As the crisis between the mother country and colonies worsened, the colonists began to see a conspiracy against liberty being carried out by a secret cabal of evil ministers in the British government. In the perceived encroachments of the English government, the American revolutionaries again detected the awful twin specters of “popery” and arbitrary government.

In the imperial crisis of 1763-1776, American republicans revived the political drama staged by their English brethren during the previous century. Americans imbibed English republican theory, and it became the prism through which they made sense of the political events of the 1760s and 1770s. The colonies came to identify monarchy with tyranny and to believe that liberty could be preserved only in a republic, in which the people were the source of authority. As the crisis between the mother country and colonies worsened, the colonists began to see a conspiracy against liberty being carried out by a secret cabal of evil ministers in the British government. In the perceived encroachments of the English government, the American revolutionaries again detected the awful twin specters of “popery” and arbitrary government. Particularly alarming to American Protestants was the rumor that the British government would create an Anglican bishop for America and the passage in 1765 of the Quebec Act, which granted freedom of worship to Catholics in Canada and which was believed to be a precursor to a northern attack on America by massed legions of the Pope’s subjects. In the wake of the enactment of the measure, Samuel Adams warned Americans “that what we have above everything else to fear, is POPERY,” and he exhorted his fellow citizens “as you value your precious civil Liberty, and everything you can call dear to you, to be upon your guard against popery.”[1]

In spite of such bigotry, most Catholics sided with the Patriots during the Revolution.[2] Anti-Catholicism was toned down during the war, largely because of the alliance with France and the need to consolidate support at home. George Washington even forbade his soldiers to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Day, a holiday which included an assortment of raucous anti-Catholic rituals, such as the burning of an effigy of the pope.[3] The leading roles taken by Catholics also helped to mute religious bigotry, though it certainly did not disappear.[4] Captain John Barry of the navy and Stephen Moylan of the Continental Army, for example, won distinction on the battlefield, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence.

The American victory in 1783 produced a contagious spirit of liberty throughout the land, and the state constitutions crafted during the Revolution reflected a somewhat more liberal attitude toward Catholics. As John Carroll, soon to be the first Catholic bishop in the United States, happily observed in 1783, “Free toleration is allowed to Christians of every denominations [sic].”[5] Though this was broadly true, a majority of the new state constitutions perpetuated the status of Catholics as second-class citizens. South Carolina, for example, established Protestantism as the state religion, instituted a religious test for office, and promised full religious and civil liberty only to adherents of the Reformed faith. North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey likewise required that officeholders be Protestants. New York’s 1777 constitution, though it did not expressly forbid Catholics from voting or holding office, declared that it was the duty of its citizens to be on guard against the “bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests,” and required that all persons wishing to be naturalized “abjure and renounce all allegiance and subjection to all and every foreign king, prince, potentate, and State in all matters, ecclesiastical as well as civil.” Massachusetts’ charter authorized taxation “for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.” Vermont guaranteed full religious liberty only to Protestants, and New Hampshire’s constitution similarly contained anti-Catholic clauses.[6]

Four states, however, enshrined more tolerant principles in their founding documents. “In the States of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia,” John Carroll asserted, “a communication of all Civil rights, without distinction or diminution, is extended to those of our Religion.”[7] Though Carroll may have been too sanguine in the case of Virginia, the modest improvement in the legal position of Catholics throughout the country was enough to excite him about the prospects for his co-religionists. “In these United States,” he proclaimed, “our Religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary than our political one.”[8]

But the American spring of toleration was short-lived. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Catholics would again be treated as the black sheep of the nation. Though few Catholics openly converted to Protestantism, many put their faith safely under a rock, so as not to compromise their own and their family’s chances for social and economic advancement. The famous Maryland jurist, Roger B. Taney, is good example of this kind of “closet Catholic.” Taney married an Episcopalian, and he prided himself on his broadmindedness in never proselytizing his wife or their six daughters.[9] Catholics were considered superstitious, ignorant, and intolerant—unfit citizens for a free republic, and, moreover, a danger to liberty. Indeed, the prevailing view among Americans was that Protestantism buttressed American political institutions. In 1821, John Quincy Adams bluntly told the Catholic writer, Robert Walsh, that there was a definite link between the Reformation and “the origins of the doctrines which issued in our Independence.”[10] Some faithful Catholics shared the view of their persecutors that an inherent conflict existed between Catholicism and free government and consequently remained aloof from the public sphere. The American consensus was that Protestantism was responsible for the ideas of resistance, individual rights, limited government, separation of church and state, and toleration.

But Catholics could lay an equally valid historical claim to many of these traditions. Western theories of resistance to government, it has been argued, originated with the Thomists during the Middle Ages, and therefore it may be suggested that Catholic ideas made the American Revolution intellectually possible in the first place.[11] In addition, some historians have suggested that the idea of natural law, which was expounded by the great Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, laid the intellectual foundation for the theory of natural rights.[12] In the wake of the Reformation and the ascendancy of Protestantism in many European countries, Catholics formulated the notion of the separation of church and state, which derived from the Church’s long-standing distinction between society and state, the foundation of the notion of limited government. Though not the ideal model for church-state relations according to Catholic political thought, in pluralistic societies it was seen as a practical solution to religious conflict. The concept of toleration was a logical byproduct of this idea. Despite the Protestant dread of the pestiferous effects of “popery” on the body politic, then, Catholic thought played a role—albeit an often unfelt and unacknowledged one—in the shaping and development of American institutions.

Whether or not they were aware of the Catholic ancestry of these American ideas, many Catholics in the era between the Revolution and the Civil War believed that Roman Catholicism and American democracy were indeed compatible. John Hughes, who served as bishop of New York between 1838 and 1864, contended that Catholics had originated all the ideas of liberty that underlay the Constitution. Catholics such as Hughes adhered to what has been termed “Enlightenment” or “republican” Catholicism, which was a reaction to the “Ultramontane” school of Catholic thought, which emphasized papal power and held that church and state should of necessity be joined.[13] The origins of this Catholic Enlightenment lay in seventeenth-century French reform movements and in the inheritance of Renaissance humanism. These Catholic reformers extolled the human intellect, promoted ecumenism, and protested the excesses of baroque piety. Enlightenment Catholics believed that the teaching of the Church could be reconciled with modern political principles, most importantly, separation of church and state and toleration. But like most of the Protestant founders, these Catholics retained a belief in the divine origins of society. Reason was not their god, and the vast majority of them did not betray their faith.

Toleration was a treacherous doctrine for these Catholics to adopt, for devotion to it had long been associated with religious indifferentism. But the minority status of Catholics in England and America compelled Catholics there to accept the idea out of self-interest. Whereas the relative unity of English Protestantism in the eighteenth century retarded the implementation of toleration in Britain, the multiplicity of Protestant denominations in America precluded the establishment of a national reformed church and even compelled the espousal of the notion of religious freedom. Even some observers among the Protestant majority recognized the salutary effect of religious heterogeneity in the United States. “We sometimes wonder if Providence should permit such a multitude of sects, a Protestant author opined in 1830, “and yet on further reflection we must perceive that they constitute that balance of power among the different communities, which, in church as in state, is a check upon each, and the security of all.”[14]

Catholics capitalized on such views, urging that toleration be adopted throughout the land. In an attempt to ingratiate themselves to their Protestant neighbors, these Catholics, to a certain degree, also “Protestantized” their faith by rejecting the Church’s temporal power, by downplaying the idea of papal infallibility, and by instituting a democratic method of church governance known as lay trusteeism.[15] American Catholics consequently adopted a stubborn independence in religious matters. John Carroll joined his Jesuit brothers in refusing to acknowledge Roman control of the disposition of their land, and Carroll himself was sympathetic to the theory of conciliarism, which held that a church council could overrule the pope. Though Carroll later believed that the power of the laity had gotten out of hand and himself clashed with trustees who owned the deeds to parish properties, Bishop John England of Charleston in 1820 conceded power to the laity by writing a constitution for his diocese that guaranteed their rights.[16]

Despite their concessions to the American Protestant way, these men remained faithful Catholics. In fusing their religious and political principles, they solved a prickly intellectual problem and created what might be called the Catholic-republican synthesis. Finding a way to reconcile the demands of their church with their devotion to American political institutions, these Catholics accommodated themselves to American culture and were engaged in the political life of the nation. As despised members of a religious minority, they exercised the traditional Catholic virtue of prudence. Six of these men who were active in public life between the Revolution and the Civil War are the focus of this study.

Next:  Founding Father: John Carroll and the Creation of the Catholic Church in America”

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1. “A Puritan,” the Boston Gazette, April 4, 1768, in Cushing, The Writings of Samuel Adams, 1:201-202.

2. Why Catholics, who traditionally had been defenders of authority, civil as well as religious, did so is a matter of debate. Mary Augustina Ray feebly suggests that American Catholics, tired of having their devotion to liberty questioned by their Protestant fellow-citizens, sided with the revolutionaries out of expediency. She also states that Charles Carroll’s leadership in the Revolutionary cause led the way for many Catholics. This analysis begs the question, for it does not explain why Carroll and other Catholic elites cast their lot with the patriots. See Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism, 315-316. Charles H. Metzger suggests that the loyalty of American Catholics was won by an effort by leaders to mitigate anti-Catholic prejudice. See Metzger, Catholics and the American Revolution (Chicago, Loyola University Press, 1962).

Theodore Maynard argues that Catholics supported the American Revolution because the movement for independence was based on a “contiunuum of thought which may be traced back to the scholastics, and beyond them to Aristotle.” See Maynard, The Catholic Church and the American Idea (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953), 32. Though Maynard does not offer adequate proof for this assertion, his thesis that Catholic ideas in some way underlie the principles of the American founders is intriguing and is shared by John Courtney Murray, who contends that the Catholic natural law tradition is at the heart of the “American Proposition.” See Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960). A more plausible explanation is that American Catholics, dissatisfied with the old order that denied them their full civil rights, sought to change the status quo through revolution and build a more just society. Pauline Maier explains Charles Carroll’s participation in the patriot cause this way. Carroll, Maier writes, “had his differences with the standing order, above all in its treatment of Roman Catholics. . . . Catholic emancipation in Maryland remained unlikely while that colony was linked to a mother country whose laws had prevented Carroll, as a young law student, from entering the English bar unless he bought an exception, which he had refused to do.” See Maier, “Early Revolutionary Leaders in the South and the Problem of Southern Distinctiveness,” in Jeffrey J. Crow and Larry E. Tise, eds., The Southern Experience in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1978).

3. Washington condemned this “ridiculous and childish custom” and admonished his fellow Protestants that “indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren.” Washington’s motives in banning Pope Day, however, were not primarily altruistic but stemmed instead from a desire to win the support of Catholic Canadians. The general declared frankly in the order that he not “help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting [sic], and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada.” See General Order of George Washington, November 5, 1775, in John Tracy Ellis, ed., Documents of American Catholic History (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1962), 1936.

4. On Catholic participation in the Revolution, see Metzger, Catholics and the American Revolution.

5. Caroll to Vitaliano Borromeo, November 10, 1783, Thomas O’Brien Hanley, ed., The John Carroll Papers (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 1:81.

 6. Rhode Island and Connecticut essentially retained their colonial corporate charters, which implied strictures on Catholics. In the face of an influx of a large number of Catholics during the Revolution, however, Rhode Island liberalized its laws; Connecticut would do so in 1817-1818. The various state constitutions may be found in William F. Swindler, ed., Sources and Documents of United States Constitutions, 11 vols. (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana, 1973-1979). The quotations from New York’s Constitution of 1777 are found in 7:178-179; that from Massachusetts’ constitution is found in 5:93. See also Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism, chap. 9; Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 20-21.

7. Carroll to Vitaliano Borromeo, November 10, 1783, Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:81.

8. Ibid. The Virginia Constitution denied Catholics the franchise by stipulating that “the right of suffrage in the election of members for both Houses shall remain as exercised at present.” Under current Virginia law, Catholics were not allowed to vote; however, this disability was generally ignored upon the passage of Jefferson’s Statute for Religion Freedom in 1786. See Swindler, United States Constitutions, 10:53; Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism, 359-360.

9. Carl Brent Swisher, Roger B. Taney (New York: Macmillan, 1935). Swisher argues that Taney “never swerved in his loyalty and devotion to the Catholic Church as far as his personal conduct was concerned,” but that he refused to try to influence his own family to adopt his religious beliefs. “If holding such a belief,” Swisher suggests, “constituted in any sense disloyalty to his own church it seems probable that to this extent he was disloyal.” One of Taney’s daughters did become a Catholic late in life.

10. Adams to Walsh, July 10, 1821, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams (New York: MacMillan, 1913-1917; reprint, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 7:116.

11. See Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978) 2: chaps. 5 and 6.

12. Many historians, assuming a distinction between the theories of natural law and natural rights, contend that Americans were influenced almost solely by the latter body of thought, specifically as it was formulated by John Locke. But some scholars have argued that natural rights theory is in fact derived from the idea of natural law. James Tully, in his analysis of Locke’s political philosophy, makes this very point. See Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), especially chap. 2; An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), especially chap. 9. Belief in the existence of natural law presupposes belief in the existence of a God of Nature, a supernatural and supreme lawgiver. This suggests that the ideas of the framers of the Constitution were at heart opposed to the Enlightenment, which proclaimed the autonomous reason of man to be the first and sole principle of political organization.

13. Patrick Carey argues that American Catholics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries “struggled to develop a form of Catholicism that would preserve ties with the European Catholic tradition and at the same time adapt Catholicism to American ways and patterns of thought that were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment . . . . The Enlightenment understanding of the autonomous individual as one who possesses natural rights and a free conscience provided a foundation for an American Catholic understanding of the state and society.” Patrick Carey, ed., American Catholic Religious Thought: The Shaping of a Theological and Social Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 6-7. David J. O’Brien argues that prior to the influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, American Catholics adhered to “republican Catholicism,” which held that religion was a private and personal matter. See David J. O’Brien, Public Catholicism (New York: Macmillan, 1989). Henry May describes a “Moderate Enlightenment” that characterized Anglo-American political thought between 1688 and 1787 and which held that the principles of Protestant Christianity and the Enlightenment could be reconciled. Though May excludes them from his discussion, Catholic thinkers were engaged in a similar intellectual endeavor. See Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

Joseph P. Chinnici argues that in the eighteenth century, a group of European Catholic intellectuals began to suggest that the teaching of the Church could be reconciled with the principles of modernity. These Catholic reformers extolled the human intellect, promoted ecumenism, “accepted political secularization, religious liberty, and a contractual theory of both civil and ecclesiastical government.” They also “exhibited a culturally open approach to dogma and piety.” See Chinnici, The English Catholic Enlightenment: John Lingard and the Cisalpine Movement, 1780-1850 (Shepherdstown, MD: Patmos Press, 1980), x-xi.

14. “A Roland for Oliver,: Christian Examiner 7 (1830): 240; quoted in Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 228, n. 12.

15. On trusteeism, see Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).

16. See Patrick Carey, An Immigrant Bishop: John England’s Adaptation of Irish Catholicism to American Republicanism (Yonkers, NY: U.S. Catholic Historical Society, 1982).

The featured image is “The Army & Navy, Genl. Washington presenting Captain Barry with his Commission” (1840) by Alfred M. Hoffy. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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