The Treaty of Tripoli is of particular interest as secularists attempt to use its wording as a definitive expression of the intent of America’s founders regarding religion and government. An in-depth examination, though, may prove this untenable.
On March 28, 1786, America’s new Congress of the Confederation received word from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson of their meeting in France with Tripoli’s ambassador regarding Muslim Barbary pirates raiding American ships in the Mediterranean.
Jefferson and Adams asked Tripoli’s ambassador, Abdrahaman, what the new nation of the United States had done to provoke them: “The ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of the prophet, that it was written in their qur’an, that all nations who should not have acknowledged islam’s authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and every musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Jefferson bought a Qur’an to learn why Muslim pirates attacked unprovoked.
Jefferson wrote to John Jay, 1787, explaining his efforts to ransom captured American sailors through the mediation of the Catholic Order of Mathurins, which was later disbanded during the French Revolution: “There is an order of priests called the Mathurins, the object of whose institution is to beg alms for the redemption of captives. They keep members always in Barbary, searching out the captives of their country, and redeem, I believe, on better terms than any other body, public or private. It occurred to me, that their agency might be obtained for the redemption of our prisoners at Algiers. …