Libya, Tripoli, and the Early United States of America

As U.S. warships prepare to pass near Tripoli, I cannot help but be reminded again of this nation’s peculiar history.

The year wasn’t 2010. It was 1797, not too long after the colonies won their independence. In the decades between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1797, U.S. ships near the Barbary Coast, having lost their previous protection by the British and French navy, were on their own in treacherous waters. Without its own standing navy, the newly independent U.S. was forced to pay tribute in order to guarantee the safety of people captured by Barbary pirates.

In 1797, the United States signed its first treaty with Tripoli (and probably the first with the Muslim world); it was officially titled the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary.

It’s not very well known today, but an important part of this treaty was Article 11, which stated:

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 Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.

The treaty was printed and distributed, as well as read aloud, in the U.S. Senate. It was shortly unanimously ratified by all present U.S. Senators thereafter without any comment and then printed in newspapers without controversy.

The “harmony existing between the two countries” was short-lived, however.

A few years later in 1800, Tripoli captured the U.S. ship Catherine and demanded increased payments, while more and more U.S. ships were being captured and plundered. A President by the name of Thomas Jefferson refused to give into such demands, electing instead to build the first real U.S. navy. He then sent these warships to the coast of Tripoli, authorizing them to engage in acts of war. On August 1, 1801, the USS Enterprise defeated the Tripolitan warship Tripoli in a battle that was no match for the Tripolitans. This victory marked the beginning of the U.S. as a naval power that was to be unchallenged on the high seas.

Although this was just the start of U.S. problems with piracy in the Mediterranean and frictions with the Barbary states, I found it interesting enough to blog about. It showed the sincerity of the early secular U.S. in trying to live peacefully with other cultures and nations, but, circumstances not allowing, it showed how the U.S. grew to be a stronger, more assertive country. This is inspirational history that we should never forget.


Posted on March 2, 2011, in History, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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