Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The progress of Anti-Catholicism, an ongoing saga

Well, let’s come back to the story of anti-Catholicism in America. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Catholicism did its best in the new American Republic to “fit in.” By tradition American Catholicism was rooted in the recusant Catholicism of the English and Anglo-Irish gentry who settled Maryland and there was very little foreign about it. The churches were plain—the Cathedral in Baltimore didn’t even have any statues. The clergy and religious dressed simply but without distinguishing features. (The Carmelite nuns who came to Southern Maryland from what is today Belgium traveled from Europe to their new Maryland home in lay clothes and under the titles Miss or Missus, depending on their age. Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne and the “Madames” of the Sacred Heart who accompanied her from France, also travelled in secular dress coming to make their foundation in America.) While mass remained in Latin—despite Bishop Carroll and other clergy talking of a vernacular liturgy—baptism, marriage, and funeral rites (other than the mass itself, of course) were translated (without permission of Rome) into the vernacular. There were no public processions in the streets or other displays more common to Continental Catholicism; discretion ruled the day and it seemed very natural to these Marylanders because it was their heritage from England and the Irish Pale.
The waves of immigrants that came in the 1830’s and 1840’s changed that. The Germans, and smaller numbers of French and Italians, brought the more vibrant Catholicism of their homelands. They were used to public processions, religious garb, more elaborate churches and worship, more emotional display of religion. The Germans and Italians were also particularly interested in preserving their language and culture and wanted alternatives to public education where they could educate their children in the language and customs of their homelands. The German and French immigrants were, by and large, more educated than the Italians and the Irish. The Irish (along with the Germans, the biggest group of immigrants) were—unlike the Germans and unlike earlier Irish immigrants—poorly educated, many practically illiterate. They came fleeing hunger during the Great Famine.
The established American citizenry—though descendents of immigrants themselves—looked down on these immigrants and had a grave distrust of how they would adapt themselves to life in the American Republic. They were, well so un-American. They didn’t speak English—except for the Irish who often spoke it poorly and many of whom were in fact native Irish speakers. Their religion was strange, exotic with Latin prayers and songs, and clergy in strange garb. Their priests seem to have too much influence over them—they weren’t independent minded as were Americans. (Get three Congregationalists together and you have four opinions.) And they weren’t republicans. (Not in our terms of Republicans/Democrats, but in believing in the political philosophy of republican government.) Indeed the French and the Germans in particular tended to monarchy as the preferred form of government. The French remembered the travesty of their Revolution which simply replaced one despot with another and did great harm to both the social order and the Church in the process. The Germans too were coming from the network of principalities, kingdoms and duchies that would be united into modern Germany in 1870 and were not used to democratic thought.
In addition to not being experienced in (or possibly convinced of) a republican form of government, the immigrants had little use for Protestantism. To the French and the Italians, Protestants were a pretty much unknown element. (There were some French Protestants but after the Wars of Religion in the 17th century they were a definite minority, most having fled to the Netherlands or England and from these refuges many going on to the English colonies in North America.) The Germans, coming from Catholic principalities along the Rhine or Bavaria understood Protestants to be the “enemy” from the Protestant German States, most notably Prussia and the northern German regions. As for the Irish—well to them “Protestants” were the bastards that had let them starve, taking what few crops survived the famine and shipping them off to England to sell there while forcing the impoverished tenant farmers off their lands and leaving them destitute. No, this was not a happy arrangement to have these “foreigners” sweep onto our shores.
The Irish in particular had great resentment. During the famine not only had their Protestant landlords let them starve but Presbyterian and Anglican “angels of mercy” had opened soup-kitchens to feed the starving and now dispossessed masses. All one had to do was renounce the Catholic faith, join the sponsoring Denomination, and dinner was free. Catholics who “took the soup” found themselves shunned by those who preferred hunger to religious blackmail. Their neighbors and relatives would drop the “O’” or the “Mc” in front of the apostate’s name as a sign of their contempt. So if your name is Connell, or Sweeney, or Loughlin—or some other name that might normally begin with an Irish prefix—one of your ancestors may well have “taken the soup.”
On the other hand, the contempt was not one–sided. The Irish immigrants found a particularly bitter resentment on the part of the old Yankees. The East-Coast American Establishment were strong Anglophiles for whom everything British was to be admired and copied. They shared the English bias against the Irish that was as racist as any prejudice against people of color. “No Irish,” and “Irish need not apply” signs appeared at factory gates and tenement doors.
As I had mentioned in an earlier blog, in the first years of the Republic, Catholics had tended to favor the Federalist cause rather than Jefferson’s Republicans (who are today’s Democrats, or at least the forebearers of the modern Democrat Party). But as the Federalist party faded from the scene, a new party rose up called the Whigs. The Whigs saw a huge threat in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a military man, a famous general, and he had no patience for the slow deliberations of politics. The presidency changed drastically under Jackson, growing stronger in power at the cost of Congress’ prerogatives, Jackson didn’t pull a coup-d’état or anything like that. It was all done through his allies in the Congress; and he was an immensely popular president who had the electorate behind him, especially the lower classes and the frontiersmen on the western edge of the young country.
Whigs were not only concerned about Jackson’s threat to the Republic, they were concerned about this wave of immigrants and how they would fit into the American Republic. The Whigs were not anti-immigrant per se; it was more what they were for rather than what they were against. The Whigs believed in a universal public school system. There was an advantage to this as until this point public schools were sporadically placed leaving many children, especially in the South and in rural areas without an opportunity for education. The problem is that the Whigs wanted there to be no more than one system of education which would teach English only and would stress Protestant religion with daily bible reading and other practices to which Catholics objected. (One reason they objected, of course, is that the Bible to be read was the King James "Protestant Bible.") The Catholics, though traditionally opponents of Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans, now felt them less a threat than the Whigs. As Catholics began to shift towards the Democratic-Republicans, the Whig’s fear of these immigrants with their foreign religion only increased.
The Whigs had moderate luck in obtaining elected office for their candidates. They lost presidential elections in 1836, 1844, 1852, 1856, and 1860—by which time they faded out of existence This means that in 1840 and 1848 their candidates were elected. A major reason for their lack of success was that the Catholic and immigrant population—a swelling percentage of the population as a whole, was joining what is now called the Democratic party. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
One of the first signs of anti-Catholicism was the Charlestown Convent Burning of 1834. We will do a blog on this event to give a fuller detail. Suffice it to say that the Ursuline nuns from French Canada had established a convent and school in the Boston suburb of Charlestown. The short version of the story is that one of the nuns had run away and sought refuge in the home of a friend. The next morning the local gentleman, a Mr. Cutter, who had taken her there inquired about her welfare, only to be told that she had returned to the convent in the company of her Mother Superior and the Bishop. This fueled rumors that women were being held against their will in the convent. An inquiry was held by the local selectmen who visited the convent and inspected it and assured the populace that the sisters were there voluntarily. However a large mob gathered outside the convent on the night of August 11, 1834 and set fire to barrels of tar on the grounds. The fire spread. The local fire brigade arrived on the scene but did not do anything to put the fire out. The placards and speeches provide a direct link between the mob and the rising Catholic population, mostly Irish laborers, in Boston. In the subsequent trial twelve of the thirteen ringleaders were acquitted, despite some of them admitting to the crime. The one found guilty was a sixteen-year old boy who was pardoned by the governor at the request of, among others, the Superior of the Ursulines and the Bishop. More on this in a future blog—and in our next blog on anti-Catholicism we look at the “Know-Nothing” party
today's image is a 19th century print of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown MA, site of famous 1834 Convent Burning.

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