The Greatest Enemy of American Liberty: Catholicism?

By Kate Daley-Bailey  

This war is a war of principles; it is on the open field of free discussion; and the victory is to be won by the exercise of moral energy, by the force of religious and political truth. But still it is a war, and all true patriots must awake to the cry of danger. They must up and gird themselves for battle. It is no false alarm. Our liberties are in danger. The Philistines are upon us. Their bonds are prepared, and they intend, if they can, to fasten them upon our limbs. We must shake off our lethargy, and like the giant awaking from his sleep, snap these shackles asunder. We are attacked in vulnerable points by foreign enemies to all liberty. (p104)

The above quote comes from the book, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, written in 1835 by renowned professor, painter and inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse was also known for his strong rhetoric against Catholic immigrants and Morse was not alone.  Vast waves of poor Catholic immigrants were flooding into the United States during the 1800s.  Julie Byrne of Duke University cites that “in 1850 Catholics made up only five percent of the total U.S. population” and that “by 1906, they made up seventeen percent of the total population (14 million out of 82 million people).” According to Byrne, Catholics had become “the single largest religious denomination in the country.”

The Protestant American response was understandably anxious regarding the influx of these foreign masses. Some Protestant leaders, such as Reverend Lyman Beecher Horace Bushnell, voiced anti-Catholic sentiments. Many Protestant Americans harbored nativist (anti-immigrant) views and feared that the U.S. would quickly become a bastion of Catholicism and a political puppet of the Pope in Rome. Terry Golway’s article The Return of the Know-Nothings featured in America: The National Catholic Weekly, describes the rise of the American Party, which was the political organization associated by the Know-Nothing movement: 

More than a million voters enrolled in the movement’s political organization, the American Party, in the 1850’s, and the party elected about 100 members to Congress. As millions of starving Irish immigrants- poor, uneducated, Catholic and sometimes not fluent in English- poured into the nation’s cities, demagogues predicted the fall of American democracy. Catholics, they said had different values. They didn’t appreciate democracy, liberty, and hard work. 

Golway also gives us insight into why these immigrants would have struck horror into the minds and hearts of Protestant Americans. Fear of these Catholic immigrants grew from a few historical facts but much of it grew out of stereotypes and assumptions. 

Fact 1: A majority of these Catholic immigrants were poor… they were hoping to escape starvation and destitution in various European countries from which they hailed. 

Fact 2: Many of these Catholic immigrants were uneducated… and they took manual labor jobs. 

Fact 3: A good number of these immigrants were not fluent in English. “Off the boat” Irish often didn’t speak English but rather Gaelic. Even scholars who debate the extent of the abuse doled out to Irish immigrants, like Richard Jensen in his article No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization, agree that  “19th century literature is filled with eyewitness and statistical descriptions of Irish drunkenness, crime, violence, poverty, extortion, insanity, ignorance, political corruption and lawless behavior.” Although there is only one existing material example outright job discrimination against the Irish, the NINA sign (No Irish Need Apply advertisement in a 1854 copy of the New York Times), there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of Irish immigrants facing frequent discrimination.

It is important to note that many Irish Protestant and Catholic Americans, many of whom were part of earlier, less populous immigration waves, also felt a deep-seated resentment for these new immigrants.  

However, perhaps the most vitriolic attack on Catholic immigrants, many who were Irish, came from Morse’s book mentioned at the beginning of this article. Morse gave a detailed account of why he and others like him feared these Catholic masses. Morse not only feared the exorbitant number of poor and uneducated immigrants… he also feared their religion, Catholicism…or as he called it “Popery.”

Morse attacked the Catholicism brought by the new wave of immigrants by making the following claims:

  1. Catholicism is a “political system” and it merely masks itself as religion.  “…Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself, to avoid attack, under the sacred name of religion.” (Page 95)
  2. Catholicism cannot coexist with American Democracy and Catholics cannot separate their religion from their politics.   “Popery is a political system, despotic in its organization, anti-democratic and anti-republican, and cannot therefore co-exist with American republicanism.” (page 115)  “Let Papists separate their religious faith from their political faith, if they can, and the former will suffer no political attack from us. ‘But no,’ the Papist cries, ‘I cannot separate them; my religion is so blended with the political system, that they must be tolerated or refused all together.’” (page 113)
  3. Catholic immigrants are part of a grand plot orchestrated by the Pope and foreign powers to eradicate a “free” America. America’s tolerant attitude is paving the way for its downfall.  “Yes, the Catholic is permitted to work in the light of Protestant toleration, to mature his plans, and execute his designs to extinguish that light, and destroy the hands that hold it.” (page 65) 
  4. Catholics, in small numbers may have been tolerant, but Americans should not be deceived by these rare instances.  “It is no refutation of the charge of intolerance here made against Catholics as a sect, to show that small bodies of them under peculiar circumstances, have been tolerant, or that in this country, where they have always been a small minority, they make high professions of ardent love for the republican, tolerant institutions of our government.” (page 65)
  5. These Catholic immigrants are ignorant pawns in the hands of devious Catholic priests… and that it will be difficult for any liberal education to reach them.  “Every unlettered Catholic emigrant, therefore, that comes into the country, is adding to a mass of ignorance which it will be difficult to reach by any liberal instruction; and however honest, (and I have no doubt most of them are so,) yet, from the nature of things, they are but obedient instruments in the hands of their more knowing leaders, to accomplish the designs of their foreign masters.” (pages 70-71)
  6. America, due to its hospitable nature, will fall victim to its “guests.”   “We may then have reason to say that we are the dupes of our own hospitality; we have sheltered in our well provided house a needy body of strangers, who, well filled with our cheer, are encouraged, by the unaccustomed familiarity with which they are treated, first to upset the regulations of the household, and then to turn their host and his family out of doors.” (page 92)
  7. These Catholic immigrants will want to be part of the political process.  “And what now prevents the interference of Catholics, as a sect, directly in the political elections of this country? They are organized under their priests: is there any thing in their religious principles to restrain them?” (page 94)
  8. Americans must defend themselves against this new enemy.  “The first thing to be done to secure safety, is to open our eyes at once to the reality and the extent of the danger… The enemy is in all our borders. He has spread himself through all the land.” (page 105)
  9. The American press has given these Catholic immigrants a free pass and refuses to report on the threat these immigrants pose to the U.S.  “The most dangerous politico-religious sect that has ever existed; a sect that has been notorious for ages for throwing governments into confusion, is politically at work in our own country, under the immediate auspices of the most despotic power of Europe, interested politically and vitally in the destruction of our free institutions, and is any alarm manifested by the secular press? No! They are altogether silent on this subject. They presume it is only a religious controversy, and they cannot meddle with religious controversies.” (page 112)
  10. It is America’s duty to keep the world safe from this plight.  “It is liberty itself that is in danger, not the liberty of a single state, no, or of the United States, but the liberty of the world. Yes, it is the world that has anxious eyes upon us; it is the world that cries to us in the agony of the struggles against despotism, the world expects America, republican America to do her duty.” (page 101)

Much of Morse’s rhetoric is currently being resurrected by American talking heads—not to be used against Catholics but rather to be used against other religious and cultural minorities which many Americans fear. Although a direct comparison cannot be made, it is rather unnerving that the same prejudiced rants are being used again today. One need only change the group being targeted in the above quotations to see the eerie similarities. Are Americans in danger of becoming the embodiment of a cliché (Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it)? Speaking as the great granddaughter of Irish Catholic American immigrants, I hope this is one history lesson we will remember.

Author's Family: Back Row-Timothy Daley/Daly and Michael Joseph Daley/Daly?(Jack's father) Side and front row - Smiling Jack/ John Joseph Daley/Daly (at 10 years), Julia, Margaret, (in front) Helen, Mary Elizabeth (Jack's mother) and Mary

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