Unlike the French or Polish patriot, we Americans have to deal with certain embarrassing facts about 1776 and the Founding Fathers.
Whenever he hears someone wax vitriolic about George III’s ostensible tyranny, for instance, an American Catholic is obliged by justice to remember said king’s Quebec Act, wherein “it is hereby declared: That his Majesty’s Subjects, professing the Religion of the Church of Rome of and in the said Province of Quebec, may have, hold, and enjoy, the free Exercise of the Religion of the Church of Rome.”
As Tory pamphleteer John Lind noted when retorting to complaints about the Quebec Act contained in the Declaration of Independence,
this Act was passed re-granting to the Canadians the free exercise, unchecked by any civil disqualifications, of the religion in which they had been educated; re-establishing the civil laws, by which, prior to their conquest, their persons and their properties had been protected and ordered. Do the Canadians complain of this alteration? No. It was made in consequence of their petition.
Lind’s sarcastic coup de gras made clear that he regarded colonial leaders not as honest plaintiffs but as deranged, hypocritical radicals with no respect for authority: “To disobey the mandates of New England, and to listen to the humble petitions of Canada, are equally crimes in his Majesty.”
The point in acknowledging that Lind and his fellow Tories had a case is neither to denounce the colonists as uniformly anti-Catholic nor to quixotically call for monarchy today, any more than acknowledging some merit to the notion of states’ rights is to revile General Grant or call for a revival of the plantation.
After all, opposite the Quebec Act we can surely set George Washington’s address to American Catholics, wherein he assured them that their fellow-citizens would never forget “the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government.”
Washington knew well the contributions to the independence movement made by Catholic figures such as the wealthy and powerful statesman Charles Carroll of Maryland. In a magnanimous, Francophile tone which contrasts strikingly with that of the typical “conservative” talk-radio host, the first president also recognized “the important assistance which [Americans] received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”
To exaggerate tensions between the Faith and the Founding is therefore just as mischievous an oversimplification as it is to gloss over said tensions.
Instead we should strive for nuance, and hesitate before playing self-righteous hanging judge over the past. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that too many pretend that the enormous constellation of cultures and communities we call America can simply be boiled down to select egalitarian passages of the Declaration of Independence. Yet this would be to declare ourselves a unitary ideological state – i.e., a “people’s republic” – rather than an authentic country with a multifaceted, extensive heritage like, say, China.
Likewise, to either deify or debunk the Founders is to adopt the manners of a political commissar, and a total fixation upon 1776 as the beginning for America glosses over other important dates. Whatever happened to 1492? Leo XIII might want to know. The real American patriot’s outlook on the Founding Fathers is to regard them not as demigods, but rather as ancestors in a complicated, very extended family. This means we can celebrate the Founders’ lives and express gratitude for what remains of the patrimony they bequeathed us, even as we admit that they were quite human.
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