This Happy State

Jim Walker July/August 2002

By Jim Walker
Illustration by Ralph Butler


Unlike governments of the past, the American Founders set up a government divorced from religion. The establishment of a secular government did not require a reflection to themselves about its origin; they knew this as an unspoken given. However, as the U.S. delved into international affairs, few foreign nations knew about the intentions of America. A little-known but legal document written in the late 1700s explicitly reveals the secular nature of the United States to a foreign nation. Officially called the "Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, of Barbary," most refer to it as the Treaty of Tripoli. In Article 11 it 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 tranquillity of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered in 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."1

The preliminary treaty began with a signing on November 4, 1796 (the end of George Washington's last term as president). Joel Barlow, the American diplomat, served as consul to Algiers and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations.2 Barlow, who had once served under Washington as a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, wrote the English version of the treaty, including Amendment 11. He forwarded the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams concurred (by then in his presidency), sending the document on to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797, and it was officially ratified by the United States with John Adams' signature on June 10, 1797.3 During this multireview process, the wording of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty became public through its publication in the Philadelphia Gazette on June 17, 1797.

The treaty is quite clear in stating that the United States government is not founded upon Christianity. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, this treaty represented U.S. law, as do all treaties, according to the Constitution (see Article VI, sec. 2). Although the Christian exclusionary wording in the Treaty of Tripoli lasted for only eight years and no longer has legal status, it clearly represented the feelings of our Founders at the beginning of the U.S. government.

Today some argue that our political system represents a Christian form of government and that Jefferson, Madison, et al., had simply expressed Christian values while framing the Constitution. If this were true, then we should have a wealth of evidence to support it, yet just the opposite proves the case.

Although many of America's Colonial leaders practiced Christianity, our most influential Founders broke away from traditional religious thinking. They were strongly guided by ideas of the Great Enlightenment in Europe that had begun to sever the chains of monarchical theocracy-an institution deriving from a church-state coalition. Enlightenment figures such as Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire greatly influenced our Founders; and Isaac Newton's mechanical and mathematical foundations served as a basis for their scientific reasoning.

There are well-intentioned calls for our nation to return to the Christianity of early America, but this is at best a utopian construct. While the culture of early America was nominally Christian, some historians have posited that no more than 10 percent-probably less-of Americans in 1800 were members of congregations.4

The Founders rarely practiced what today we might call Christian orthodoxy. Although they supported the free exercise of any religion, they understood the dangers of religion. Most of them believed in deism, and many attended Freemasonry lodges. Masonry welcomed anyone from any religion or nonreligion, as long as they believed in a Supreme Being. Washington, Franklin, Hancock, Hamilton, Lafayette, and many others accepted Freemasonry.5

The Constitution reflects our Founders' views of a secular government that would protect the freedom of any belief or unbelief. Historian Robert Middlekauff observes that "the idea that the Constitution expressed a moral view seems absurd. There were no genuine evangelicals in the convention, and there were no heated declarations of Christian piety."6

George Washington revealed almost nothing to indicate his spiritual frame of mind, hardly a mark of a devout Christian. He rarely spoke about his religion, but his Freemasonry experience points to a belief in deism. Washington's initiation occurred at the Fredericksburg Lodge on November 4, 1752. He became a Master Mason in 1799; and he remained a Freemason until he died.7

To the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in May 1789 Washington said that every man "ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."8 After Washington's death, Dr. Abercrombie, a friend of his, replied to a Dr. Wilson, who had interrogated him about Washington's religion, "Sir, Washington was a Deist."9 Few would consider Thomas Jefferson a Christian in the usual sense. Jefferson believed in materialism, reason, and science. He never admitted to any religion but his own. In a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819, he wrote, "You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."10 In his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787-1788), John Adams wrote: "The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

. . . Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind."

Called the Father of the Constitution, James Madison also held an unconventional sense of Christianity. While he no doubt had respect for true Christian faith, he was cutting in his criticism of a state allied with church power. In 1785 he wrote the following in his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments":

"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. . . . What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."

Benjamin Franklin revealed his perspective on matters of faith in his autobiography when, after mentioning his rejection of early religious training, he writes, "Some books against Deism fell into my hands . . . . In short, I soon became a thorough Deist." Dr. Priestley, an intimate friend of Franklin's, wrote of him: "It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin's general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers" (Priestley's autobiography).11

Evidence of the Constitution
Some of the most convincing evidence that our government did not ground itself upon Christianity comes from the very document that defines it-the United States Constitution. If indeed our framers had aimed to found a Christian republic, it would seem highly unlikely that they would have forgotten to leave out their Christian intentions from the supreme law of the land. In fact, nowhere in the Constitution do we have a single mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme Being. There occur only two references to religion, and they both use exclusionary wording. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," and Article VI states, "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States."

Thomas Jefferson interpreted the First Amendment in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state."12

As Jefferson wrote in his autobiography in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom: "Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting 'Jesus Christ,' so that it would read 'A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;' the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination."13

James Madison, perhaps the greatest supporter for separation of church and state, and whom many refer to as the Father of the Constitution, also held similar views, which he expressed in his letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822: "And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

Today, if ever our government needed proof that the separation of church and state works to ensure the freedom of religion, one only need to look at the plethora of churches, temples, and shrines that exist in the cities and towns throughout the United States. Only a secular government, divorced from religion, could possibly allow such tolerant diversity.

The Declaration of Independence
Some who think of America as founded upon Christianity present the Declaration as "proof." The reason appears obvious: the document mentions God. However, the God in the Declaration could not be describing Christianity's God. It describes "the laws of nature and of nature's God." This nature's view of God agrees with deist philosophy, and any attempt to use the Declaration as a support for Christianity will fail for this reason alone.

More significant, the Declaration does not represent the law of the land, as it came before the Constitution. The Declaration aimed at announcing a separation from Great Britain and listed the various grievances of the "United States of America." Today the Declaration represents an important historical document about rebellious intentions against Great Britain at a time before the formation of our independent government. Although the Declaration may have influential power, it may inspire the lofty thoughts of poets, and judges may mention it in their summations, but it holds no legal power today. Our presidents, judges, and police officers must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, but never the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, the Declaration depicts a great political document. It aimed at a future government upheld by citizens instead of a monarchy. It observed that all men "are created equal," meaning that we all come inborn with the abilities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." The Declaration says nothing about our rights being secured by Christianity, nor does it imply anything about a Christian foundation.

Common Law
According to the Constitution's Seventh Amendment: "In suits at common law . . . the right of trial by jury shall be preserved and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law." Some hold that common law came from Christian foundations, and therefore the Constitution derives from it. They use various quotes from Supreme Court justices proclaiming that Christianity came as part of the laws of England, and therefore from its common law heritage.

Thomas Jefferson elaborated about this view of the history of common law in his letter to Thomas Cooper on February 10, 1814: "For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of the Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law. . . . This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first Christian king of the heptarchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it. . . . If anyone chooses to build a doctrine on any law of that period, supposed to have been lost, it is incumbent on him to prove it to have existed, and what were its contents. These were so far alterations of the common law, and became themselves a part of it. But none of these adopt Christianity as a part of the common law. If, therefore, from the settlement of the Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians, and if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are all able to find among them no such act of adoption, we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of, the common law."14

Virtually all the evidence that attempts to connect a foundation of Christianity upon the government rests mainly on quotes and opinions from a few of the Colonial writers who professed a belief in Christianity. Sometimes the quotes come from their youth before their introduction to Enlightenment ideas or simply from personal beliefs. But statements of beliefs, by themselves, say nothing about their being a foundation of the U.S. Government.

There were some who wished a connection between church and state. Patrick Henry, for example, proposed a tax to help sustain "some form of Christian worship" for the state of Virginia. But Jefferson and others did not agree. In 1777 Jefferson drafted the Statute for Religious Freedom, which became Virginia law in 1786. Jefferson designed this statute to completely separate religion from government. None of Henry's Christian views ever got introduced into Virginia's or the U.S. Government's law.

Unfortunately, later developments in our government have clouded early history. The original Pledge of Allegiance, authored by Francis Bellamy in 1892, did not contain the words "under God." Not until June 1954 did those words appear in the pledge. The words "In God We Trust" did not appear on our currency until after the Civil War. And too many Christians who visit historical monuments and see the word "God" inscribed in stone automatically impart their own personal God of Christianity, without understanding the framers' deist context.

In the Supreme Court's 1892 Holy Trinity Church v. United States, Justice David Brewer wrote that "this is a Christian nation." However, Brewer wrote this in dicta, as a personal opinion only, and it does not serve as a legal pronouncement. Later Brewer felt obliged to explain himself: "But in what sense can [the United States] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all."15

Acting on political grievances against Great Britain, the framers of the Constitution derived an independent government out of Enlightenment thinking. Our Founders paid little heed to political beliefs about Christianity. They gave us the First Amendment as a bulwark against an establishment of religion and at the same time ensuring the free expression of any belief. The Treaty of Tripoli, signed in the early days of this republic and an instrument of the Constitution, clearly stated our non-Christian foundation. And while we inherited common law from Great Britain, this law clearly derived from pre-Christian Saxons and cannot be seen as a simple codification of biblical Scripture. "They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point"16 .


1 Hunter Miller, ed, Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, vol. 2, docs. 1-40: 1776-1818. D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931).
2 James Woodress, A Yankee's Odyssey, the Life of Joel Barlow (J P. Lippincott Co., 1958).
3 Miller
4 Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in U.S. and Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)
5 John J. Robinson, Born in Blood (New York: M. Evans & Co., 1989)
6 Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
7 Robert W. Miller, "A Republic-Can We Keep It?" Education, Summer 1987.
8 F. Andrews Boston, et al., The Writings of George Washington (Charleston, S.C., 1833-1837).
9 In John E. Remsburg, Six Historic Americans (New York: Truth Seeker Co.).
10 Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson Writings (Library of America, 1984)
11 In Remsburg.
12 Peterson.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Robert Boston, Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State (Prometheus Books, 1993).
16 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), Chap. XVII.


Jim Walker writes from Miami, Florida. He has specialized in writing on the history of religion.

Article Author: Jim Walker