Treaty of Tripoli in 1797: Article 11

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

In 1796, the United States signed a treaty with the Barbary State of Tripoli. While the purpose of the treaty was to end a long-standing disagreement, Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli has had a different significance over time.

America at War with Pirates

Did you know that the United States was at war with pirates from the 1780s to the early 1800s? During this time, countries in Europe and the U.S. traded with countries and states along the Mediterranean and the coasts of Africa. The Barbary States, located in Northern Africa, included the states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Trade relations with the Barbary States were complicated to say the least! Countries like Great Britain and Portugal signed various treaties with the African states, but not the kind of treaty you may think. In exchange for annual payments, the Barbary States promised not to attack foreign merchant ships. For any ship that was not protected by a treaty, it was at risk of being attacked by corsairs, or state-backed pirates. The corsairs would not only capture the ship and its cargo, but they would also take its crew captive.

After the Revolutionary War, American ships were in trouble along the Barbary Coast. The country's ships no longer fell under British protection, and after the war, the British Navy had no interest in helping them! Beginning in 1786, the U.S. negotiated multiple treaties with the Barbary States, including the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1796.

The Treaty of Tripoli

The Treaty of Peace and Friendship, commonly known as the Treaty of Tripoli, was an agreement between the U.S. and Tripoli. The main purpose of the treaty was to stop the seizure of American ships. As a part of the treaty, the U.S. agreed to make a very large, one-time payment to Tripoli's leader. In exchange, Tripoli agreed to protect American ships from corsair attacks. Both sides promised never to enter into war with one another, after all, the treaty did provide for 'perpetual peace and friendship'!

Article 11

One of the most important parts of the Treaty of Tripoli has very little to do with the treaty's outcome. Article 11 of the treaty states:

'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 tranquility 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.'

What exactly does this article mean? First, let's look at two of the key terms used in the passage. The first word you may not recognize is Musselmen. In 1796, this was a word used to describe a Muslim person, or a follower of the religion Islam. Mehomitan describes a follower of the prophet Muhammad. According to Article 11, the United States, as a country without a state-backed religion has no problem with the Barbary States as a result of their Muslim faith.

Significance of Article 11

So why is this important? Over time, many Americans have argued that the United States was founded on Christian beliefs. If you follow the news, you may have seen or heard some politicians insert Christianity and religion into their speeches or policies. The Declaration of Independence, one of the most important American documents ever written, states that men are 'endowed by their Creator.' The president takes the oath of office with a hand on the Bible.

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