Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

How Anti-Catholicism Helped Fuel the American Revolution

Pope Benedict XI, it is said, admires America’s religious freedom and history. I do too, especially where we have ended up. But as we focus this week on the role of Catholics in America, it’s worth remembering just how loathed Catholics were at the founding of this nation.
Indeed, to an extent rarely acknowledged anti-Catholicism helped fuel the American revolution.
If that sounds harsh, consider the evidence (plucked from my new book, Founding Faith):
Only three of the 13 colonies allowed Catholics to vote. All new England colonies except Rhode island and the Carolinas prohibited Catholics form holding office; Virginia would have priests arrested for entering the colony; Catholic schools were banned in all states except Pennsylvania.
During the lead up to revolution, rebels seeking to stoke hatred of Great Britain routinely equated the practices of the Church of England with that of the Catholic Church. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists celebrated anti-Pope Days, an anti-Catholic festival derived from the English Guy Fawkes day (named for a Catholic who attempted to assassinated King James I). “Orations, cartoons, and public hangings of effigies depicted royal ministers as in league alternately with the pope and the devil,” writes historian Ruth Bloch.
Roger Sherman and other members of Continental Congress wanted to prohibit Catholics from serving in the Continental Army.
In 1774, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, taking the enlightened position that the Catholic Church could remain the official church of Quebec. This appalled and terrified many colonists, who assumed this to be a British attempt to subjugate them religiously by allowing the loathsome Catholics to expand into the colonies. Colonial newspapers railed against the Popish threat. The Pennsylvania Gazette said the legislation would now allow “these dogs of Hell” to “erect their Heads and triumph within our Borders.” The Boston Evening Post reported that the step was “for the execution of this hellish plan” to organize 4,000 Canadian Catholics for an attack on America. In Rhode Island, every single issue of the Newport Mercury from October 2, 1774 to March 20, 1775 contained “at least one invidious reference to the Catholic religion of the Canadians,” according to historian Charles Metzger.
Protestant clergy fanned the flames. Rev. John Lathrop of the Second Church in Boston said Catholics “had disgraced humanity” and “crimsoned a great part of the world with innocent blood.” Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth declared the pope to be “the second beast” of Revelation while Joseph Perry warned his Connecticut neighbors that they would soon need to swap “the best religion in the world” for “all the barbarity, trumpery and superstition of popery; or burn at the stake, or submit to the tortures of the inquisition.” And, he reasoned, English lawmakers were being controlled by the devil; the Quebec Act “first sprang from that original wicked politician.” Commenting on anti-Catholic fervor, historian Alan Heimert wrote that there was “a special and even frenetic urgency to their efforts to revive ancient prejudices by announcing that the Quebec Act—and it alone—confronted America with the possibility of the ‘scarlet whore’ soon riding ‘triumphant over the heads of true Protestants, making multitudes drunk with the wine of her fornications.'” The 1774 Pope Day was one of the grandest in years; in Newport, two large effigies of the pope were paraded. In New York, a group marched to the financial Exchange carrying a huge flag inscribed, “George III Rex, and the Liberties of America. No Popery.” Later that day, a pamphlet that had been distributed urging tolerance toward the Catholics of Canada was smeared with tar and feathers and nailed to the pillory.
These views were echoed even by some of our most respected founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton decried the Quebec Act as a diabolical threat. “Does not your blood run cold to think that an English Parliament should pass an Act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country?…Your loves, your property, your religion are all at stake.” He warned that the Canadian tolerance in Quebec would draw, like a magnet, Catholics from throughout Europe who would eventually destroy America.
Sam Adams told a group of Mohawk Indians that the law “to establish the religion of the Pope in Canada” would mean that “some of your children may be induced instead of worshipping the only true God, to pay his dues to images made with their own hands.” The silversmith and engraver Paul Revere created a cartoon for the Royal American Magazine called “The Mitred Minuet.” It depicted four contented-looking mitred Anglican Bishops, dancing a minuet around a copy of the Quebec Act to show their “approbation and countenance of the Roman religion.” Standing nearby are the authors of the Quebec Act, while a Devil with bat ears and spiky wings hovers behind them, whispering instructions.
The Continental Congress took a stand against the Catholic menace. On October 21, 1774 it issued an address “to the People of Great Britain”, written by John Jay, Richard Henry Lee and William Livingston, which expressed shock that Parliament would promote a religion that “disbursed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellions through every part of the world.” It predicted that the measure would encourage Canadians to “act with hostility against the free Protestant colonies, whenever a wicked Ministry shall choose to direct them.” Once Americans were converted to Catholicism, they would be enlisted in a vast Popish army to enslave English Protestants.
If it seems today a bit strange that a war against a Protestant King George III could be cast as a fight against Catholicism, this was a paradox apparent to some British at the time. Describing the Quebec Act as the turning point, General Thomas Gage puzzled over how colonists had become convinced that Britain would eliminate their religious freedom. When they could not “be made to believe the contrary…the Flame [of rebellion] blased out in all Parts.” Ambrose Serle, who served as secretary to Admiral Lord Richard Howe from 1776 to 1778, reported to his superiors that “at Boston the war is very much a religious war.” Not surprisingly, some Britons over the years have chafed over the idea that the revolution was about lofty concepts of freedom.
In 1912, the English Cardinal Gasquet flatly declared that “the American Revolution was not a movement for civil and religious liberty; its principal cause was the bigoted rage of the American Puritan and Presbyterian ministers at the concession of full religious liberty and equality to Catholics of French Canada. “ Yes, he noted, people were upset by taxation but that could have been resolved if not for the “Puritan firebrands and the bigotry of the people.”
Tomorrow, I will explore how George Washington helped purge the nation of its anti-Catholic urges.

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posted April 16, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Very interesting.
The Quebec Act has always taken a back seat in American history. Perhaps it required more explanation than the Stamp Act and just never got the print space it deserved.
I’m enjoying your articles very much. keep ’em coming.

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posted April 17, 2008 at 3:04 pm

I’m not inclined to criticize your comments here Mr. Waldman, because it seems like you’ve done a remarkable amount of research on this subject.
As we, as a society, come out of provincialism it’s shocking to look back at the nonsense our beloved forebearers believed in. In their defense, all one could say is that they didn’t have the worldwide web or any other sources of instant information. Their prejudices were a byproduct of the fear of the unknown.

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Bill Gronos

posted April 17, 2008 at 6:55 pm

It sickened me to see that idiot Bush sucking up to the pope. But the pundits are claiming it may be the Catholic vote that determines the next president, so that pretty much explains it.
Thank God, the Roman Catholic church no longer has the military might it once commanded to jam its medieval superstitions down people’s throats under pain of torture and death. If there is anyone who thinks the Catholic church rightfully rules Christendom through a chain of popes going back to Jesus and Peter, you might want to read about Pope Formosus. Pope Stephen VI had his corpse disinterred, clad in papal vestments, and seated on a throne to face charges. The verdict was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate. All his measures and acts were annulled, and the orders conferred by him were declared invalid. The papal vestments were torn from his body, the three fingers from his right hand that he had used in consecrations were cut off and the corpse was dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into the Tiber river. Never heard that before? — check it out for yourself in sources published by the Vatican.
Then there was the little matter of the Inquisition, not to forget the trial of Galileo — right up to the U.S. bishops who allowed serial pedophiles to molest again and again.

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posted May 23, 2008 at 10:34 am

PS: You made a typo in referring to Pope Benedict XVI (2005–present) as Pope Benedict XI (1303–1304)

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Thomas Dahlheimer

posted August 3, 2008 at 7:56 pm

While under the spell of Pope Alexander VI and the King of Englandss “Doctrine of Discovery” declaration, which I define as a “Christian” religious sectarian, Eurocentric and White racist – indigenous peoples’ independent nations denying and land stealing doctrine…our founding fathers, in the Declaration of Independence, defined and declared their supposed “righteous justification” for (illegally) renouncing their English King’s rule over them (treason) and establishing an (illegitimate) sovereign nation on land they stole from independent indigenous sovereign nations. Our founding fathers wrongly separated themselves from the Pope and their King and then established an unholy and illegitimate nation state, the United States of America.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed what happened to the indigenous people living in this land? The decisions that the earliest European colonizers and the founders of the newly established U.S.A made are why, after 500-plus years, indigenous people are still standing here trying to influence us to recognize that their nations are independent sovereign nations and our nation is an illegitimate “nation” established on their land, their continent.

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Thomas Dahlheimer

posted September 12, 2008 at 6:27 pm

I posted the directly above comment. An article of mine about this topic is located at

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posted July 12, 2009 at 7:02 pm

despite all this hostility to catholics it didint stop the rebels enlisting the help of catholic powers France & Spain

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Your Name

posted February 17, 2010 at 7:49 pm

To Bill Gronos: so your argument is that because a Pope did a bad thing over a thousand years ago, that somehow invalidates the legitimacy and authority of the Papacy? By that rationale, the entire US government is not our rightful government and should be overthrown, because people in that government have done wicked things throughout the centuries. Your muddled thinking seems to reflect that of the colonists, which this article recounts.

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posted April 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm

This is a very interesting story. Thank you.
I have question–Did the Vatican in any way assist the colonies in the Revolution? Were they for independence or against? Were they allies of England or the Colonies?
I am probably influenced in a modern perspective, but the fact “Catholic countries” assisted the colonies doesn’t necessarily mean the Vatican assisted.
thank you

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margot sheehan

posted December 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Make no mistake: over 99 percent of the American colonists were of Catholic descent. That is an irrefutable fact. Although the vast majority had fallen away from Church in the previous few generations, they were perfectly aware of their heritage. The anti-Catholic policies of George III had as much as anything else to do with inciting the Revolution.

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posted May 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I like it very much, thank you

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posted July 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Reading this post in mid-2012, it is striking how the same behavioural syndrome that branded George III as a closet or not-so-closet Catholic is being played out in the case of Obama, who is seen by many as a closet socialist, at the very least a Liberal. despite every evidence to the contrary.

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posted November 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm

This are words from president Abraham Lincoln see what you think now? “I do not pretend to be a prophet. But though not a prophet, I see a very dark cloud on our horizon. And that dark cloud is coming from Rome. It is filled with tears of blood. It will rise and increase till its flanks will be torn by a flash of lightning, followed by a fearful peal of thunder. Then a cyclone, such as the world has never seen, will pass over this country, spreading ruin and desolation from north to south. After it is over, there will be long days of peace and prosperity: for Popery, with its Jesuits and merciless Inquisition, will have been for ever swept away from our country. Neither I nor you, but our children, will see those things.”

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Margot Sheehan

posted March 21, 2013 at 11:58 pm

@Javi: Unlikely that Abraham Lincoln ever said such fatuous drivel with a word like “Popery.” Popery! I can’t find your quotation anywhere. I won’t accuse you of making it up ex nihilo. More likely this invented citation came out of some tract attributed to one Mr. Chinquy (sp?), that weirdly named personage who claimed to be an ex-priest and bosom-buddy of Mr. Lincoln; and whose supposed attributions to Old Abe survive mostly in the hilarious and crude cartoons of the Chick Tracts cartoon-book series.

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Margot Sheehan

posted March 22, 2013 at 12:43 am

As I said. Here is the made-up Lincoln quote from Mr. Charles Chiniquy (sp?), the soi-disant former priest; used as frontispiece for some warmed-over Know-Nothing and radical-Abolitionist propaganda printed in 1928:

[Whoever put this nonsense together, they were almost certainly neither Americans nor Protestants, not even Christians. I suspect that a few years later these folks would be backing the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” to help our Soviet Comrades commit their mass-murders in Spain. Sleep well, Abe!]

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