Religion & the Founding: Curran's "Papist Devils''

As we have seen in the past three days, religion, and specifically anti-Catholicism, were in the air the colonial Americans breathed and played a significant role in shaping the ideology that led to the American Revolution. Ours was a Revolution driven by ideas. But, those ideas maintained their currency largely because events conspired to keep the fires of anti-Catholic bigotry hot. Today, I will look at an important new book by Robert Emmett Curran, Papist Devils, Catholic in British America, 1574-1783.

Curran achieves a great deal in this book. For myself, I have never before encountered any historical treatment of the colonial Catholic populations in the British colonies in the West Indies and had no idea that so many Irish Catholics had emigrated there. That history does not concern me with this week’s theme, but it is interesting and worth reading.

Curran also demonstrates that even in an era when ideas mattered, those ideas were never advanced in a pristine state, the interests of those involved continually impinged upon events, even within the Catholic community. Curran relates the story of Bishop Richard Smith, who tried to erect a diocesan structure in the mother country, only to be opposed by the more independent-minded Jesuits and gentry who chafed at the thought of episcopal control. Rome sided with the Jesuits and Smith “was forced to flee to the Continent to avoid a government prosecution instigated by certain Catholic laymen.” So, not all the woes faced by the Church came from Protestant hostility!    

This interplay of interests and ideals was nowhere more evident than in the founding of the Catholic colony of Maryland. “The Calverts wanted a settlement, first of all, that would be profitable,” Curran writes. Maryland represented a very expensive investment from which father and son expected a lucrative return. But if the quest for profit was primary, the Calverts’ concern to construct a society where Catholics could participate fully was genuine enough.” The proprietors wished to create what they knew in Britain, a “manorial system [that] would indeed be the structure to ensure that Catholics would be both free and at peace with their neighbors.” This system presumed, however, that “religion remain private,” so the Protestantization of Catholic attitudes about the role of religion in society, albeit forced on them by the hostility of the ambient culture, began at the beginning.

Efforts to “enforce toleration” – the phrase itself suggests a paradox – were not lacking. Curran relates that in 1638, four years after landing, provincial officials in Maryland fined a Catholic overseer at the Jesuit plantation of St. Inigoes five hundred pounds of tobacco because he refused to permit his Protestant workers to read Protestant books and he had spoken ill of Protestant ministers, calling them “instruments of the devil.” In 1642, authorities ordered a Catholic gentleman to make his chapel available to Protestants for services. The Jesuits, to whom the Calverts turned to provide for the spiritual care of the Catholic community, were treated the same as other gentlemen: They would receive land grants in proportion to the number of settlers they brought with them, a provision the Jesuits reluctantly accepted. The arrangement immediately caused trouble not least because English law provided for mortmain, which banned religious societies from owning property. The proprietor refused requests from the clergy to enjoy the traditional exemptions that canon law provided them. The famous 1649 Act of Toleration was promulgated ensuring all Christians, including Catholics, a certain freedom of religion. All to no avail. The Catholic leadership of Maryland  was overthrown by the more numerous Protestant colonists. In the wake of the Glorious Revolution, penal laws were enacted and enforced with varying degrees of severity throughout the rest of the colonial era. The same held true in New York where the Catholic leaders were deposed shortly after the Glorious Revolution and forced into hiding in some cases. In Pennsylvania, where all Christians were tolerated by law, except “papists,” the actual Catholic community enjoyed more freedom than their co-religionists in Maryland or New York, despite the technical, legal prohibitions on their activities. Events in the mother country, such as the Titus Oates affair, always provoked a colonial reverberation, keeping the embers of anti-Catholicism going. Anti-Catholicism, according to Curran, “proved to be among the hardiest cultural dispositions to be transplanted from Great Britain to America. A principal reason for its survival in the New World may well have been the integral element it had become for English identity, even for those in the diaspora. To be English was to be anti-Catholic, since Roman Catholicism stood in stark contrast to everything that being English connoted.

Curran highlights the fact that celebration of Guy Fawkes Day became more elaborate in the early decades of the eighteenth century. The celebrations were especially raucous in New England which probably had the fewest number of Catholics than the other colonies. This phenomenon proves that bigotry does not require the presence of those hated to remain virulent. Anti-Semitism remains present in Poland, even though there are almost no Jews left in that country. Bigotry does not require a real threat to be potent. Throughout colonial Maryland’s history, however, the effort to keep political power in Protestant hands was quick to point out that Catholics were a perennial threat not least because of the fear that they could call on the aid of the French and Indians in the north and west to aid them. The seemingly perpetual worry about such plots never produced an ounce of evidence that they were true, but no matter.

Throughout the eighteenth century, events and ideas worked together to keep anti-Catholic attitudes strong. Curran has an especially good sub-chapter entitled “War and Paranoia” that examines how the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) “produced the high-water mark in the anti-Catholic crusade that was so thick a part of colonial culture.” A letter to the Maryland Gazette in 1754 fretted about Catholicism’s growth in the province, arguing that the colonial government had been insufficiently rigorous in seeking to control the Catholic population, which in turn threatened the whole society. Catholics “by the very Principles of that Religion…can never be faithful Subjects,” the writer claimed. When war broke out, one recruiting song included a stanza “No Popery nor Slavery, No Arbitrary Power for Me.” In addition to the war frenzy, the dispersal of the Acadians, some of whom were brought to Maryland, also stoked the anti-Catholic prejudices of the culture. Finally, as Curran relates, the apocalyptic language of the Great Awakening fed the anti-Catholic fevers: Protestants had long equated the Pope with the Anti-Christ. “Through the apocalyptic filter by which the Great Awakening had conditioned evangelical Americans to frame their understanding of events, the Seven Years’ War had been a providential deliverance from a tyrannical Catholic power,” Curran writes.

Some of the anti-Catholic fires, at least in Maryland, were also driven by a family squabble within the Carroll family. Upon his death in 1729, James Carroll had left a bequest to two Irish nephews. One of the executors of the will, Dr. Charles Carroll, had become an Anglican and he stalled on delivering the money to the nephews who had become Jesuit priests. Penal laws forbid inheritances to Catholic clergy. Charles Carroll of Annapolis, the other co-executor of the will, urged his cousin to give the money to the nephews as the bequest had made plain the deceased intended. Dr. Carroll got the provincial legislature to pass a resolution in his favor, prompting Charles Carroll of Annapolis, one of the wealthiest men in the colony, to post a petition on the state house door. He was placed under house arrest. In the subsequent debate, no one could improve much on the status quo: Catholics could maintain their livelihoods, they remained barred from public office, and the provincial government would not seek to enforce the penal laws to the full.

The onset of the imperial crisis provided Catholics with an opening to re-enter political life, an opening they quickly took. The efforts to create provincial and, subsequently, continental, congresses to defend the rights of Americans, these efforts were often ad hoc and always “paralegal”, although many of the procedures and habits persisted from the one to the other. So, in 1775, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was not permitted to be an official delegate to the First Continental Congress, but the Maryland patriots asked him to attend “in a private capacity.” By the end of the year, the official debarrment was lifted, Carroll was elected first to the provincial congress and then to the Continental. “By 1777, as Beatriz Hardy has found, more than 40 percent of the Maryland Catholic gentry who had come of age between 1750 and 1775 were serving in government,” Curran relates.

Curran notes that this growing tolerance persisted alongside a residual anti-Catholicism and he focuses on colonial opposition to the Quebec Act. When I was a boy, learning about the Revolution, walking the Freedom Trail in Boston, I do not recall ever hearing about the Quebec Act. I learned about the other “Intolerable Acts” that served as punishment for the Boston Tea Party– the closing of the Port of Boston, for example, or the Quartering Act and the suspension of the Massachusetts legislature. But, in 1774, the Quebec Act provoked as much outrage as the other stipulations. This act granted toleration to the Catholic population of Quebec and extended the frontiers of Canada. Those who had already believed the British government was conspiring to deprive the colonists of their civil and religious liberties now had their worst fears confirmed. Why give greater liberty to Catholics unless you conspired against the rights of Protestant Britons? Everyone knew that Catholics were inimical to freedom and Britons “never would be slaves.” As Curran notes, Thomas Paine, in his influential pamphlet Common Sense, defined monarchy as “the Popery of government.”   Curran recognized the ambiguity of the situation for Catholics, that the new revolutionary ferment was already opening doors to political participation previously barred to Catholics, even while some of the most vocal champions of the revolution were also the most virulently anti-Catholic colonists. But, before we see the American Revolution as a triumph of enlightened tolerance, everyone would do well to read the Address to the People of Great Britain, drafted by John Jay, and issued by the First Continental Congress, in which Address Catholicism is called “a religion fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets” that had “deluged your Island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion, through every part of the world.”

The course of the Revolution diminished the most virulent strains of anti-Catholic political propaganda. The alliance with the long-hated French certainly required the patriots to recalibrate some of the most deeply held, and long-held, convictions of their paranoid, political propaganda. Fr. John Carroll, later the first bishop in the U.S., would join Benjamin Franklin and others on a mission to Canada to enlist the colonists there in the Revolution. The mission failed but Franklin came away with a deep respect for the former Jesuit and future bishop. Catholics would join with Baptists and others in pushing for disestablishment during and after the Revolution. While it would be a mistake to consider men like Charles Carroll a man of the Enlightenment, he was, like most wealthy Americans, fully conversant in the emerging, imprecise, non-dogmatic view of religion as primarily of political and social utility, appropriately privatized, concerned with morals and not with orthodoxy. In short, at the very start of the Republic, a Protestantized notion of religion’s relationship to the culture was accepted even by Catholics.

Curran’s book is a great read although it could have used an editor. Dates are off by a century at times, we are told that 4,000 slaves were imported annually by the first decade of the 1700s but then, in the same paragraph, that in 1720, there were 8,000 slaves in total in Maryland, a discrepancy that is not explained.  Information about the relative landholdings of the Carrolls and Bennetts display a similar confusion. But, this book brings to life the many and varied impulses that beset those Catholics who settled in the British colonies while they were still colonies and begins to sketch what catapulted many of them into joining the ranks of those seeking to throw off the imperial yoke.  




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