Catholicism and the American Founding

Natural Law, common law, Natural Rights, and localism—all so dear to the Founding—existed in 1776, simply put, because of the Catholic Church.

Portrait of Charles Carroll by Michael Laty (d. 1848); right: A map of the 13 colonies as they were in 1775. (Images: Wikipedia)

The “fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people on the earth. . . . Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out of impaired . . . . The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”— Edmund Burke, 1775

When the first pilgrims—a small and radical separating sect of English congregationalists—landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they declared themselves a Christian commonwealth. In just one paragraph known now as the Mayflower Compact (but, originally, as the “Plymouth Combination”), these hyper-Calvinist settlers asserted that they could rule themselves, absent any immediate temporal or spiritual bureaucracy. Whatever their socio-economic makeup, the pilgrims were an astounding people. They barely survived the first year in New England, only to find themselves quickly swallowed up by roughly 30,000-40,000 mainstream Puritans, the non-separating and less radical kind. Still, they matter. Greatly.

It’s very difficult to imagine any people taking such a step with such confidence and such fortitude, time and the world over. Granted, most peoples are imperial—that is, they always want to move and lay claim—but they usually do so in the land adjacent to them, not in a world 3,500 miles and an ocean away from their homeland. Yet these pilgrims were the first of those we readily recognize as what would become the “American”.

It is even more difficult to imagine an equally-sized group of Catholic families doing the same thing in 1620, anywhere in the world. A band of priests, brothers, and sisters, certainly. But, lay families? Lay Catholics absent any king or bishop? In, say, 1215 or 1275, sure. But probably not in 1620. That spirit seemed to have passed on to the Protestants of that day.

What, then, made these Protestant pilgrims of 1620 so confident? Two things. First, they had utter confidence in the wisdom of the Holy Bible to govern their most intimate affairs and most of their public ones. Second, those things not covered in Scripture, though, could still be answered, as they came from a source almost equally divine, at least in their minds of the pilgrims—the common law.

Without question, these pilgrims set the pattern for migration to the Americans from the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic world. Three major ethno-religious groups followed the Pilgrims and Puritans: the Anglicans who settled the Chesapeake; the Quakers who settled Pennsylvania and surrounding areas; and the Scotch-Irish who settled the backcountry mountains throughout the thirteen colonies. Thus, five immigrant groups made up the vast majority of the American population, not just in 1774, on the eve of revolution, but as late as 1846. Four had come freely from the British Isles and the fifth, the Africans, had come as prisoners of war, unwillingly.

Where were the Catholics in the settlement of the thirteen colonies? Aside from living in an over-the-top exaggerated horror in the paranoid fears of American Protestants, almost nowhere. Certainly, there had been some settlement in Maryland (but Catholics were illegal there by 1689 and would remain so until 1774), and the Jesuits and Franciscans were quite active on the frontier. But, as to any sizable population? That would have to wait until the Irish and the Germans came in the late 1840s.

Anti-Catholic bigotry

Every second year at Hillsdale, I have the great privilege of teaching the upper-level survey course titled “Founding of the American Republic”. As much as a devout [r]epublican and patriot that I am, I hate to admit to my students—who inevitably ask about the role of Catholicism in the founding—that Catholics played almost no role in the founding, except as phantoms and shades in the haunted, Reformation-minded Protestants who actually did settle the thirteen colonies.

On September 5, 1774, the town of Suffolk, Massachusetts passed its famous resolves, soon to be adopted by the very first Congress to meet, the Continental Congress, only a month later:

That the late act of Parliament for establishing the Roman Catholic Religion and the French Laws in that extensive country now called Canada, is dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion and to the civil rights and liberties of all Americans; and, therefore, as men and Protestant Christians, we are indispensably obliged to take all proper measures for our security.

The ”late act” was the passage of a bill for the removal on religious and liturgical restrictions of French Roman Catholics living in Quebec. With the passage of the Quebec Act, they could practice their Catholicism without political hinderance. Parliament saw this act, rightfully, as a liberal act, having next to nothing to do with the affairs of the Protestants to the south. Americans in the thirteen colonies not only saw it as a direct attack on their faith, but it was this act that moved the Americans to form and attend the First Continental Congress in the first place!

John Sullivan, who would play one of the most important roles in the Continental Army, feared that the Quebec Act “Most dangerous to American Liberties among the whole train.” Should the Catholics gain power, he lamented “no God may as well exist in the universe.”

Not surprisingly, given the terrible (if ridiculous) reputation that Catholics had among Protestants as being the evil purveyors of darkness, oppression, and superstition, the very first act of the Continental Congress was to pass a condemnation of liberalization of restrictions on Roman Catholics. With the almost unanimous backing of the New England colonies, the condemnation found widespread support, especially from John Jay and Alexander Hamilton of New York, and Richard Lee of Virginia.

Passed on October 21, 1774, the resolution claimed that the Quebec Act was to designed to put “in the hands of power, to reduce the ancient, free Protestant colonies to . . . slavery. . . Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island with blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”

It must be noted that the First Continental Congress was not some fly-by-night revolutionary committee of radicals. It was, instead, the very first meeting of the U.S. Congress, still, institutionally, of course, in existence through this day.

Even two years after the passage of the resolution, Protestant ministers in the American colonies still complained about the Quebec Act. In his sermon entitled “The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness”: Reverend Samuel Sherwood claimed:

And not only the earth, but the God that made it, nourisheth the woman in the wilderness, amidst the most violent and cruel attempts of a tyrannical and persecuting power, and has raised up persons of a martial, heroic spirit, and endowed them with skill, courage and fortitude, to defend and protest his church. The flood of the dragon that has been poured forth to the northward, in the Quebec bill, for the establishment of popery, and other engines and instruments that have been set to work, to bring the savages down upon to, to our utter destruction

Catholics in Quebec, it seems, were to be found in the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse thus begun.

“We were all ready to swear that King George by granting the Quebec Bill…had thereby become a traitor, had broken his coronation oath, was secretly a Papist, and whose design was to oblige this country to submit itself to the unconstitutional power of the English Monarch, and under him, and by his authority, be given up and destroyed, soul and body, by that frightful image of 7 heads and 10 horns,” Continental soldier Daniel Barber of Connecticut, remembered. “The real fear of Popery in New England had its influences; it stimulated many timorous people to send their sons to join the military ranks. . . The Common word was then ‘No King, No Popery.’”

Interestingly enough, such hatred prompted Barber, an Episcopalian minister, to study Catholicism—and he later converted to Catholicism.

Such bouts of anti-Catholicism, it seems, are simply rooted in the American republican tradition, and blatant and violent acts against Roman Catholics can be found, time and again, in the history of the United States. In the 1830s, under the influence of Lyman Beecher, a mob burned down a Boston nunnery. In 1924, a Hoosier KKK rally against the presence of the University of Notre Dame on Indiana soil turned into a massive street fight, as Notre Dame men pummeled the schnikees out of their white hooded enemies. Even as late as the 1960s, many Americans feared that John F. Kennedy would take direction from the Pope. If only!

Republicanism, Libertarianism, and Catholicism

What’s ironic, of course, is that so much of what Americans—especially in the republican and patriotic tradition—have fought for, is deeply Catholic.

First, while Catholics and Protestants will almost certainly never cease to argue about the exact authority and role of Holy Scripture, they can agree that when the world was at its most dangerous, English monks preserved the Bible from invaders and the elements. Whatever its authorship, the Bible remains in the world because of the sacrifices of untold numbers of monks and priests of the Middle Ages.

Second, the common law of the German, Nordic, and Anglo-Saxon peoples is older than Christianity, but it was Catholicism and Catholics that sanctified it—whether by Alfred the Great and his Witan or the nobles and bishops at Runnymede in 1215, forcing the tyrant King John to sign the Magna Carta. Germanic medievals, broadly understood, recognized the common law—everything from a right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers to the right to be innocent until proven guilty—was older than the “memory of man,” thus being rooted in creation herself, revealed for the first time only when necessary.

Third, it was the very principle of subsidiarity as understood by every Catholic from Augustine through Aquinas through Bellarmine—that the American Protestants so cherished, not just in the religious realm but in the political realm as well. When the pilgrims appealed to it in their Mayflower Compact, they were appealing to a tradition that began in the earliest history of the Catholic Church, and was first and best explained by St. Augustine in his City of God.

Of the prominent American founders of the Revolution there were only two practicing Catholics, Charles Carroll of Carrollton and his cousin John “Jacky” Carroll. Though only two in number, they were mighty in influence. John, of course, would become the first archbishop in America, after the Vatican consulted, indirectly, with John’s close friend Benjamin Franklin. The other, Charles Carroll, was responsible not only for the independence of Maryland from Great Britain, but also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the fountainhead behind the structure and purpose of the U.S. Senate as defined by the Constitution.

When Protestants challenged Charles Carroll’s patriotism, claiming he could not be loyal to both the American republic and to Rome, he answered with all honesty, piety, and intelligence—if one understands the essence of the American republic, he understands the essence of Catholicism. All were tied up together in the medieval history of the English people. “Not a single instance can be selected from our history of a law favourable to liberty obtained from government, but by the unanimous, steady, and spirited conduct of the people,” Carroll argued. “The great charter, the several confirmations of it, the petition of right, the bill of rights, were all the happy effects of force and necessity.” The Anglo-Saxon culture and constitution best manifested this spirit of liberty, Carroll believed, but the Norman conquest of 1066 destroyed it. “The liberties which the English under their Saxon kings, were wrested from them by the Norman conqueror; that invader intirely [sic] changed the ancient by introducing a new system of government, new laws, a new language and new manners.”

After all, Carroll must have wondered, especially after his Jesuit education, could one believe it pure coincidence that the Fourth Lateran Council, the Magna Carta, Thomas Aquinas, and Aquinas’s On Kingship, all appeared in the thirteenth century? Nowhere in any prior century could one see such a confluence of republican, libertarian, and Catholic ideas.

Natural Law, common law, Natural Rights, and localism—all so dear to the Founding—existed in 1776, simply put, because of the Catholic Church: its thinkers, its shepherds, and its adherents. Whatever the language used or misused, the “Spirit of ‘76” is the “Spirit of St. Thomas”.

Related at CWR:

“10 Things You Should Know about Catholics and the American Founding” (July 3, 2017) by Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
“10 Things You Should Know About the American Founding” (July 3, 2014) by Dr. Bradley J. Birzer

About Bradley J. Birzer 13 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson. He is Professor of History at Hillsdale College and was the second Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. His most recent book is the acclaimed biography Russell Kirk: A Conservative Life (University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Visit him online at his personal website "Stormfields".


  1. Thanks for the wonderful insight into the founding of America. When I hear anti-American sentiment from Catholics as though being patriotic is a mortal sin, I recall that no human institution can bring about the salvation of the world. Yet, still, a country that participates in the natural governance of humanity by enshrining human rights (God given) and the primacy of the familial rule and subsidiarity is paving a path for Christ to meet His people more steadily and providentially.

  2. This could be the beginning of an excellent book by Dr. Birzer, in addition to his biography of Charles Carroll. It is so important for all Americans to see the intellectual, and perhaps even spiritual, lineage of Thomas Jefferson to Thomas More, Thomas Becket, Thomas Aquinas, and even Thomas the Apostle.
    In all of human history, it is only Jesus who gives us fully the belief that all men are created equal without any exception whosoever. It is only in Jesus that there are no rejects or inferiors or throwaways; each and every one of us is precious and priceless and irreplaceable. This is the essence of the pro-life message.
    Thus it is that Jesus is the original and unique source of our human rights as universal and unalienable. Christmas is the cradle of the highest civilization. Unless our rights are given and guaranteed by Jesus as God who became man, they can be taken away by mere men who vainly seek to become God.
    Much of this is explained wonderfully in Mike Aquilina’s small masterpiece, “Yours is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our World.” I would be sincerely elated to see future editions of this work co-published by Ignatius Press with an introduction by Dr. Birzer.
    It is essential to note that without the Catholic Church, the perception of Jesus himself tends to eventually become distorted and diminished almost beyond recognition. It seems that over time the zealous Puritans of New England were to lessen into Unitarians, and then into atheistic Socialists — so that this region has become perhaps the least Christian in all of America.
    An intriguing book, which I have not yet read, that may help in the understanding of this phenomenon is, “From Witchery to Sanctity: The Religious Vicissitudes of the Hawthornes,” by Otto and Katharine Bird.
    The great author Nathaniel Hawthorne could trace his ancestors to the Salem Witch Trials, a heritage which perhaps haunted him. However, Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose, became a remarkable Catholic nun who founded a religious order dedicated the care of those with incurable cancer.
    It seems to be the tendency of human nature to either be progressing in the direction of the Catholic Church, or to be regressing toward hostile atheism. That’s where we are in America, to the verge of a second civil war.
    May we set about winning the minds of our neighbors — our fellow citizens — with the ultimate goal of winning their hearts. I am hopeful that most of us are still well-meaning.
    Even in doctrinal differences, Christians can unite in the divinity of Jesus — and agree on his basic morals, which affirm the dignity of the human person and safeguard human rights.
    That these moral values are knowable by human reason gives them the potential for approval by all those of good will. However, let’s remember always that it is Jesus who ratifies these norms finally as the true and authentic ways of love; and it is the Catholic Church that perfectly preserves and presents Jesus to all people throughout time and across the earth.

  3. That anti-Catholicism pervaded much of American life and thought in America cannot be doubted and should not be defended, Prof. Birzer, but what you studiously avoid (here and in the classroom, I suspect) is the question of anti-Protestantism in Europe, ardently defended by the Catholic Church and ruthlessly practiced by the Catholic states. Religious liberty was imperfectly realized by Protestants in America (and was as much a matter of necessity as principal), but in the Catholic Church it was resisted and rejected, right into the 20th century. Your reader’s assertion that “It is the Catholic Church that perfectly preserves and presents Jesus to all people throughout time and across the earth,” however insupportable, gets us very close to a problem you seem reluctant to confront. Thank you for an interesting article.

    • Mr. Peters, while the Catholic Church perfectly preserves and presents Jesus to the world, we individual Catholics can be sadly deficient. For that I sincerely apologize, at least on behalf of myself.
      While it is quite possible that we Catholics have made many mistakes regarding religious tolerance, the example of the persecution of Catholics in England beginning under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I illustrates how difficult it was to be tolerant of Protestants when they would use that tolerance to destroy everything around them that was Catholic — even to the point of killing the Catholic faithful.
      Exceptionally poignant are the words of Father Edmund Campion in the moments just before he was executed in Elizabethan England in the usual manner of hanging by the neck while his insides were butchered and boiled before his dying eyes. As I remember it, Campion witnessed that in condemning him for the supposed crime of treason, they were condemning their own fathers and grandfathers, and all of their ancestors for a thousand years of glorious Catholicism that brought the English people from barbarism to the heights of civilization. See also the stories of Thomas More and Margaret Clitherow.
      Even in colonial America, as I understand it, the Catholic settlers of Maryland tried to enact religious liberty; however, when the Protestants gained the majority, they turned around and brutally repressed Catholicism.
      I am glad for corrections and further context, and hope to further my study of this matter much more thoroughly; but for now I am hoping that in this crucial moment of American history — when all traditional Christians (not just bakers) are under dire threat of persecution from radical secular progressives — there will be a great unification of all traditional Christians around the divinity of Jesus; the creed of Nicea; and the basic morality of the Ten Commandments, which are essentially a divine codification of the natural law in defense of the natural family (as presumably practiced by almost all societies throughout history and across the earth).
      Indeed, America could be made into an official Christian state under these guidelines as a way to defend ourselves from the savagery of secularism. In this event, all non-Christians would be not only tolerated, but welcomed, as long as they accepted the public recognition of Christ the King (without the requirement to acknowledge such), and consented to public laws based on the aforementioned natural law of common sense, common decency, and common kindness.
      As is often the case, in my enthusiasm I sincerely ask to be excused for my length by Mr. Peters and anyone else who may read this comment. One of the best book of ecumenism I can recommend is by David Currie, “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic.” As in so many stories of conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism, Mr. Currie does not renounce his religious past but praises it as being largely a preparation for Catholicism. Instead of rejecting his former Protestantism, he sees it as fulfilled in Catholicism. Such converts seem among the most dynamic members of the current Catholic Church as found in America, and are thus truly a blessing to me.

  4. I take it my comments were considered “needlessly combative or inflammatory.” So much for “vigorous debate.”

    • Not at all. Your comments were not a problem at all. But all comments at CWR are moderated, hence the delay.

  5. Ironically the concept of Liberty defined by Catholic Justice A Kennedy and followed as gospel by liberal Am Catholics including Hierarchy that is representative of the notion refused by John Locke a primary source of civil liberties of the Founding Fathers, “In the state of nature, liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth. People are not under the will or lawmaking authority of others but have only the law of nature for their rule. In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth. People are free from the dominion of any will or legal restraint apart from that enacted by their own constituted lawmaking power according to the trust put in it. Thus, freedom is not as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’ Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.” The Catholic Church at the time did not possess a concept of liberty that spoke to individual freedoms within the State evidenced in authority within the Papal States. Therefore I disagree with the author that Catholicism had a major role in either the Constitution of the Declaration. Furthermore it was the imposition by Britain of the Royal Charter that described traditional tenets protecting civil rights known as the Common Law [of England] to countermand the liberty stifling New England theocracies.

  6. Thank you for your reply. If we cannot agree about much else, surely we can lament the tragic history of religious persecutions on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide.

    I find some of the examples in your argument questionable — Edmund Campion and Thomas More, for example. Both were martyrs to their faith, but surely you know Campion was part of a conspiracy (sanctioned by the Pope. incidentally) to murder Elizabeth II, and as for More, he was a merciless persecutor of suspected Protestants during his chancellorship. He sent many people to the scaffold before he went there himself.

    You are quite right that the Calvert family sponsored a liberal policy of religious toleration in Maryland, and for that they are to be praised, but in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, particularly, what was being offered was religious liberty. There is a profound difference between the two, and your Church has been slow to recognize it. Allowing people to worship as they wish was a good thing; giving the church and the state no power over the individual’s right to worship (or not) is something better.

    That is what troubles me regarding your comments about establishing “an official Christian state” (under whose religious authority?) which tolerates those who acknowledge the public acceptance of Christ the King. They have a right not to do that, and it is exactly that right the Constitution guarantees them.

    Again, thank you for your reply.

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