conclusion from my own preferences.

PS A thought question that came to me as I wrote this. At first I thought it supported my position. I still do, but the more I consider it, the more complicated it gets.

States had the right to declare an established religion under the Constitution; with that in mind, could a state have established a non-Christian religion without violating the Constitution?

If the answer is yes, then this is definitely not a Christian nation in its origin.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/15/2005

O.k., Oscar, but what's the check on whether you believe this to be true simply because it is more satisfying to your own predispositions?

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/15/2005

I think there is an important distinction between the idea of a godless constitution and a constitution that is not Christian. There was a near universal belief in some sort of intelligence shaping the universe (too many examples of intelligent design, perhaps?).

However, it is very clear that a majority in the constitutional convention plus all those who supported the first amendment did not want the United States government to be designated as Christian, or any subdivision thereof.

This was not an anti-religious impulse, except perhaps for a few. I think that the majority recognized that an appeal to any religion beyond that to a vague supreme deity would have pernicious and divisive consequences.

Think about religious belief in the 1780s and 90s. Would a majority have accepted the United States enshrining Catholicism as part of its identity? I don't think so. Once they started dividing bad Christianity from good Christianity could they have agreed on anything without chaos and dissension marking the founding of the constitution?

Again, I don't think so. They understood that the more clearly the United States identified itself officially with any religion, that the more divisiveness they would cause. Thus, while the language in the treaty is strikingly and unusually frank, I don't think the belief it expressed was uncommon.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/15/2005

Of course, I agree with you, but if only we can be certain that the language cited in official published versions of the Treaty in English was in the Treaty as submitted to the Senate. Still, the absence of that language from the only surviving copy of the Treaty in Arabic is a puzzlement.

David Silbey - 5/15/2005

I think much of the original point stands though; would the Senate today unanimously adopt such language, even to placate a foreign ruler?*

*Assuming it was in the treaty as submitted to the Senate.