The majority of Catholics in the thirteen colonies supported the War of Independence in 1776. The object of this essay is to examine why, what, and who. Why did Catholics support the war? What cultural influences played a role in the decision to either support or become a loyalist to England. Who were the major players in the colonies and how did they influence the war? To begin, some basic elements must be established.
The role of Catholics in America is a significant and inseparable part of the fabric of the United States. The Catholic Church is responsible for the founding of hundreds of universities and schools across the country, not to mention hospitals and other institutions which play an essential role in civic life. Given the rich contribution by Catholics in the U.S., one might ask what role Catholics took in the founding and War for Independence, which made autonomy from England possible. Despite the rich history of contribution by Catholics in the U.S, Catholics have an equally rich, although regrettable history of being persecuted by some of the same men that are held up as pillars of the American way of life.
Catholics in colonial America faced severe persecution and intolerance. Given the tensions within the colonies between protestants and Catholics, one could see how there might be some skepticism among Catholics toward any movement that purports to be united under an ideal of achieving true freedom. With regard to Catholic sentiment and the notion of revolution, Monsignor Guilday remarked, “American Catholics in 1776 had little to choose in either side of the quarrel.” Some of the most prominent leaders of the revolt against England were also the most vehemently anti-Catholic.
Men such as Sam Adams went so far as to say that Catholics and their “popery”, represented a greater threat to independence than the Stamp Act. In a way that mirrors the disposition of a disgruntled and self-important person posting on social media, Adams would write multiple “letters to the editor” in the Boston Gazette to decry the tragedies of popery. It was this level of tolerance, or lack thereof, that permeated the colonies. Even before men such as Adams, it became a necessity for survival that where Catholics and Protestants dwelt in common, legislative lines of “tolerance” had to be drawn so as to maintain an orderly way of life.
The attempt at legislative equilibrium was the goal of the Maryland Toleration Act, which forbade any person from harassing an individual who professed a belief in Jesus Christ. The Toleration Act would see itself repealed before finally being reenacted in 1660. The reenactment of the Toleration Act did little to prevent the prevailing winds of discrimination to continue to take hold and later penal laws were instituted with the overthrow of King James II in 1688. An even closer look at some of the individuals and the timeline of events, will paint a picture of the Catholic psyche during the late 16th century.
As has been noted, Sam Adams was one of the staunchest anti-Catholic voices in colonial life. Adams was not alone, as there were many others of whom Adams was all too ready to applaud. To put into perspective the nature of this religious intolerance and its proximity to the War for Independence, attention must be paid to Jonathan Mayhew of Boston. In 1765, Mayhew gave a lecture to Harvard students in which he systematically tore down every part of the Catholic Church with extreme prejudice and vehemence, at one point comparing the Catholic Church to a “prostitute”. Far from being accused of bigotry, Mayhew was noted by Adams as being one of the best scholars New England had to offer and he was simply the product of a great tradition.
Remarking on Catholic life in the colonies, Jesuit Charles Metzger states:
“…they lived in an atmosphere charged with suspicion, fear, and hatred; their rights were abridged, they were penalized and excluded from the full right of citizenship; everywhere they were harried by reproach and misrepresentations.”
It was this sort of systematic prejudice that Catholics were faced with as the backdrop for the fight against England. This climate of intolerance makes all the more intriguing, the support of revolution on the part of Catholics
One of the most important men in the colonies was also a Catholic. Charles Carroll would go on to be a signer of the Declaration of Independence and represented one of the major Catholic voices in pre and post-revolutionary America. It was the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to Congress in 1776 that became one of the major rallying points for Catholics and their support of the war. Having a prominent Catholic leader such as Carroll as one of the major players gave Catholics a voice and thus a reason to fight alongside those who seemingly hated them and their way of life.
Charles Carroll’s distant cousin, John Carroll, who later became the first Bishop in America, was also a supporter of the revolution and journeyed with Charles Carroll to elicit the support of the Canadians, a mission made more difficult because of the tyrannical anti-Catholic devotees in the colonies and the newly won toleration by Catholics in Quebec. Although the mission failed, it was the first taste of diplomacy for Catholics, whose voice now became of importance. Indeed, it would be Catholic influences that would possibly decide the fate of independence.
The anti-Catholic sentiments and belligerent hatred by men such as Adams and many others, would prove to be a political miscalculation. Unfortunately for men like Adams and those that disdained Catholics, the colonies found themselves in a position of great need of allies if a successful war was to take place. The very people who were thought to represent the destruction of Christendom, became the allies needed to win the war. The involvement of prominent Catholic countries such as France and Spain became not only the tipping point for a successful rebellion for the colonies, but one of the major factors that influenced Catholics to support the War of Independence, period.
The majority of Catholics in the colonies supported the War of Independence. As has been shown, the reasons for Catholic support was a mix between prominent Catholic leadership such as Charles Carroll, the presentation of the Declaration of Independence, which appealed to Catholics who had been so oppressed to that point, and finally the involvement of France and Spain. From this it can be inferred that Catholics began to enjoy a greater sense of identity and belonging in the colonies, despite those who still sought to oppress them. It was this perfect storm that ultimately led to the Catholic support of the war and the ecumenical dialogue that came as a result. Catholics have played an invaluable role in the United States and continue to do so, despite a rhetoric that is as old as the country itself.