Fortnight For Freedom Day Eleven: Catholics in the American Revolution

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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 virtue.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence

 

 

Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:

On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S.  Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First,  Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.

 

Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to  highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic  institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation  with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to  defend our most cherished freedom.

 

The fourteen days from June  21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to  July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for  freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face  of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More,  St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the  Church of Rome.  Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our  Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that  would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for  religious liberty.

 

We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day.  This is the eleventh of these blog posts.

American Catholics, a very small percentage of the population of the 13 colonies, 1.6 percent, were overwhelmingly patriots and played a role in the American Revolution out of all proportion to the small fragment of the American people they represented.  Among the Catholics who assumed leadership roles in the fight for our liberty were:

General Stephen Moylan  a noted cavalry commander and the first Muster Master-General of the Continental Army.

Captains Joshua Barney and John Barry,  two of the most successful naval commanders in the American Revolution.

Colonel John Fitzgerald was a trusted aide and private secretary to General George Washington.

Father Pierre Gibault, Vicar General of Illinois, whose aid was instrumental in the conquest of the Northwest for America by George Rogers Clark.

Thomas Fitzsimons served as a Pennsylvania militia company commander during the Trenton campaign.  Later in the War he helped found the Pennsylvania state navy.  After the War he was one of the two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787

Colonel Thomas Moore led a Philadelphia regiment in the War.

Major John Doyle led a group of elite riflemen during the War.

The list could go on at considerable length.  Figures on how many Catholics served in the Continental Army or the American militias is speculative as records of religious affiliations were not normally kept.  From anecdotal evidence my guess would be at least five percent of the American troops were Catholic, far in excess of the Catholic percentage of the population.

The foreign volunteers who came to fight for our freedom were overwhelmingly Catholic, including LaFayette,  Duportail and Pulaski.  Of course the French troops were almost all Catholic, and there were tens of thousands of them who saw service in the US.  The first mass in Boston was a funeral mass for a French soldier with members of the Continental Congress in attendance.  Washington on occasion attended mass during the War along with other Founding Fathers.

France serving as our ally in the American Revolution not only helped us win our freedom but also began to dispel the anti-Catholic prejudice held by most Americans prior to the Revolution.  After the alliance the British attempted to use anti-Catholicism to convince Americans to abandon the fight.  Here is a portion of a proclamation by the American traitor Benedict Arnold after he had turned his coat:

What is America now but a land of widows, orphans, and beggars?–and should the parent nation cease her exertions to deliver you, what security remains to you even for the enjoyment of the consolations of that religion for which your fathers braved the ocean, the heathen, and the wilderness? Do you know that the eye which guides this pen lately saw your mean and profligate Congress at mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in Purgatory, and participating in the rites of a Church, against whose antichristian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.

The effort proved futile.  Except for the Tory minority, Americans saw that the French were fighting to assist them and not to impose either French rule or the Catholic church upon them.  On July 4, 1779, at the invitation of the French minister Gerard, members of the Continental Congress attended Mass at St. Mary’s in Philadelphia for a Te Deum for American independence.

After the War, Washington paid tribute to the role Catholics played in the American Revolution:

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.

John Carroll, first American bishop and a cousin of the Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, summed up Catholic participation in the Revolution:

Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any of their fellow-citizens: 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.

We American Catholics are the heirs of a freedom established at a great cost.  We will not stand for this precious gift to be infringed upon today.

24 Responses to Fortnight For Freedom Day Eleven: Catholics in the American Revolution

  • Penguins Fan says:

    Let us not forget the contribution that Spain (then a Catholic country) made in the American cause for independence. The Spanish efforts are usually ignored or forgotten.

    The Spanish Navy kicked Great Britain out of the Mississippi Valley and harassed the British Navy throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea – a fate Great Britain justly deserved for spreading the Black Legend and harassing Spanish shipping for centuries.

    The high society of Havana (yes, there used to be such a thing in Havana) gave Washington and the Continental Army money and supplies.

  • anzlyne says:

    Catholic influence on Washington himself may also be greater than commonly thought. I think a priest was called to his home when he was dying.

  • John Nolan says:

    One of the rebellious colonists’ objections to the Quebec Act (1774) was the protection it afforded to the Catholic Church. Quebeckers did not exatly rush to join the ‘patriots’ in throwing off the intolerable yoke of British government, and Bishop John Carroll was excommunicated by Archbishop Briand of Quebec.

    The founders of the American republic, and the framers of its constitution, were steeped in the Deism and Freemasonry of Enlightenment Europe. This may produce a superficial tolerance, but when push comes to shove is incompatible with Catholicism, as the history of post-Enlightenment Europe demonstrates. What we are seeing now is the logical outcome of the heresy of Americanism condemned by Leo XIII.

  • Jacques says:

    A rumour says that George Washington converted to the catholic faith on his deathbed, assisted by a jesuit priest. He handed the priest some important documents that would be now in the Vatican archives.
    Probably was he secretly converted since long because some of his protestant guests at Mount Vernon were a bit amazed to see a picture of our Lady in front of a picture of St John the Baptist in his dining room.

  • A complete myth that Washington converted on his death bed. What went on at Washington’s death bed is well recorded and no conversion to the Faith occurred, and there is no historical evidence, as opposed to after the fact wishful thinking, that he converted at any other time in his life. Let us stick to the historical record please.

  • Complete and total rubbish John. Anti-Catholicism was a tool widely employed by the Brits during the War in an attempt to rouse Loyalist sentiment. It was the patriots who spoke out in favor of tolerance for the Catholics. An element of anti-Catholicism did enter into colonial opposition of the Quebec Act in 1774, but such anti-Catholicism found no support in such leaders of the Revolution as George Washington. In his instructions to General Arnold on September 14, 1775 in the American attempt to liberate Canada from the rule of George III, Washington cautioned him, “I also give it in charge to you to avoid all disrespect of the religion of the country, and its ceremonies. Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case they are answerable.”

    Your attack on the Founding Fathers as deists and masons is the usual critique of historically illiterate ultra trads and I am surprised at you stooping to such bilge. The fact is that the Faith flourished under the tolerance installed by the Founding Fathers, and the problems we are encountering now, and which are far worse in Merrie Olde Englande, are a product of contemporary Leftism rather than any defect in the work of the Founders.

  • Anzlyne says:

    Katherine Drexel believed he died a Catholic. A biography of Mother Drexel by Ellen Tarry, said she prayed for George Washington’s soul.
    Just because it wasn’t recorded doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The doctors may have been anti catholic, or afraid of ruining his reputation if this deathbed conversion were to be known.
    I can’t go back a personally verify but it is recorded that Washington defended Catholics on Guy Fawkes day, he attended mass, he donated to building a Catholic church in Philly, he visited to Charles Carroll’s home, the slaves who went to get the priest told about it–all these make me think what I think about it– others may think differently.

  • John Nolan says:

    No Don, not complete and total rubbish, but a timely (if deliberately overstated) corrective to the one-sided Yanks-good-Brits-bad view of the American Revolution still too prevalent on this blog. Talk of ‘liberating’ Canada is hilarious; it’s akin to Stalin ‘liberating’ central and eastern Europe. And all this banging on about George III – Britain in the 18th century had cabinet and parliamentary government, and although the king was by no means a figurehead, he did not make policy.

    To say that the US constitution is a product of Enlightenment thought is to state the obvious. Fortunately its authors were at bottom pragmatic and level-headed Englishmen, and as revolutions go, the American one was probably the most beneficial in history. When the hot-headed French tried to apply the same principles after 1789 the result was a total and unmitigated disaster, not least for the Church. Happy Independence Day.

  • “Talk of ‘liberating’ Canada is hilarious; it’s akin to Stalin ‘liberating’ central and eastern Europe.”

    More rubbish John. A fair example of what French Canadians would do absent a British garrison was illustrated in 1777-1778 in the Illinois country where they eagerly joined with George Rogers Clark to drive out the Brits and aided him in his capture of Fort Vincennes. King George determined every step of British policy in America, and maintained the War to crush America, a War which was largely unpopular among the British people, until even he had to recognize reality after Yorktown.

    “To say that the US constitution is a product of Enlightenment thought is to state the obvious.”

    The Declaration owes more to the Enlightenment than does the Constitution which was much more a result of American experience in colonial times, the Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation. The Declaration is the poetry of the American soul and the Constitution is the prose.

    “Happy Independence Day.”

    Thank you John. A God Save the Queen, who my sainted mother dearly loved, back at you!

  • Jacques says:

    The pictures of our Lady and St John the Baptist were recorded on the belongings inventory after George Washington died.
    This is a strong clue regarding his secret conversion to the catholic faith probably a long time before his death.

  • Not at all. Washington received constant gifts from admirers in the United States and around the world. The paintings may be among such gifts. In any case such paintings would not have been unusual possessions for an Anglican which is what Washington was. There is zero evidence that Washington ever converted to the Faith.

  • John Nolan says:

    Don, why do the Canadians, the vast majority of whom live within 250 miles of the US border, want to preserve their independence and allegiance to the Crown rather than throw in their lot with the almighty Republic to the south? This is despite the fact that unlike Oz and NZ they drive on the wrong side of the road and don’t play cricket.

    Obviously, it was to everyone’s benefit that the US won the Cold War and the Soviets lost. But The US, being the only superpower, needs to realize that its imperial hegemony (as was Britain’s in the 19th century) is the result of a single-minded pursuit of national interest, even at the expense of its allies.

  • “Don, why do the Canadians, the vast majority of whom live within 250 miles of the US border, want to preserve their independence and allegiance to the Crown rather than throw in their lot with the almighty Republic to the south?”

    Because of 1776. The English portion of Canada was reinforced to a large extent by defeated loyalists who settled there and took on the name of United Empire Loyalists. Their hostility to the United States became one of the elments in the foundation of Canada.

    “But The US, being the only superpower, needs to realize that its imperial hegemony (as was Britain’s in the 19th century) is the result of a single-minded pursuit of national interest, even at the expense of its allies.”

    Nations rarely act in disinterested altruism, and when they do they usually reap only scorn and sorrow as their reward. Defeating the totalitarian idealogies of the last century was obviously to the benefit of the US and it obviously also benefited people around the globe. The foreign policy of the US is most successful when it combines elements of self interest and altruism. When it departs from either factor, it usually comes a cropper.

  • John Nolan says:

    Don, you don’t need to be reminded that if Her Majesty’s other realms (Oz, NZ etc) decided to go republican Canada would not, despite that the French Canadians are more French than the French. That is entirely due to the almighty republic to the south which has

  • John Nolan says:

    [Forget the last comment, which was left hanging and posted in error.] If it were just 1776, then one would imagine it would not mean much nowadays. But national identity is often fuelled by aggressive neighbours – Poland is a prime example. The French revolutionary armies rampaged through the peaceful German Rhenish towns imposing liberty, equality and fraternity – ou la mort; with portable guillotines in their baggage. Capital punishment was quite rare in the German states at that time. The extent to which Americans contributed to the French Revolution is a matter of debate, but ideas are exportable, and although I would entirely agree that the American revolution was on balance a ‘good thing’ (to quote Sellars and Yeatman) the same cannot be said for later revolutions based on its example.

  • John Nolan says:

    “King George determined every step of British policy in America …” How, pray, did he do this? He didn’t attend Cabinet meetings (his great-grandfather was the last monarch to do so). The problem with you republicans is that you take ancient Roman models as an ideal (Enlightenment conceit again, yawn). No wonder a lot of American Catholics want to break away from Rome. Too monarchical by half.

  • George III set government policy John by controlling Parliament through corruption and preferment. He set the policies of his governments up to the conclusion of the Revolution on all major questions, a situation often decried by British politicians during his reign. When he met John Adams after the War, the first American ambassador, George III noted:

    “I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power. The moment I see such sentiments and language as yours prevail, and a disposition to give to this country the preference, that moment I shall say, let the circumstances of language, religion, and blood have their natural and full effect.”

    The attempt to portray George III as some sort of detached figurehead of a monarch is risible. He was head of state in reality as well as in title. The disaster of the American Revolution helped change that as well as George III’s growing madness.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:

    Oh! the 18th century was besotted with classical models. As Thiers sardonically remarked, “we who, after having been Athenians with Voltaire, tried for a while to be Spartans under the Convention, ended by becoming soldiers of Caesar under Napoleon.”

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