Sunday, January 23, 2011

Anti-Catholicism and American nativism

The favorable situation of Catholics in America began to change after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Jackson represented “the new American.” The last president born in what had been the English colonies, Jackson was in many ways the first president with a true American identity. Jackson had been orphaned during the Revolution. Jackson's brother Hugh died of heat exhaustion fighting the British at the battle of Stono Ferry. The British army was savage in his native Carolina and captured Andrew and his surviving brother,Robert. A British officer struck Jackson, then a boy of fourteen, with his sword for refusing to polish his boots. Jackson bore the scars the rest of his life. Robert died of smallpox contracted while in captivity. His mother died shortly after nursing American soldier victims of cholrea. This left Jackson with a pathological hatred of the English. (Jackson's father had died before Jackson was born.) Given his background in rural poverty and lack of formal education, Jackson was without the intellectual and strong cultural ties to European society that his predecessors had. He was a self-made man who can hardly have been called scrupulous and his ethical/moral code was that of the American frontier. A brilliant general he had fought Native Americans, Spaniards, and most importantly at the Battle of New Orleans, the British.
Jackson made his fortune not in the tidal lands of the east, but in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. Though his background was Scotch Presbyterian, he was not a man of either notable piety or Christian morals, but he lived in the heartland of the Second Great Revival—the evangelical fervor that swept the frontier of the American Republic in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
When Jackson came to the presidency, one of the first things he did --new brooms always sweep clean—was to replace the long-standing civil servants of the federal administration with political appointees of his own choice, men who had supported his rise to power. We take this change –of-administration-change of-personnel for granted, but it was new with Jackson. “To the Victors belong the spoils,” he declared, giving the practice of political patronage the name “The Spoils System.” The men he brought in with him were, for the most part, men like himself from the Frontier and they were, of course, Protestants—chiefly Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—most often with strong ties to the Second Great Revival. These were people who, for the most part, were suspicious of Catholics who with their rites and rituals all in an ancient and largely unintelligible language were definitely not Evangelicals and whom Evangelicals generally did not even consider to be Christians. This made a huge difference in the City of Washington. For several decades now the local population—heavily Catholic—had served the Federal Government and provided the leadership for the City. Catholic institutions—Georgetown College, Visitation Convent School, Gonzaga College—were part of the warp and woof of Washington life. Under the Jackson presidency Washington Catholics lost their ascendency and Catholic institutions too lost the prominence and influence they once had. That was fairly mild though compared to an overt prejudice developing across the Republic towards Catholics. Jackson was the typikon of the New American—American born and American bred with no ties to Europe. After Jefferson with his French cuisine and viniculture and elegant manners and the Madisons with Dolly’s taste for Parisian fashion and furniture, and the Anglophilia of the Adamses, Father and Son—here was the new American who wanted to be only that—American.

Up to this point Catholicism in the new nation had been culturally adapted to American society in the old Recusant tradition, but now waves of new immigrants were coming from Europe—from Ireland, France, and the various German principalities mostly, but also a small number of Italians.
There was a marked shift in the type of Irishman coming to America. Especially after the famine that struck Ireland with failure of the potato crop in 1845-1846, the Irish immigrants were not the Anglo-Irish gentry or Dublin Middle Class of previous migrations, but the poor dirt farmers fleeing starvation. Poor, uneducated, rough-mannered, given to drinking and brawling, many of these immigrants had little knowledge of proper English, Irish being their native tongue. Protestantism represented to them the English landlords whose tenants they had been and who were letting them starve while shipping their crops to England to feed the people there and they were not inclined to positive relations with American Protestants. Their Catholicism was a peasant faith, almost superstitious which made the Protestants, in turn, think of them as a semi-heathen people.
For their part, the Germans, French, and Italians were people fleeing the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. The Italians, like the Irish, were often relatively poor famers and of course, unlike the Irish, they were totally unfamiliar with the English language. Their faith was a colorful Mediterranean faith with a rich piety that was extremely foreign to the old WASP establishment. They knew little of the Bible—so important to the old Protestant Tradition—but much of Mary and Saints, so much of dubious credibility that they too appeared to the American eye more superstitious than Christian.
The French and Germans appeared somewhat better educated and more cultured, but they also brought with them a Catholicism as yet unknown in the American Republic. They expected to have their traditional devotions with processions—most notably the Corpus Christi Procession—in the streets. Statues and candles abounded in their churches. The Rosary was an ubiquitous public devotion—among the Italians and Irish as well—but its Marian connection scandalized their Protestant neighbors. German Catholics—like their Lutheran neighbors at home—had their Bibles and were great hymn singers but they also brought with them a distrust of Protestants with whom back in Germany there had often been conflict.
The Americans were also not sure what kind of citizens these foreigners would make. The Italians, French, and Germans had all come fleeing the revolutions sweeping Europe—including a revolution against the temporal authority of the Pope that had cause Pius IX to flee Rome. Catholics tended to be monarchists and were opposed to the Republican uprisings. Arriving in this country they not only want to practice their religion as it was practiced in their various homelands, but to maintain their native language. They rejected American public schools and organized parochial schools—sometimes against the will of the Bishop—where children would receive the education they would get in the “old country.” Isolating themselves into national enclaves slowed down their Americanization. The Germans in particular resisted being anything other than Germans. One immigrant priest wrote: “A German is a German, and although he has shaken off the dust of his fatherland everywhere a true German longs for a greater Germany. I am one of those who want to remain a German.” This pitted the immigrant population against the American establishment. It even divided the Catholics in the United States as the old Maryland/Kentucky Catholic families were almost as taken aback by European Catholicism and the attitudes of the immigrant Catholics as were their Protestant neighbours. In fact, in this conflict between American Catholicism and Immigrant Catholicism we can see the roots of much of the division in the Church today. More to come.
The image today are Irish refugees from the Potato famine of 1845-49.

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