Anti-Catholicism in the United States was fairly widespread in the 1800s. The small Catholic population numbered just around 40,000 in 1790, about one percent of the nation (O’Toole’s The Faithful, P. 43). The Catholic population grew gradually through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, gaining speed as more and more European immigrants from Catholic nations arrived. The largely Protestant United States struggled to balance the national ideal of freedom of religion with the widely held fear of Catholicism. Many prominent Protestant leaders and observers felt that the nation’s own commitment to religious liberty could be used against it by the forces of the Pope.
This generalization is largely true. Large numbers of Americans did hold on to anti-Catholic attitudes through the 19th century and well into the 20th. Anti-Catholicism could erupt into specific incidents of terror, as it did in Philadelphia in 1844. Fear of Catholic domination by Irish-American politicians who would take orders from Rome can be found throughout the nineteenth century and up to the 1960s. It would not be an overgeneralization to say that much of the US harbored some anti-Catholic feeling.
Looking through newspaper archives, it doesn’t take long to find evidence of this. The Charleston based religious paper The Southern Evangelical Intelligencer spoke of the state of Christianity worldwide in 1819 and bemoaned the power of the Catholic Church in Europe and elsewhere. Moreover, the paper wrote that while the United States had discovered the ‘true religion’, it still suffered “under the influence of the degenerate system of Popery” in much of the country. Similar sentiments were promoted nationwide in the decades before the Civil War.
In a similar vein came the hatred and fear of the Society of Jesus. Jesuits were often singled out from the rest of the Catholic Church due to suspicions of political scheming and plotting. A Georgetown based paper (perhaps annoyed with the growing influence of the college) wrote an expositional piece in 1818 on Aqua Tofana, or what the paper deemed the “Jesuit Poison”. The National Messenger claimed that the Jesuits were well-known users of this poison, which apparently had power far beyond standard toxins. The paper stated that once the victim had breathed his last, the “limbs detach themselves and fall off” in what would surely have been an interesting sight. The National Messenger also claimed that the Jesuits had used this poison in order to assassinate the man who had tried to crush their order: Pope Clement XIV, who did in fact carry out the official Church suppression of the Jesuits in his 1773 encyclical Dominus ac Redemptor, though there is not much evidence (read: none) to suggest he was murdered by vengeful Jesuits.
Yet we should not give in to any desire to call the whole US anti-Catholic all the time. While there were those who were dead-set in their ways and would never trust or accept Catholics, many Americans were willing to put aside their religious differences to live peacefully. For most Americans, religious differences could be debated and the fundamental aspects of one’s faith could be questioned, but as long as each person served his nation and his community, they were Americans worthy of citizenship. To this end, I would point out the obituaries of two prominent American Catholics: Charles Carroll and John Carroll, cousins from Maryland and two of the most important early US Catholics. Charles Carroll was a wealthy Maryland plantation owner, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. He would be the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and would serve as Maryland’s first US Senator. Carroll was the last-surviving signer of the Declaration when he died in 1832. His obituary in the Hartford based The Connecticut Courant called him a “venerable and distinguished man” and noted how Baltimore’s flags flew at half-mast in his honor. The paper states that the City Council passed a resolution asking then President of the United States Andrew Jackson to pay his respects for Carroll. Nowhere is there any negative mention of Carroll’s Catholicism. If anything, the obituary notes that a look at the Carroll family provides insight on the positive influence of Catholics in Maryland. It remarks that looking at the family provides an interesting look at the Catholics in “the province which they [the Catholics] colonized, and where they gave the first example of toleration and religious equality”.
Charles’s cousin John was of a different profession but had just as strong a character as his patriot relative. John Carroll was the first bishop and then archbishop in the United States, serving in Baltimore. The Jesuit priest was also the founder of Georgetown University. John Carroll died in December 1815, and his loss was mourned by the people of Baltimore. The Baltimore Patriot wrote “when such a man as Arch-Bishop Carroll dies, a man who filled so large a space in the public eye, and leaves so great a void in the community, something more than a mere notice of the event is justly expected”. The paper gave a biography of Carroll and wondered if the Church in Baltimore and America could deal with the “irreparable” loss of the bishop. The same story rings true in many papers that wrote of John Carroll’s passing in late 1815; few had anything to offer other than praise. Those that may not have cared for the Catholic bishop offered no criticism.
The Carrolls exemplify two outstanding American citizens, both of whom were instrumental in their own right. Charles’s role as a founding father for the nation will never be forgotten as his name is forever displayed at the National Archives on the instrument of our nation’s independence. John’s service to the Baltimore community and wider American Catholic community laid the foundation for the Church in the United States – his part in founding Georgetown gave rise to what is now the oldest -atholic university in the US. Both men were influential servants of their nation and community – both were proud Americans. By looking at their obituaries, it should be noted how the focus remains on the actions of these men. Granted, obituaries can differ and the public legacy of the Carrolls for their contemporaries may have been much different than these two newspaper accounts. Nonetheless, if what is presented can be taken at face value, we should see that for many Americans in the early 19th century, religious difference was important. However, it could be subsumed beneath patriotism and nationality in specific cases. The Carrolls serve as early examples of how nationality and a sense of common Americanism could overcome religious divides and unite the American people. The religious divides of the 19th century would be overcome partly through the devotion of Catholics and Protestants to their nation before themselves and religion. Though many papers at the time were filled with rants about the tyrannical power of the Catholic Church, specific American Catholics were able to break through this divide and find common ground with their fellow Americans not in the pews, but in the flag.
Sources (found through Readex Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922):
“Foreign Intelligence from the Spirit of British Missions”. The Southern Evangelical Intelligencer, April 10, 1819. Page 17. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 10F3225391FB5138.
“The Jesuit Poison”. National Messenger, June 5, 1818. Page 2. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 10821D9738025160.
“Death of Charles Carroll”. The Connecticut Courant, November 20, 1832. Page 3. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 1086889341517A88.
“Death Notice: John Carroll”. Baltimore Patriot & Evening Advertiser, December 4, 1815. Page 2. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 10823AB56EC42330.