The Shores of Tripoli: The Libyan Tragedy and Our Historically Challenged President

In a frequently misquoted line from the Life of Reason, George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Cultural amnesia, helpless or deliberate, does enable people to rewrite history without compunction, and it also makes it easy for others to believe the fiction as fact, or to suppose in a “nunc pro tunc” way that projects our assumptions onto the ways things were seen in the past. I should guess that most of our leaders in government today could not pass the qualifying examination in history as was required for a high school diploma in the State of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.  I cite the example of a speech of President Obama at the fourth annual “Iftar” dinner, a feast at the end of a day of Ramadan fasting, for assembled Muslims in the White House on August 10 in this year of 2012:

As I’ve noted before, Thomas Jefferson once held a sunset dinner here with an envoy from Tunisia—perhaps the first Iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago. And some of you, as you arrived tonight, may have seen our special display, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Congress—the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And that’s a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islam—like so many faiths—is part of our national story.

The miscalculation about the role of Muslims in our nation’s history was mentioned previously in President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 in which he said he was speaking “as a student of history.” As the “Arab Spring” looks increasingly like an autumn headed for winter, it may go in the annals of presidential speeches as the one most tightly packed with mistakes of historical fact: “Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. 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.’ … And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson—kept in his personal library.”

If I felt confident that President Obama could name some of the Hasmonean kings, I could point out that while they were “a part of the story” of Christianity, they were not so in a positive light. This might put into a better perspective any notion that the Treaty of Tripoli was anything like a free trade agreement, or that the Tunisian envoy’s dinner with Jefferson was a pleasant interlude, or that Jefferson’s purchase of “Holy Koran” was part of his quest for oriental wisdom. For one thing, Jefferson’s copy was an English translation published in 1734 by George Sale. As it was not in Arabic, it was not any more authentic in the opinion of Muslims than is Farrakhan’s “Nation of Islam” which the first Muslim congressman to whom Obama alluded, Keith Ellison,  assisted in some of its activities before he abjured it during his election campaign.

In the eighteenth century, Tripoli, along with the other Barbary Coast lands of Tunis and Algiers (being North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire) and Morocco, had been centers of piracy, preying with a special lust on the ships of the fledgling United States. In March of 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met in London with the representative of the Dey of Algiers to Britain, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja. They posed the simple question: Why were the Muslims so hostile to a new country that had done them no injury? Adams joined Jefferson in reporting to Congress through a letter to John Jay who was then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that “Islam was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their 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 that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to paradise.”

For Jefferson, Islam was a curiosity and beyond the pale of reason, but its anti-clericalism and disdain for Christianity had a wry appeal, as it also had to Voltaire, for its destructive influence on the old system of Western beliefs. Considering the vast fortunes being lost to the Barbary pirates, and the thousands of Europeans and Americans being captured for slavery, Congress favored appeasement, by bribing the pirates in the form of annual tribute.  Jefferson objected: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” Adams approved the payoff money, saying “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.” Tripoli broke its truce and Jefferson launched the Tripolitan War as soon as he became president, though it was not officially declared by Congress. Probably the most significant event at the start of Jefferson’s administration was the dispatch of U.S. vessels, to the Barbary coast, and the march of Army and Marines across the desert from Egypt into Tripolitania, freeing Americans enslaved by the Muslims. There were degrees of enslavement, and not all were repugnant: rather like Joseph in Egypt, it was possible for some to attain rank, like John Leander Cathcart a United States citizen (having emigrated from Ireland) who worked his way up from keeper of the royal zoo to become a chief clerk to the Dey of Algiers

Jefferson did not arrange an Iftar dinner for what Obama in his 2010 Iftar address called “the first Muslim ambassador to the United States.”  Sidi Soliman Mell-imelli was not an ambassador but a temporary envoy from the Bey of Tunis.  Thus “ambassador” was qualified as “envoy” in Obama’s 2012 Iftar address, which also added “perhaps” to the claim that Jefferson’s dinner for the envoy was an Iftar. Mell-imelli spent six months in Washington, fascinating the locals with his charming ways and exotic dress of a scarlet robe, a turban of twenty yards of fabric, and yellow shoes. Indulging the occult, he wrapped Dolly Madison in his cloak, assuring her that it would guarantee the birth of a son.  In this he failed.  While not formally acceding to Mell-imelli’s request that concubines be supplied to his hotel, the State Department was able to find a Greek woman named Georgia to keep him company. Secretary of State Madison advised Jefferson that it would be wise to let “pass unnoticed the unique conduct” of this representative of the Barbary states.  Mell-imelli may have dined at the Executive Mansion more than once, and customarily at the 3:30 PM dinner hour.  In Ramadan, he asked to be excused, so Jefferson delayed the dinner for several hours, with no change in menu and without any notion of catering a ritual feast. Cathcart, who had been liberated and returned to the United States, was an escort for Mell-imelli and his retinue, because of his acquired Arabic.  He noted that the envoy’s party did not follow the Islamic rules of temperance and was happy to be acquitted of his charge.  Mell-imelli’s congeniality did not extend to a delegation of Cherokee Indians whom he called “vile heretics” for following neither Moses or Jesus. He told Jefferson that he doubted that these Cherokees had descended from Adam.

While these matters may have been so submerged in arcane history that they fail to appear on Presidential teleprompters,  it is fair to read John Adam’s sense of Islam in what John Quincy Adams distilled:

The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.

Adams was not only aware that Islam promoted history’s largest slave system, including over a million Europeans and tens of millions of Africans, but had even nibbled at New Englanders.  In 1625, Governor William Bradford lamented that one of the Massachusetts Bays Colony’s ships, in the English Channel within view of Plymouth, had been boarded by Turks who took the captain and crew as slaves to Morocco. The sultan there Moulay Ismail, pride of the Alaoutie  dynasty, kept 25,000 white slaves. He was known to test his latest axes and knives on slaves, but for that purpose he used Africans.

In his most recent Iftar speech, President Obama said “Indeed, you know that the Koran teaches, ‘Be it man or woman, each of you is equal to the other.’  Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children slaves in Sudan Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania do not know that. In the nineteenth century, Saint Josephine Bakhita was enslaved by Arab traders in Sudan and forced to convert to Islam. Her saga is a reminder that President Obama’s exegesis of the Koran is nuanced. That is especially unfortunate for women and should be a concern to those like Sandra Fluke who spoke at the recent Democrat convention of a Republican “war against women.” Sura 4 of the Koran tells Muslim men: “Forbidden to you also are married women, except those who are in your hands as slaves.”  Unlike the Christian scriptures whose portents are interpreted by the same Church that canonized them, the Koran claims to be the very dictation of the Almighty, not one single letter of which can be changed. This then makes Sura 9 awkward for citation in an after-dinner speech: “Believers! Wage war against such of the infidels as are your neighbors, and let them find you rigorous; and know that God is with those who fear him.” Happily when Thomas Jefferson hosted his Non-Iftar dinner, he did not quote  the 47th Sutra in his Non-Koran: “When you encounter the infidels, strike off their heads until you have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters.”

How former presidents should occupy their time in retirement is not indicated by the Constitution, and they are free agents in that regard. They could spend some of their days boning up on history, but it would be better if they had known some history before being elected to become part of it.

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

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  • Frodo

    Great article with lots of little details that fascinated me.

  • Rich

    This article made me appreciate Mr. Obama even more than I already do.

    • Mark

      Do you appreciate him most for his baby killing, promotion of sodomy or destroying the economy?

      • Rich

        Your response to me only demonstrates your misapplication of agency in morality, bigotry, and ignorance.

        • Craig

          Quite the opposite: murder and homosexual acts (which are also outside of marriage) are forbidden in the Bible and by the Church; in the very least, the President has wasted tax money since the begining (rescinded Mexico City Act day two and has since used money for Planned parented who makes enough income).

        • Craig

          The State should be guided by Church principles.

  • James

    Really Father Rutler this sort of petty sniping is beneath you. Interesting discourse on early America though.

    • Rogo

      How is a dose of reality beneath ANYONE?? Great job Father, I’ll spread the word.

  • Bill Russell

    James- Are you actually defending Obama?

  • James

    Do you seriously think Mitt Romney would pass one of Fr. Rutler’s History exams?

  • Craig

    Two great books with relevant info on Islam: “Heretics”, by Hilaire Belloc and “Seven Lies About the Catholic Church”, Diane Moczar.

  • Bill Russell

    I do not know how much of an historian Romney is. I do not think he would have made the gaffes Obama has: eg: Renaissance thinkers thought the world was flat, Rutherford B. Hayes rejected the telephone, Muslims invented printing, Morocco was the first country to recognize the U.S., Mexico was independent before the U.S., Austrians speak “Austrian,” there are 57 states in the Union, Canada has a President, the death camps were Polish (the Polish Prime Minister called Obama “ignorant and incompetent”) , there is no precedent for the Supreme Court overturning a law passed by Congress, his uncle helped liberate Auschwitz (unlikely unless he had been in the Soviet Army), one bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor, the US government built an “intercontinental railroad” (perhaps I can take it to Paris.) et c et c – – It is a mystery how Obama could have graduated from Columbia Univ. without being able to speak any foreign language. But as long as his academic records are sealed (unlike Romney’s) we shall never know. Romney, by the way, speaks French and Spanish. – I do know that the GOP platform defends life and the Democrat Party is immoral to the point of degeneracy. – But all that aside, you have evaded my question: Are you actually defending Obama?

  • Amatorem Veritatis

    “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Sorry to use a quote from Marx, but it is the only remotely true thing he ever wrote. Anyway, it is clear from Fr. Rutler’s excellent article that not much has changed in the last 212+ years regarding the threat of Islam to America. Our founders understood the fundamental nature of Islam, as evidenced by Adams brief but cogent summary. Such a shame that our “more intellectually sophisticated” and supposedly more informed political class thinks they know better. Our failure to appreciate the historically violent nature of Islam created the tragedy of 9/11/2001, which has now progressed into the farce of Obama’s bowing to the Saudi King and elevating wishful thinking into foreign policy.

  • James

    President Obama doesn’t need me to defend him. My issue here is with Fr. Rutler (whom I admire and respect) and his pedantic potshot at Mr. Obama. In my opinion it’s petty and unworthy of a man of his stature. If he wants to criticize the President then his intellectual talents would be better served by focusing on an issue of greater import. Incidentally, the notion that the Republican Party is somehow morally superior to others is laughable. Abortion is intrinsically evil (i.e. – under any circumstances). Mr. Romney has stated that he supports abortion in the case of rape, incest or the life of the mother. It would therefore seem that intrinsic evil has no party affiliation and when it comes to Christian values and the greater good of the Country the Republicans are the party of lip service. A century of obstructionism and deplorable positions on social issues has proven that. We would be better served if Mitt Romney ran for President of the Cayman Islands.

    • AvantiBev

      Concerned about ending abortion? Abortion is defended by the Left because it is the enforcement tool of the Sexual Revolution to which women surrendered in the late 60’s – early 1970’s. It is to the Sex Revolution what the guillotine was to the French and the gulag/NKVD were to the Russian and other communist revolutions. Politicians will not end abortion. WOMEN WILL. Go home, teach your daughters, exhort your granddaughters, nieces, sisters and cousins not to behave as skanks and sluts. [Yes, Virginia, sluts DO exist.] 98% of all abortions would be gone is women relearned that word which they were so good at shouting as mere 2 year olds: “NO”.

  • Erik Mitchell

    James- This is not “sniping”, it’s an indictment. Grow up.

  • Towerofevel

    Some newspapers are say that a pornography film maker made the film that started this recent chain of events. Now we really know who is at war with Islamists. Don’t we?

    • Rick DeLano

      Oh yes, let’s immediately dis the First Amendment for Muslims, after all, nobody cares about exhibitions of crucifixes in urine.


  • George Rutler

    There is another item I might have cited among the factual errors mentioned as fact by our current president. It risks sounding pedantic, but it should be mentioned since President Obama has referred to it more than once. It is this: Morocco was not the first nation to recognize the
    United States as a sovereign state. While the city-state of Dubrovnik
    (then the Republic of Ragusa) claims that honor, and France also has
    claim through its military agency in the revolutionary period, the
    Netherlands was actually the first, acting through the Dutch island of
    St. Eustatius. While visiting there in 1939, President
    Roosevelt unveiled a
    plaque that says: “Here the sovereignty of the United States of America
    was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    The recent murder of the American Ambassador, Chris Stevens to Lybia shows the ignorance of the Obama regime in regard to islamic teaching. The man was openly gay – when the trouble broke out they said they could not find him; for five hours!!! He was sodomized and tortured. The islamists knew exactly where to find him and his body was paraded through the streets. I guess anyone who would have advised Hillary not to send him to a muslim country because of his lifestyle, would have lost their job for being either islamaphobic or perhaps racist? Thanks for this article Fr. Rutler – we really need to educate ourselves on this matter – our lives depend on it. – Blessings – Rene

  • Steve

    It’s fascinating to watch the Obama apologists tie themselves into knots in support of this man. And to equate Romney’s willingness to allow abortion in the case of rape or incest with Obama’s rejection of the Born Alive Infant Protection Act is pathetic.

    • Faustina

      I think both positions are wrong, but Mr. Romney it’s more likely to be persuaded of that than Mr. Obama.

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  • Rick DeLano

    The Council has failed.

    The Church was not instituted to seek religious liberty for Muslims and Jews who hate and slander Christ.

    There is no hope until the last of the prelates responsible for this heretical innovation go to their reward.

  • Clement_W

    Fr. Rutler

    I agree with ALMOST all that you have written. The main problem that I have is
    that you have not gone far enough back into the history of our Judeo-Christian
    Faith in the very first book of the Bible – Genesis.

    We are vaguely aware of Abram, Sarah and Hagar but have not considered that
    Islam rose out of the descendants of Abram too, from the older half-brother
    of Isaac,Ishmael, the son of Abram AND Hagar And, let us not forget that this was BEFORE the Lord renamed him Abraham. The Lord foretold exactly what
    has been happening in our human society in Genesis Chapter 16. I have cut and
    pasted a small but very relevant portion of this chapter below. Please read and
    see if it applies to our current situation and has applied since Mohammed
    started Islam sometime around 700 A.D.

    (NAB)Gen.16:6 Abram told Sarai: “Your maid is in your power. Do to her whatever you
    please.” Sarai then abused her so much that Hagar ran away from her. 7 The LORD’S messenger found her by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, 8 and he asked, “Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She answered, “I am running away from my mistress, Sarai.” 9 But the LORD’S messenger told her: “Go back to your mistress and submit to her abusive treatment. 10 I will make your descendants so numerous,” added the LORD’S messenger, “that they will be too many to count. 11 Besides,” the LORD’S messenger
    said to her:
    “You are now pregnant and shall bear a son;
    you shall name him Ishmael,
    For the LORD has heard you,
    God has answered you.
    12 He shall be a wild ass of a man,
    his hand against everyone,
    and everyone’s hand against him;
    In opposition to all his kin
    shall he encamp.”

  • Ford Oxaal

    Thank you for the beautifully written, fascinating glimpse of a part of history we would all do well to delve further into. We have become ignorant in our sloth, and wayward in our ignorance. May God have mercy on our children, whose legacy we have mercilessly destroyed.

  • GrahamCombs

    In affluent Birmingham, Michigan I have seen many Darfur t-shirts, but none appeared during the pillage, rape, and enslavement of South Sudan. Why did Darfur received the close attentions of geo-political analyst George Clooney but not South Sudan? Who knows? I’ve seen Archbishop Gaddis on World Over Live twice and it seems nothing has changed. Philanthropist Mohammed Ibrahim (African born, now a British subject) mentioned the security issues in South Sudan only two weeks ago. And maybe that’s the problem. South Sudan is primarily Christian and animist; not only not Muslim but also black Africans not Arabs. So much for racial solidarity from the administration. But nothing I didn’t see or hear in law school in New York. The great advantage about not having a sense of sin is that you never have to worry about being wrong.
    As always, Fr. Rutler has gotten to the heart of it. I lived in New York for so many years and kick myself for not attending Mass at the Church of Our Saviour. Even though as an Anglican I could not have taken Holy Communion.
    Graham Combs/Royal Oak, Michigan