Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: "Papist Devils"

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.
--George Washington to prominent Catholics who congratulated him
on his election as the first President of the United States, March 15, 1790

Robert Emmett Curran may cover some of the same ground at Papist Patriots in his telling of the history of Catholics in Maryland, but by examining the Catholic populations of the British West Indies and other colonies like New York and Pennsylvania he broadens the range of this study:

This is a brief [320 pages] highly readable history of the Catholic experience in British America, which shaped the development of the colonies and the nascent republic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Historian Robert Emmett Curran begins his account with the English reformation, which helps us to understand the Catholic exodus from England, Ireland, and Scotland that took place over the nearly two centuries that constitute the colonial period. The deeply rooted English understanding of Catholics as enemies of the political and religious values at the heart of British tradition, ironically acted as a catalyst for the emergence of a Catholic republican movement that was a critical factor in the decision of a strong majority of American Catholics in 1775 to support the cause for independence.

Papist Devils utilizes archival material, newspapers, and other contemporary records in addition to a broad array of general histories, monographs, and dissertations dealing with the British Atlantic world.The unprecedentedly broad scope of this study, which encompasses not only the thirteen colonies that took up arms against Britain in 1775, but also those in the maritime provinces of Canada as well as the ones in the West Indies, constitutes a unique coverage of the British Catholic colonial experience, as does the extension of the colonial period through the American Revolution, which was its logical dénouement.

He clearly demonstrates the long reach of the English Reformation and its penal laws against Catholics, Catholic priests, and the Catholic Mass. There was a constant tension between Catholics and Anglicans and other Protestants even in those colonies founded expressly to allow religious liberty, Maryland and New York. I think we forget what "York" represents in that name: James, the Duke of York, Charles II's Catholic convert brother and heir. The long recusant period had inspired a longing for religious freedom in Catholics and a continued suspicion and hatred of Catholics in Anglicans and Protestant dissenters from the Church of England. Catholics in British America inherited the legacy of English fear of them as disloyal, dangerous, and conspiratorial--and as enemies of freedom! Hatred and fear lead to paranoia and bigotry of course, and the Catholics of Maryland and New York soon found themselves disenfranchised and penalized for their faith.

When the British Parliament recognized the freedom of Catholics in French Canada to practice their faith (the Quebec Act), British Americans regarded this as an act of tyranny. But it was through French Canada that British Americans began to change their minds a little about Catholics--because they needed Catholics to reach out to Quebec to join the revolution. Benjamin Franklin, enlightened Catholic hater though he was, found out by going to Quebec with Charles Carroll of Carrolton and his cousin Father John Carroll that Catholics are human beings. Franklin was touched by John Carroll's concern for him when he fell ill. Although the mission failed, George Washington had forbidden the celebration of Pope Day (Guy Fawkes Day) on the 5th of November, pointing out that it made little sense to attack the spiritual leader of possible French Catholic allies. The support of French and Polish Catholic military leaders extended the ban on burning the Pope in effigy.

It almost seems miraculous that Catholics were finally allowed to participate in the founding of the United States of America, based on the history of anti-Catholic prejudice in the British American colonies. In the West Indies, that fear and hatred was focused on the Irish indentured servants, temporary slaves of the sugar plantations, and those Irish who had been sent into true slavery during the English Civil War and Cromwell's campaigns in Ireland. Their land had been confiscated, their families divided, and they were branded, sometimes literally, as felons and slaves. With the African slaves brought to the West Indies, they sometimes resisted the cruelty of the great planters and then were ruthlessly put down and punished.

On the Continent, the Seven Years War/French and Indian War inspired more anti-Catholic fervor with the French as enemies, and the horrible dispersal of the French Catholic Acadians of Nova Scotia was hailed as a great British accomplishment! Fear of Catholic conspiracies against the British Empire in time of war was exacerbated by evangelical ministers like the cross-eyed George Whitfield, friend of Charles and John Wesley, during the first Great Awakening. He saw the Seven Years War as a vast Catholic wing conspiracy against Protestantism (Arminian or not). Wherever Catholics congregated in significant numbers they were suspected of some conspiracy against British forces in the field of battle, and Catholics were harassed, attacked, and taxed at a higher rate.

The irony is that because the Pope did not take sides in the American Revolution, Catholics were free to choose which side to support--some were Loyalists, fighting for King George--but Commodore John Barry exemplifies the contribution Catholics made to the war. While British Americans had regarded the Catholic Church as the source and summit of tyranny in the world, Catholics supported them in their efforts to throw off tyranny! Pardon the anachronism, but it must have blown their minds!

Curran narrates this story and its surprising conclusion vividly and clearly, describing conflicts, personalities, and events throughout British American history. The bibliography is excellent and the book is well illustrated. Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment