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.
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 county 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
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the CWR site on July 3, 2018. It had identified Suffolk as a town in Massachusetts; it is actually a county.)
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