Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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President Obama’s Adams quote

In his Address in Cairo President Obama said: "In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote: "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims."

As a close student of the founding era, I was surprised to find that I did not recall Adams saying that. That Adams was not President until 1797 tipped me off that something was askew. Some research turned up this phrase from Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli which President Washington negotiated and which was ratified by the Senate and signed by President Adams 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 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.

I suppose saying that Adams "wrote" that (with some silent elipses) is close enough to the truth for a politician.

But there’s more to the story. That passage, apparently was absent from the Arabic original (and therefore presumably official version) of the treaty, translated by Joel Barlow:

The Barlow translation is at best a poor attempt at a paraphrase or summary of the sense of the Arabic; and even as such its defects throughout are obvious and glaring. Most extraordinary (and wholly unexplained) is the fact that Article 11 of the Barlow translation . . . does not exist at all. There is no Article 11. . . . How that script came to be written and to be regarded, as in the Barlow translation, as Article 11 of the treaty as there written, is a mystery and seemingly must remain so. Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point.

A further and perhaps equal mystery is the fact that since 1797 the Barlow translation has been trustfully and universally accepted as the just equivalent of the Arabic.

A few thoughts. Did Barlow insert that article intentionally? How did it a mistaken translation come to be taken as official? Is that what the Senate ratified and Adams signed? Whatever the answers to those questions, it was taken to be official. Hence, we should ask, what implications does it have that the US government seems to have ratified a treaty with such language?

For those who believe in a living constitution, of course, it can’t have any obvious implication. Perhaps that was an idea suited to the 1790s, but not today.

On the other hand, it is interesting that the passage says "the government of the United States." That leaves open the possibility that the American nation (if nation’s are cultural more than political units) is, at least in part, Christian. The growth of government in the 20th century has increased the degree to which the US government has intruded upon the sphere in which the culture used to be free from entanglement with the US government. To put it in the language of the time, we now have a republic that is large but with a government that tries to to all the things that, traditionally, only could be done in small republics. Large republics lack the cultural unity that extensive laws require. That might say something about whether the US government can stay clear of religion nowadays in the same way it could in the 1790s. The question we need to ask today, after all, is not whether we have no establishment of religion, but, rather, what it means to say that.

Finally, the text says "Christian religion." That leaves open the possibility that the government is founded upon the belief that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights." After all, Jefferson’s famous Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom begins: "Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free." Jefferson did not think that God talk was incompatible with disestablishment, or, for that matter, with separation of Church and State. I suspect that much of the heat in today’s church-state argument has to do with an argument over this turf. That’s why one website that quotes the Treaty is called, "nobeliefs."

Update. One of the commentors below links to a long and intersting discussion of this subject from a couple of years ago. It seems that the President was quoting the 1805 US Treaty with the Barbery states directly. (See Article 14). Whether they knew that, or whether Obama/ his writers simply took the incorrect quote off the web is another matter.

Discussions - 18 Comments

The Treaty of Tripoli was an American surrender. We even agreed to pay tribute money. The "Hey, we're not even Christians" sentiment seems to be a plea to be be spared the pirates attention.

Some things never die! Nice job recounting this. I too did an extensive post on this subject back in 2005 (and dealt with it again in 2006), in particular, on how it was a commonly referenced talking point for ideologues of a particular bent. In essence, they are less concerned with how the Article 11 was included, but that there was no obvious uproar or dissent from its inclusion in the ratified treaty. Anyway, if you want more, head on over to:

It was an attempt to set ourselves off against the Europeans, who presumably, had many a problem and an issue with Barbary terror.

At one time in our nation's history, we were paying in tribute roughly 15% of our GDP to islam. JOHN M. was right. And it doesn't just "seem to be a plea," it was nakedly a plea to be left alone. But soon enough the robust American spirit asserted itself, and we went to war to crush our enemies. It was as George Washington said, they should either be civilized or wiped-out. {a loose paraphrase, but captures the gist}. But the sequel Obama left out, {he seems awfully fond of half-truths and offering but one side of a story, how long before that act gets real old with the American people}.

It was as George Washington said, they should either be civilized or wiped-out.

Yeah! Like those friggin' Native Americans! And we sure showed them, what with our civilizedness!

Glad to see sentiments haven't changed in over 200 years. After all, what has? The founders were God's chosen men - sent from heaven to make the best country EVER!!!11!!11! Without us, who will keep mankind safe from Islamo-fascism!?!? Could you IMAGINE if people could decide for themselves what "civilized" meant? It would be so radically different from our free market, hyper-televised, panoptically driven consumerism that we wouldn't even recognize it! Keep rockin' out, America - with you "robust spirit" of warring our enemies (like "terror" and "drugs" and "radical Islam"). Without a monopoly on what is and is not morally right, the world would get much more complex - and that is certainly not something anyone on this blog would ever want to see.

Poor Matt, always off to the barricades, and now racing off to defend slavers and jihadists. Have you actually read anything in depth about the practices of the Barbary Jihadists? 'Cause I have. And if you had, you would understand where a moral man like George Washington was coming from, you would understand why a guy like Jefferson who all along was an enemy of a permanent Navy, ultimately built an ocean-going Navy to exact revenge upon the Barbary Jihadists.

Whatever, rant and rave, meanwhile Obama falsifies history and ignores millions taking to the streets against a savage and hate-filled regime. Your guy is floundering around on the stage of history, mortifying even many of his own supporters who've concluded his foreign policy is one of weakness.

Charles James Napier, a British Governor of Bobmay, gave the classic comment exposing the limits of what we call multiculturalism: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

All the protests about the crimes committe in Dafur follow the same logic. The idea that all definitions of civilization are equal is nonsense. That does not, however, mean there is no grey area. Few, if any, deny that. It is, however, much easier to pretend that those one disagrees with think there's no grey area than to say that the debate is over what is grey and what is not, and what to do about it.

Come on, Dan. Satirizing the reverence you all have for the founders is a lot different than defending the actions of pirates.

And to Richard - The idea that all definitions of civilization are equal is nonsense.

The idea of there being a "civilized" and "uncivilized" is nonsense. So is the idea that someone can step outside of their socio-cultural language game to judge such a thing. That is not to say there is no right or wrong, but to condemn entire cultures to some rung on the categorical ladder of societal progress is silly (and reminds me of both Hegel and Fukuyama - if there is ever an end of history, it most certainly takes place in the U.S. State Dept. or in 19th century Germany).

Now please - can I just get back to blowing your ideas of proportion and exaggerating how often you cite your demi-god 18th century heroes? That is certainly more fitting for a blog than any kind of attempt at serious conversation (which would involve facial expressions, awkward pauses, laughter, and hopefully alcohol).

"To condemn entire cultures to some rung on the categorical ladder of societal progress is silly." If that's the case, there is no legitimate reason to criticize our own past either for being inferior to the current age. Was it worse for slavery to be legal? No, it was just a different way of life, etc. Is our society where racial and sexual discriminatin is illegal better than the US in the 1950s? One can't judge such things, etc. Why push for change then? One is simply judging certian current cultural practices.

Actually, this quote, "The idea of there being a "civilized" and "uncivilized" is nonsense." Works better for that point.

This goes along with the liberals' endless repetition of the the mantra "When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution he wrote in the separation of church and state". Nice mantra, the problem is that it is not true. The Constitution was drafted in 1878, ratified in 1789. The bill of rights were ratified in 1791. Jefferson was the Ambassador to France at that time and was nowhere near the Constitional Congress. John Adams also missed out on the fun as he was in Europe at the time also. Since BlackBerrys and the internet had not been invented yet and the pony express was years off, Jefferson and Adams had no way to particpate in the writing from afar. Furthermore, the mantra "separation of church and state" came from a letter written by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Ministers the year he was elected President 1801, ten years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Jefferson's "separation of church and state" clause has nothing to do with the Constituiton whatsoever. If one wishes to be educated on the First Amendment, it might be wise to read writings from it's main author: James Madison - The Father of the Consititution.

"The Constitution was drafted in 1878, ratified in 1789. The bill of rights were ratified in 1791."

Wow, the founders were time travelers!

As for your quoting the alleged "mantra" of the "liberals," that's a whole lot of hogwash.

It's always entertaining to see Moralistic Matty going off on one of his screeds about how moralizing is wrong, at least when done by people other than himself.

I typoed the 1878. It should have been 1778. But typical liberal - find the typo and ignore the facts. As far as the mantra - the only time I have ever heard that mantra is from a liberal. It was invented by a liberal, card-carrying member of the KKK and of the Supreme Court who was appointed by none other than FDR.

How is Madison the father of the constitution when the Constitution did not give the US government the right to veto state laws, and when the President is not selected by the lower houses, and when there's no council of revision, and many other things that Madison wanted at the Convention.

For the most part the U.S. Constitution followed the forms of state constitutions, particularly the Massachusetts Constitution already had a separation of the three branches, distinct upper and lower houses, an executive, independently elected, with a 2/3 qualified veto, and was ratified by the people. The US Constitution only added a federal dimension. Calling Madison the father of the Bill of Rights is more justified.

I’ve never heard a liberal repeat the "mantra" cowgirl mentions, because what Thomas Jefferson thought or didn’t think is irrevelevant to liberals. Why should the modern progressive mind be bound by something that someone believed in the 18th century?

Mr. Adams: You must have been educated in the failing public school system. Madison is known as "The Father of the Constitution". I will refer you to the following documentation: The James Madison Papers, James Madison's Chipers and last but now least The Constitutional Convention of 1787. Read these documents and a whole new world will be opened to you.
Mr. Moser: I live in California (the bay area) liberals repeat this mantra constantly, especially the ones in Berkeley and San Franciso.

I'd say it's exactly the opposite. Calling anyone who opposed the Connecticut compromise the "Father of the Constitution" is simply inappropriate. It's a very imperfect simplification. At the Convention,

"Overall, of seventy-one specific proposals that Madison moved, seconded, or spoke unequivocally in regard to," [Forrect] McDonald writes, "he was on the losing side forty times."
Madison was, however, the principal draftsman of the Bill of Rights.

My guess is that no one gave Madison that title until scholars started to pay close attention to him after World War II. Not coincidentally, that's when the Bill of Rights came to dominate constitutional discussion.

Correction. Some of Madison's fans did use that title late in his life. Quite correctly, Madison said it was not appropriate.

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