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Faith of Our Fathers
Matthew Spalding

In 1776, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, there
were no more than twenty-five thousand Catholics in all of the
thirteen colonies, mostly located in Maryland, Pennsylvania and
New York-1 percent of  the two-and-a-half-million total population.
There were only twenty-three priests in all, and the next highest
authority was the vicar apostolic in London, who held jurisdiction
over the British colonies and islands in America.

Roman Catholics, led by Christopher Columbus, had been active
throughout the continent during the era of exploration, leaving
the  American colonies a legacy of Spanish missions and French
Jesuits. Maryland  had already contributed an important chapter in
American history by  establishing religious freedom under its
Catholic proprietors in 1649. But  outside of these areas the
colonial history of the Church was mostly  nonexistent. The
civilization behind the future United States was overwhelmingly
English and Protestant.

Nevertheless, the meeting of Catholicism and republicanism in  the
New World remains of great significance for both Church and nation
and forms the first full chapter of the history of Catholicism in
America. Suspicious Americans, who only knew the Roman Catholic
Church through the eyes of corrupt European politics, learned that
Catholics were not the enemies of free government. Catholics,
placed in the midst of republican America, learned that free
government was not the enemy of the  faith.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans who had first settled in
Massachusetts came from the dissenting wing of English
Protestantism, which was strongly Calvinist and staunchly opposed
to Roman Catholicism. As a result, many colonial charters and laws
contained restrictions against Catholics. A 1647 Massachusetts
statute declared that every priest was an  "incendiary and
disturber of the public peace and safety, and an enemy to  the
true Christian religion, and shall be adjudged to suffer perpetual
imprisonment." Even Maryland repealed its Religious Toleration Act
in 1654 and passed another stating that "none who profess to
exercise the Popish religion, commonly known by the name of Roman
Catholic religion, can be protected in this province." At the
start of the eighteenth century only two of the original thirteen
colonies, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, allowed Roman Catholics
any degree of religious and civil  freedom. 

The enlightened atmosphere in revolutionary America was hardly
better. Sam Adams believed that "much more is to be dreaded from
the  growth of Popery in America than from the Stamp Act." Harvard
College  sponsored a series of lectures devoted in part to
"detecting, convicting and exposing the idolatry, errors and
superstitions of the Romish church." In  New York, John Jay (later
the first chief justice of the Supreme Court)  argued that
Catholics should be denied property and civil rights unless they
denounced "the dangerous and damnable doctrine that the Pope, or
any  other earthly authority, hath power to absolve men from their

The political spark that ignited latent anti-Catholicism in
America was the Quebec Act of 1774. The settlement of the French
and  Indian War in 1763 left Great Britain with the whole of Canada
and  everything west of the Mississippi River. The British, in the
Quebec Act,  retained French civil law in Canada, protected feudal
land tenure, and mandated that the existing religion of the French
Canadians-Roman  Catholicism-was to be tolerated. The British-
American colonists were  outraged and considered the law to be one
of the "Intolerable Acts" of the British Parliament. If the
British had any regard for "the freedom and  happiness of mankind
they would not have done it," wrote Alexander Hamilton.  "If they
had been friends to the Protestant cause they would not have done
it.... They may as well establish Popery in New York and the other
colonies as they did in Canada."

The general assumption was that Roman Catholicism, by its very
nature, is incompatible with republican government and that any
toleration of it would, <ipso facto>, threaten its establishment.
Consider two addresses issued by the Continental Congress in
October  1774 in response to the Quebec Act. Congress wrote the
Canadians, asking  "What is offered to you by the late Parliament?
. . . Liberty of conscience  in your religion? No. God gave it to
you; and the powers with which you have  been and are connected,
firmly stipulated for your enjoyment of it.... We  are all too well
acquainted with the liberality of sentiment distinguishing your
nation, to imagine that difference of religion will prejudice you
against a hearty amity with us." Yet five days earlier they issued
an "Address Written to the People of England" (penned by John
Jay), which  expressed "our astonishment that a British Parliament
should ever consent to establish in that country [Canada] a
religion that has deluged your island  in blood, and disbursed
impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion  through every
part of the world."

Besides, Roman Catholicism was thought to be a superstitious
religion, best suited for the ignorant and unenlightened. John
Adams's  vivid description of a vespers service he attended out of
curiosity in 1774  was probably representative of non-Catholic
opinion of the day: This Afternoon's Entertainment was to me most
awfull and affecting; the poor Wretches fingering their beads,
chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood; their Pater
Nosters and Ave Marias, their Holy Water, their  crossing
themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus,
whenever they hear it, their Bowings, Kneelings and genuflections
before the Altar .... The Altar-Piece was very rich, little Images
and Crucifixes about; Wax Candles all lighted up. But how shall I
describe the Picture of  our Savior in a Frame of Marble over the
Altar, at full Length, upon the  Cross in the Agonies, and the
Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds!  The Music,
consisting of an Organ and a Choir of Singers, went all Afternoon
except Sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted most sweetly and
exquisitely. Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear
and  imagination-everything which can charm and bewitch the simple
and the  ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.

Thus, on the eve of the American Revolution, American  Catholics
seem to have had few reasons to support the move for independence.
The brief period of religious freedom they had enjoyed in Maryland
was  under British rule; their loyalty to Rome had always been
through London,  not Philadelphia. The British had shown a
willingness to tolerate their  religion in Canada while many of the
Americans thought Catholicism to be the  enemy of free government.
Yet over the course of the American Revolution a great
transformation occurred that made Americans tolerant and
respectful of Catholics and proved Catholics to be zealous
patriots and loyal citizens.

The first reason for change was geographic. In seeking to  defend
their independence, the Americans had to deal with a number of
Catholic communities along their borders-the remnants of the
French and Spanish empires in North America. The Indian tribes of
the Northwest were a peculiar problem, for a few of them had been
converted by the French. "We want a Father or a French priest,"
one tribe leader told the Massachusetts  legislature. "Jesus we
pray to, and we shall not hear any prayers that come from England.
We shall have nothing to do with Old England, and all that we
shall worship or obey will be Jesus Christ and General

More important was Canada. The aid, or at least the  neutrality, of
Canada was essential to the success of the Revolution. At  first,
Congress hoped for French Canada's active participation in the
Revolution, and sent troops to "liberate" Quebec. That having
failed,  they sent their first diplomatic mission to Canada to
negotiate, made up of  Samuel Chase, Benjamin Franklin, and two
prominent Catholics, Charles Carroll and Father John Carroll.
Although without success, the mission  marked an important turn-
around in American opinion. Immediately upon taking  command of
American forces, Washington, who never had any sympathy for
religious intolerance, issued strict orders against anti-Catholic
shenanigans in the military and condemned "Pope Day"-an annual
revelry  that included burning the pope in effigy-as "ridiculous
and  childish."

Strategy came into play as well. With independence declared,
America immediately looked for a course, was a commercial and
military alliance with Catholic France against Protestant England.
The Loyalist papers had a field day. One warned that approaching
French ships carried "tons of holy water, and casks of consecrated
oil, reliques <[sic]>, beads, crucifixes, rosaries, consecrated
wafers, and Mass books, as well as bales of indulgences"-not to
mention the machinery necessary for the  inevitable American
Inquisition. The patriotic leadership was more levelheaded. When
the French fleet appeared at Newport, for instance, Rhode  Island
repealed its 1664 law that prevented Catholics from becoming
citizens. With the additional entry into the war of Catholic
Spain, Americans realized they should be not just tolerant but
thankful for their new compatriots in arms. The victorious battle
of Yorktown, in which eight  thousand French troops and the French
fleet played the decisive role, sealed the relationship. (The
antiCatholic French Revolution a decade later further  transferred
American Catholic loyalty from France to America.)

On a number of occasions the French and Spanish foreign  ministers
brought members of Congress and the American military to St.
Mary's Church in Philadelphia. (Benedict Arnold later complained
that he  had seen "your mean and prolifigate <[sic]> Congress at
Mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in purgatory, and
participating in the rites of a  Church against whose anti-
Christian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed
with their blood.") While some declined to attend the Mass,  others
went. One delegate was pleased "to find the minds of people so
unfettered with the shackles of bigotry" and reported that the
congregation's "behavior in time of worship was very decent and
solemn . . . there was not a smiling or disengaged countenance
among  them."

Even more important were the many revolutionaries who were Roman
Catholic. Unlike the British, who legally forbade Catholics from
holding an officer's commission, Washington's officer corps was
notably  inclusive of Catholics. A number were foreigners who came
to fight for the American effort, such as Marquis de Lafayette (a
major general and  Washington's "adopted son"), Count Pulaski
(commander of artillery) and General Thadeus Kosciusko (chief
engineer). There were many native Americans  as well, such as
Colonel John Fitzgerald, Washington's aide-de-camp; Captain  Thomas
FitzSimons, who later signed the federal Constitution on behalf of
Pennslyvania; Brigadier General Stephen Moylan, quartermaster
general  and then commander of a cavalry regiment; and Captain John
Barry of the U.S.S. <Lexington>, the first American to capture a
British warship  and considered the father of the U.S. Navy.

While there were some Catholic loyalists, and one loyalist
Catholic regiment, the overwhelming majority of Catholic Americans
(and virtually all of the prominent ones) sided with the patriots
for  independence. "Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to
their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any
of their fellow-citizens," wrote John Carroll. "They concurred
with perhaps greater unanimity than any other body of men, in
recommending and promoting that  government, from whose influence
America anticipates all the blessings of justice, peace, plenty,
good order and civil and religious liberty."

The Carroll family of Maryland was of particular importance. They
were the Kennedy clan of their day-and not only patriotic but
devout. Charles Carroll, the grandfather, came to Maryland from
Ireland, served as Lord Baltimore's attorney general and received
several estates in return. His son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis,
enlarged the inheritance,  founded the Baltimore Iron Works, and
quickly became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. Daniel
Carroll, one of his sons, served in the Maryland senate and the
Continental Congress, signed both the Articles of  Confederation
and the federal Constitution and played a key role in framing  the
First Amendment. The two most prominent were son Charles Carroll
of Carrollton and cousin John Carroll, respectively the most
important Catholic statesman and Catholic churchman of the day.

Charles Carroll served on committees of correspondence and in  the
Continental Congress and was the first, the last surviving, and
the  only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. After
the American Revolution, he was concurrently a state senator in
Maryland and a United  States senator. Respect for Charles Carroll
was such that in 1792, when  Washington was considering stepping
down from the presidency, James McHenry  of Maryland suggested and
Alexander Hamilton agreed that Carroll would be  run as a
Federalist candidate for president of the United States.
Washington, who trusted and admired Carroll, would have concurred.
Had  President Washington retired at that time, it is possible that
the first  Catholic president would have been Charles Carroll in
1792 rather than John  F. Kennedy in 1960.

Like his cousin Charles, John Carroll was an ardent patriot. As a
young priest he had studied at a Jesuit school in Maryland before
attending Saint Omer in France and teaching at Liege. John Carroll
returned to his homeland in 1774, just after Pope Clement IV
disbanded  the Jesuits and as America prepared for war with
England. With both the Jesuit and British ties to authority in
disorder, Carroll spent the war  years as a parish priest laying
the groundwork for the Catholic Church in  the new nation. A close
friend of Benjamin Franklin, he exerted considerable influence in
France in favor of aid and support. He was first made prefect
apostolic and, in 1789, became the first bishop of the United
States.  John Carroll was the founding father of the American
Catholic Church. The most significant change was the establishment
of religious freedom. The  ground of political obligation in the
new nation was not sectarian theological claims or the divine
right of monarchy but the consent of the governed, based on man's
natural freedom and equality. As a result, there would be no
established national church and no religious requirements for
national office. It was this, more than anything else, that wedded
American Catholics to the patriotic cause. Consider the following
(written by John Carroll) from a committee of Catholic clergy
reporting  to Rome in 1790:

In 1776, American Independence was declared, and a revolution
effected, not only in political affairs, but also in those
relating to  Religion. For while the thirteen provinces of North
America rejected the yoke of England, they proclaimed, at the same
time, freedom of conscience, and the right of worshipping the
Almighty, according to the spirit of the religion to which each
one should belong. Before this great event, the  Catholic faith had
penetrated two provinces only, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  In all
the others the laws against Catholics were in force. Any priest
coming from foreign parts, was subject to the penalty of death;
all who  professed the Catholic faith, were not merely excluded
from offices of  government, but hardly could be tolerated in a
private capacity.... By the  Declaration of Independence, every
difficulty was removed: the Catholics  were placed on a level with
their fellow-Christians, and every political disqualification was
done away.

The truly revolutionary aspect of American independence for
Catholics, then, was not political separation from England but the
birth  of religious liberty. It was "this great event" that made
them equal citizens. "When I signed the Declaration of
Independence," Charles Carroll explained years later, I had in
view not only our independence of England  but the toleration of
all sects, professing the Christian Religion, and  communicating to
them all great rights. Happily this wise and salutary  measure has
taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution, and
become a useful lesson to all governments.

In America, the separation of church and state was necessary to
assure to Catholics the civil and religious freedoms enjoyed by
other  citizens; without such separation, politics would continue
to be swamped by sectarian strife and religious warfare.

The politically astute Charles Carroll wrote even more
emphatically to a Protestant chaplain:

To obtain religious, as well as civil, liberty I entered zealously
into the Revolution, and observing the Christian religion divided
into many sects, I founded the hope that no one would be so
predominant  as to become the religion of the State. That hope was
thus early entertained, because all of them joined in the same
cause, with few  exceptions of individuals. God grant that this
religious liberty may be preserved in these States, to the end of
time, and that all believing in the  religion of Christ may
practice the leading principle of charity, the basis of every

It is significant that both Carrolls saw the origin of religious
freedom in America stemming from the Declaration of Independence,
prior to the Constitution or the passage of the First Amendment.
Granted, many state constitutions and laws continued to
discriminate against Catholics throughout the nineteenth century,
and religious  intolerance is far from extinguished even today. Yet
both Carrolls believed that a dedication to the unalienable and
equal rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and
by extension the freedom of conscience, meant  the eventual
extinction of religious establishment throughout America.

Of the two Carrolls, John Carroll presented the fuller
understanding of America. Writing in a 1789 <National Gazette>
article, he disputed the claim that America was an exclusively
Protestant nation and that liberty flourished only where
Protestantism  prevailed: "The establishment of the American empire
was not the work of  this or that religion, but arose from a
generous exertion of all her citizens to redress their wrongs, to
assert their rights, and lay its foundations on the soundest
principles of justice and equal liberty." As long as men did not
comprehend "the luminous principles on which the rights  of
conscience and liberty of religion depend," he posited, they would
continue to find theological reasons to exclude some religions
from the free exercise of their equal rights. "I am anxious to
guard against the  impression intended by such insinuations; not
merely for the sake of any one impression, but from an earnest
regard to preserve inviolate for ever, in  our new empire, the
great principle of religious freedom." Carroll believed  that the
American people, as a nation, must place the preservation of their
liberties and the legitimacy of their government "on the
attachment of  mankind to their political happiness, to the
security of their persons and  their property which is independent
of any religious doctrines and not restrained by any."

At the same time, support for religious freedom did not mean the
rejection or questioning of Church doctrine. A nonsectarian state
did not mean a society without religion or with a religion that
must itself become secular. Note John Carroll's careful wording in
a letter to  Cardinal Borromeo in 1783: This is a blessing and
advantage, which is our  duty to preserve & improve with the utmost
prudence, by demeaning ourselves on all occasions as subjects
zealously attached to our government & avoiding to give any
jealousies on account of any dependence on foreign jurisdictions,
more than that, <which is essential to our Religion and
acknowledgement of the Pope's spiritual Supremacy over the whole
Christian world>. (emphasis added)

Carroll did have a number of prudent concerns about the  Catholic
Church in republican America: he argued that the Church in America
should be headed by an American bishop recommended by the American
clergy; he thought that American Catholics would best be served by
American-born and American-trained priests; and he believed
English-speaking Americans would never be converted as long as the
Church insisted on "the Latin Tongue in the publick Liturgy." But
his  support of republicanism in a nation of enormous religious
diversity (and Church practices adapted to the circumstances of
free government) did not mean the rejection of Church authority in
matters spiritual and moral. "We must use extreme circumspection
in order not to give pretexts to the enemies of Religion to
deprive us of our actual rights," Carroll wrote the Papal  Nuncio
in Paris.

It is very important that the prejudices entertained for so  long
against Catholics be eradicated. Above all, the opinion which
several hold that our faith demands a subjection to His Holiness
incompatible with the independence of a sovereign state, quite
false as it is, cannot help giving us continual anxiety. To
dissipate these  prejudices it will take time, the protection of
divine Providence, and the experience they will have of our
devotion to the nation and to its  sovereignty. The wisdom of the
Holy See cannot fail to contribute to it.  Your excellency could,
and I dare in the name of the Catholics [in America] beg you to
assure the Apostolic See that nowhere in the world has its
children more attached to its doctrine or more filled with respect
for  all its decisions.

Indeed, John Carroll expected that religious freedom would be  a
great boon to the Catholic Church in the United States. The end of
religion's direct control over the state also meant that religion
was  free from state entanglement, and as a result, Catholics were
free to  publicly worship and openly evangelize. "An immense field
is opend <[sic]> to the zeal of apostolical men," Carroll noted in
1783.  "Universal toleration throughout this immense country, and
innumerable R. Cats. going & ready to go into the new regions
bordering on the Mississippi, perhaps the finest in the world, &
impatiently clamorous  for clergymen to attend them." A natural
right to freedom of conscience would not lead to despair and the
rejection of religion, but a growing and deepening commitment to
the Faith. "I truly believe that such solid  foundations of
Religion can be laid in these American-States," Carroll  predicted
to Cardinal Antonelli in 1785, "that the most flourishing portion
of the Church, with great comfort to the Holy See, may one day be
found  here." In this opinion he was joined enthusiastically by
Father Charles Plowden, who gave the sermon at Carroll's
consecration as bishop on August 15,1790:

Although this great event may appear to us to have been the  work,
the sport, of human passion, yet the earliest and most precious
fruit of it has been the extension of the kingdom of Christ, the
propagation of the Catholic religion, which hitherto fettered by
restraining laws, is now enlarged from bondage and is left at
liberty to exert the full energy of divine truth.

In late 1789 the American Catholic community- Bishop-elect John
Carroll, representing the clergy, joined by Charles Carroll,
Daniel Carroll, Dominick Lynch of New York, and Thomas FitzSimons
of Philadelphia-wrote a congratulatory message to newly-elected
President  George Washington. The letter spoke of their great
admiration and respect for Washington, and expressed complete
confidence in America's protection of  their liberties:

This prospect of national prosperity is peculiarly pleasing to us,
on another account; because, whilst our country presenes her
freedom  and independence, we shall have a well founded title to
claim from her justice, the equal rights of citizenship, as the
price of our blood spilt under your eyes, and of our common
exertions for her defense, under your  auspicious conduct-rights
rendered more dear to us by remembrance of former  hardships.

In March 1790 Washington responded in an open letter "To the Roman
Catholics in the United States":

The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly
animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to
establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the
permanent  duration of its freedom and independence. America, under
the smiles of a  Divine Providence, the protection of a good
government, and the cultivation  of manners, morals, and piety,
cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree  of eminence, in
literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and
respectability abroad.

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

The old hymn, "Faith of Our Fathers," inspires Catholics to be
true-"in spite of dungeon, fire and sword"-to the spirit and
wisdom of  the Church fathers. John Carroll hoped that Catholics
would not only be  faithful but would always play a patriotic part
in maintaining the piety of  the nation and the principles of the
American Revolution, and so be true to the faith of our American
Fathers as well. In his eulogy of Washington on  February 22, 1800-
the Sunday he had designated for sermons commemorating the first
president-Bishop Carroll prayed that these United States [may]
flourish in pure and undefiled religion, in morality, peace,
union, liberty and the enjoyment of their excellent constitution,
as long as respect, honor, and veneration shall gather around the
name of Washington;  that is, whilst there still shall be any
surviving record of human  events.

Roman Catholics, especially through the leadership of Charles
Carroll and John Carroll, made important contributions to the
American Revolution and the subsequent founding of the new nation
and continued to play a special role in the establishment and
extension of civic and religious liberty to Catholics and all
Americans. Of even greater significance, this early period of
American Catholicism began a dialogue  within and between the
Church and the Catholic community in America over the  status of
religious freedom in the modern world-a dialogue that stretches
all the way through the Americanist debate in the nineteenth
century to the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious
Liberty" and the writings of Pope John Paul II in the twentieth


The personal and detailed correspondence of Charles Carroll of
Carrollton (1737-1832) and his father, Charles Carroll of
Annapolis  (1702-1782), is the subject of an extensive research
project of the Maryland  Historical Society and the University of
Maryland to be published in 1997.  For information on its
publication and availability, contact: Dr. Ronald  Hoffman,
Director, Institute of Early American History & Culture, P.O.  Box
8781, Williamsburg, Virginia 23187; 804-221-1133.

ultural and educational events at the Carroll Birthplace,
including lectures, an eighteenth-century trade show, concerts,
and more are carried in its calendar of events. For information,
membership, and  details contact: Mrs. Sandria Ross, Executive
Director, Charles Carroll  House of Annapolis, 107 Duke of
Gloucester Street, Annapolis, Maryland 21401-2504; 410-269-1737.

MATTHEW SPALDING is director of lectures and educational programs
at The Heritage Foundation.


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