Catholics and America’s Founding
By George J. Marlin
For this Fourth of July weekend, a little history lesson. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the vast majority of Catholics sided with the revolutionaries, because they considered themselves American, not British. “They understood the genius of America,” wrote the distinguished Catholic historian, Theodore Maynard, “Without hesitation they threw in their lot with Congress.”
American Catholics distinguished themselves throughout the war. John Barry is widely regarded as the “Father of the American Navy.” General Stephen Moylan of George Washington’s staff was the highest-ranking Catholic in the Army.
Out of respect for the Catholic presence in his army, George Washington ended the observance of the anti-Roman holiday known as “Pope’s Day.” In his directive he declared:
“As the Commander-in-Chief has been apprised of a design formed for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the Pope, he cannot 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 soliciting, and have really obtained the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as brethren embarked in the same cause – the defense of the liberty of America. At this juncture, and under such circumstances, to be insulting their religion, is so monstrous as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our brethren, as to them we are indebted for every late happy success over the common enemy in Canada.”
Throughout the Revolution it was the American Tories who pursued a “no-popery” strategy to place a wedge between Catholic allies and Catholic patriots on the one hand, and on the other hand Protestant revolutionaries. But as so often happens in war, American soldiers became more tolerant of the men who fought and died beside them.
Bishop John Carroll (cousin of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll), after a trip to Boston, expressed amazement at the change in attitude: “It is wonderful to tell what great civilities have been done to me in this town, where a few years ago a popish priest was thought to be the greatest monster in creation. Many here, even of their principal people, have acknowledged to me that they would have crossed to the opposite side of the street rather than meet a Roman Catholic some time ago. The horror which was associated with the idea of a papist is incredible; and the scandalous misrepresentations by their ministers increased the horror every Sunday.”
|Bishop John Carroll|
With freedom came the responsibilities of governing and Catholics had an impact on the constitutional structure of the infant nation.
Two Catholics, Daniel Carroll (cousin of Charles) and Thomas FitzSimons of Pennsylvania, were among the framers of the Constitution who promoted the belief that power was derived from God and the people. And John Adams famously agreed. “Our Constitution,” he wrote, “was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
Catholics who sided with the revolution as the best way to achieve religious liberty were not disappointed by the Constitutional Convention’s final product. Article Six permitted Catholics to be part of the government: “But no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Finally, the First Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, adopted the phrase found in Catholic Maryland’s 1649 Tolerance Act which guaranteed Catholics equal footing within an impartial governmental structure: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”
Knowing that Catholics would now have the opportunity freely and publicly to profess their faith, Charles Carroll happily admitted: “To obtain religiously as well as civil liberty I entered zealously into the Revolution . . .”
The leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church wrote a letter of congratulations to George Washington upon his election as America’s first president: “Whilst our country preserves her freedom and independence, we shall have a well-founded title to claim from her justice equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood spilt under your eyes.”
In his reply, Washington described his belief in equality for all and closed with this hope: “And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; nor the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic religion is professed.”
A good beginning and, in these troubled times for Catholicism in America, a precedent that deserves to be remembered.
Happy Independence Day!