I’ve written in the past about how some of America’s founders not only discriminated against Catholics but actively stoked anti-Catholic sentiment to advance the American cause. Yet somehow, Catholics ended up being gradually included in the American religious compact. As Pope Benedict XI said, now, “Respect for freedom of religion is deeply ingrained in the American consciousness.”
What happened? I would argue that the key figure was George Washington. As the Revolutionary War began, many persisted in seeing Catholics as excellent scapegoats. American clergy, newspapers and politicians had used anti-Catholic rhetoric to stir opposition to the British. They had declared that the Quebec Act would lead to a Catholic invasion. They had claimed that the posting of Anglican Bishops bore the influence of Popery.
George Washington, however, rejected the Catholic-bashing, not so much on philosophical grounds but for practical reasons. As commander of the Continental Army, he believed that unless he could neutralize Canada, he couldn’t protect New England and New York from British invasions from the north. Washington hoped he could cut off this British Northern front by rallying the Canadian people — especially the French Canadians living in Quebec – to a continent-wide democratic revolt against the British crown. He therefore launched an “expedition” (sometimes referred to as an “invasion”) to Canada under the command of Colonel Benedict Arnold.
These particular troops had not fully mastered the art of wooing Catholics. One military chaplain on the campaign confided to his diary the thrill of attempting to destroy Catholicism to the north: “Had pleasing views of the glorious day of universal peace and spread of the gospel through the vast extended country, which has been for ages the dwelling of Satan, and the reign of the Antichrist.”
Washington knew he had to damp down the anti-Catholicism. On September 14, 1775, he banned the practice of burning effigies of the Pope once a year. Moreover, he told Arnold, the troops have to move considerably beyond keeping their bigotry under wraps; they have to convince Catholics that they’d be welcomed into the colonial union and would flourish under the American approach to religious freedom. “Prudence, Policy and true Christian Spirit, will lead us to look with Compassion upon their Errors without insulting them,” Washington wrote. His condescending comment about Catholic “errors” notwithstanding, Washington was one of the first to recognize that a revolution based on “liberty” would need to encompass a new approach to religious freedom. “While we are contending for our own Liberty,” he wrote, “we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable.”
Washington was not done purging anti-Catholic bias from the ranks. On November 5, 1775 he scolded troops in Cambridge, Massachusetts for celebrating Pope’s Day. He told them of his “surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense” as to encourage such a “ridiculous and childish custom,” especially when the colonies were soliciting aid from Canadian Catholics. “At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused.”
Washington may also have been concerned about troop morale. Among the soldiers who had gone to aid Boston in its hour of need were Catholics from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Washington’s tolerance initiative succeeded. The practice of burning effigies of the Pope apparently disappeared from the colonies as a result of Washington’s decree, and newspaper attacks on Catholics dwindled.
The Continental Congress – which had earlier attacked the Quebec Act for helping Catholics – flip-flopped and tried to assist Washington. Just five days after issuing their attack on Catholicism, Congress fired off a letter beseeching the French Canadians to join them in the cause of freedom. The letter urged the Canadians to be suspicious of the Quebec Act’s new guarantees of religious liberty for the Catholics. “What is offered to you by the late Parliament?. . . Liberty of conscience in your religion? No. God gave it to you.” On May 29, 1775, Congress – filled to the brim with delegates who hated Catholicism – concluded that “we perceived the fate of the protestant and catholic colonies to be strongly linked together.” It was a hilariously abrupt about-face, and the Canadians were suspicious.
To be taken more seriously, in 1776 congress sent a delegation consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll, a Catholic representative from Maryland. Carroll convinced his cousin John Carroll – a Catholic priest about whom Pope Benedict XI spoke – to join the group. But the priests they met in Montreal told the delegation that the British had indeed lived by the spirit of the Quebec Act and treated them well (in fact much better than Catholics were treated in most of the American colonies). Furthermore, the Canadians said, they could not easily forget or ignore the hostile views expressed about Catholics after the passage of the Quebec Act.
In the course of the revolution, Washington and the congress also became acutely aware that Catholic soldiers were shedding blood for the American cause. The Maryland militia was brimming with Catholics who helped thwart British raids from Virginia. Stephen Moylan, a prominent Catholic in Pennsylvania, recruited a group of volunteers in March 1776 to rush to Boston when it was under siege. He would over time become muster-master general of the Continental Army, quartermaster general, a brigadier general and George Washington’s personal secretary and commander of his own cavalry unit called the Fourth Continental Dragoons. In response to a letter from notable Catholics in 1790, Washington praised “the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their revolution.”
Part of the sudden appreciation of Catholics stemmed from the desire to win France as an ally. Congress heaped praise on France and even John Adams, in correspondence with his wife, began to admit grudging admiration for their religion. He’d attended Catholic mass in Brussels and concluded that he might have been a tad “rash and unreasonable” earlier in “cursing the knavery of the priesthood and the brutal ignorance of the people.” Governor Green of Rhode Island declared a public day of prayer for France, and Massachusetts followed suit. When French officials invited members of Congress to attend services at the new Catholic Church in Philadelphia, several did their duty. In May 5, 1778, after the alliance with France was finalized, Washington declared that it was God’s work.