Reading American Secularism in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli

Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which declares that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” has long been a fixture of debates over the separation of church and state. However, as I demonstrate, the common interpretation of Article 11 as a definitive statement on the country’s secular non-Christian identity, far from obvious at the time of its first publication in the 1790s, developed through a long history of rereadings of the treaty as it was applied to a wide range of political questions, from the public funding of Christian clergy to regulations prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Through this largely unstudied history, I examine how deployments of the article repeatedly invoked representations of Muslims and Islam to define central aspects of American social and political identity in a global context. I argue that the lasting influence of the text lies in how Christian nationalists and emergent secularists alike used the figure of Tripoli to articulate a national character in opposition to the perceived otherness of the Muslim world.

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