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January 3, 1864: Death of Dagger John

Archbishop John Hughes

“Bury me in the sunshine”, were the last words of the Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, as he departed this Vale of Tears on January 3, 1864.  Hughes was looked upon by his contemporaries as a force of nature rather than a man.  Overseeing with skill the explosive growth of the Church in New York, and helping lead generations of Catholic immigrants out of poverty,  he also found time to take part in the public affairs of his day, and was probably the best known Catholic churchman of his time.  He was also a very tough and fearless man.  After the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844 he called on the mayor of New York, an anti-Catholic bigot, and informed him that if a single Catholic church were touched in New York, New York would be a second Moscow.  (The reference was to the burning of Moscow in 1812 during Napoleon’s occupation of the city.) Not a Catholic church was touched.  On another occasion when a threat was made to burn Saint Patrick’s cathedral the Archbishop had it guarded within hours by 4,000 armed Catholics.  No wonder his enemies and friends nicknamed him “Dagger John”!

At the beginning of the Civil War he had thrown himself wholeheartedly behind the preservation of the Union, rallying New York’s Irish to support the cause and going to Europe at the instigation of the Lincoln administration to garner support for the Union.  Small wonder that after his death Lincoln wrote,

“having formed the Archbishop’s acquaintance in the earliest days of our country’s present troubles, his counsel and advice were gladly sought and continually received by the Government on those points which his position enabled him better than others to consider. At a conjuncture of deep interest to the country, the Archbishop, associated with others, went abroad, and did the nation a service there with all the loyalty, fidelity and practical wisdom which on so many other occasions illustrated his great ability for administration.”

His finest moment probably was when, visibly dying, he rose from his death bed to make a speech on July 16, 1863 which helped quell the draft riots.  The speech is extremely interesting.  It contains a fair amount of humor, Hughes recognizing that the Irish always loved a message if it was leavened with laughter, and the Archbishop’s message was an appeal to the New York Irish based upon their love of Ireland and their innate sense of fairness.  It is a marvel to me that a dying man could do this, but Dagger John accomplished it.  Here is the text of the speech:

MEN OF NEW YORK:  They call you rioters and I cannot see a riotous face among you.  (Cheers)  I call you men of New York, not gentlemen, because gentlemen is so threadbare a term that it means nothing positive. (Applause.)  Give me men, and I know of my own knowledge, that if the City were invaded by a British or any other foreign Power, (laughter.) the delicate ladies of New York, with infants at their breasts, would look for their protection to men, rather than to gentlemen. (Applause.)  Of course, there is no reason why you should not be gentlemen, for there is no real difference between these terms.  (Applause.)  I address you of my own choice; and I would do so if I had to go on crutches.  No one has prompted me to do it.  My lungs are stronger than my limbs.  It gratifies me that you have met in peace and good order here at this time.  This, however, does not surprise me—it is what I expected.  I do not address you as the President. (laughter,)  or the Governor, or the Mayor, or a military officer.  I address you as your father.  (Cheers.)  VOICE—You are worth the whole of them.  And I am not going to go into the question, what has brought about this unhappy state of things.  It is not my business to do so but as far as I am concerned myself, you know that I am a minister of God, and a minister of peace, who in your troubles in years past, as you know, never deserted you.  (Cheers, and cries of “No, never.”)  With my tongue and my pen I have stood by you always, and so shall to the end of my life, so long as you are right, and I sincerely hope that you are not wrong.  (Cheers.)  I am not a runaway Bishop in times of danger.  (A Voice—”No, you’re not like BEECHER.”)  It has been perhaps a calamity, but I do not regret it. That I never was conscious of the sentiment of fear until the danger was over, and then sometimes I might perhaps get a little nervous.  (Cheers.)  I could not even in the best of cases, as you know, fight for you. 

The course of nature has denied me that privilege but I can still stand by you, I can still advise you, and, if necessary, I can die with you.  (Great cheering.)  As I said before, I will not enter into the question which has provoked all this excitement.  No doubt there are some real grievances, but still I think that there are many imaginary ones—because in this world everything is comparative in its nature.  There are no people in the world that have not some cause of grievance, and there are few that have not greater cause for complaint than we can complain of, after all.  (Cheers.) Everything is comparative, and a change is not always an improvement.

When I cast my thoughts back to the land of my forefathers, and when I think of it’s desolation, when I see the fertile west and south of Ireland depopulated and cattle browsing on the ruins of the cottages of the noble race that once lived there, I thank God that I was permitted to be among those who had an opportunity of coming to this country, where at least no such wretched tyranny is practiced (great cheering.)  If you are Irishmen, and the papers say the rioters are all Irishmen, then I also am an Irishman, (tremendous applause) but not a rioter, for I am a man of peace.  If you are Catholics, as they have said, probably to wound my feelings, then I also am a Catholic (cheers.)

I know that men are sometimes liable to get excited from a apprehension of danger, and I myself as your Bishop, have had my own troubles and my persecutions, but I think it is the best policy to bear evils patiently.  The more especially when they are merely temporary and will soon pass away.  I agree with the poet, that it is far better for us to bear our little inconveniences here than to rush into evils we know not of.  In Europe, where most of the countries are despotic—yes, even in England, (groans,) where they have a Constitution, they are none the less despotic—and a ruler is a ruler by right, whether he be a fool or a wise man, and must occupy the throne while he lives.  There is no relief there for an oppressed people, except in revolution.  Revolution in any country is a desperate state, and I know of no country where it could be in worse taste than here. 

In this country the Constitution gives the right to the people to make a revolution every four years. (Cheers.)  But it is a different kind of a revolution.  The battles of our revolutions are not battles of blood and violence, nor are the bullets bullets of lead.  You know what they do.  They fire paper bullets.  Were you ever in Rome walking on the Corso during the Carnival?  The people throw bullets—pellets of flour, and perhaps gilded, at each other.  But in this country the Government is a foundation not to be destroyed.  It is the right of the people every four years to correct or amend, as the printers say, the superstructure.  We have the right to approve or disapprove the acts of our rulers, but not to override them, but let us preserve the foundation, and let the American people rebuild the superstructure every four years.

If you take away the foundation, what have you, what have I, to cling to.  What should we have remaining in the form of human government?  I am too old now to seek another home or country, and I shall cling to the old foundation.  I want the housekeepers to mind.  (A Voice—”And let the niggers keep South.)  Everything is in the hands of the supreme people of the United States, and the majority of them, whether they make a blunder or not, I am willing to be governed by.  Now, gentlemen, (laughter.)  I am nearly done.

There is one thing, however, I must say.  I wish to ask you a question, and I wish you to answer it, and if I should ask your counsel on another point I know you will give it to me.  (“We will, we will.”)

Then, is this business to go on?  Should not every man in his own modest way become a preserver of the peace?  I am told in the papers, that not a little property has been destroyed.  I remember the anecdote of a lady who said to her child, come, my darling, come with me to Church.  The child answered, what’s the use, mamma.  Well, that was a child’s answer, and I hope he has seen the folly of it, if he has grown up, but now if property is destroyed, what is the use?  It must be paid for by you and by me.  No, no, but if property is lost it can be repaired or restored.  But who can bring back an immortal soul?  In the case of a violent and unjust assault on you without provocation, my notion is that every man has a right to defend his house or his shanty at the risk of his life.  (Cheers.)  The cause, however, must be just.  It must be aggressive not offensive.  Do you want my advice?  (“Yes.”) I have been hurt by the reports that you are rioters.

You cannot imagine that I could hear these things without being pained grievously.  Is there not some way by which you can stop these proceedings, and support the laws, of which none have been enacted against you as Irishmen and Catholics?  You have suffered enough already.  No Government can stand or protect itself, unless it protects its citizens.  Military force will be let loose on you, and you know what that is.  The innocent will be shot down, and the guilty like to escape.  Would it not be better for you to retire quietly?  Not to give up your principles or convictions, (Immense cheers.) but to keep out of the crowd where immortal souls are launched into eternity, and at all events get into no trouble till you are at home.  Would it not be better?  There is one thing in which I would ask your advice.  When these so-called riots are over and the blame is justly laid on Irish Catholics, I wish you to tell me in what country I could claim to be born?  (Voice—Ireland.)

Yes, but what shall I say if these stories be true?  Ireland, that never committed a single act of cruelty until she was oppressed.  Ireland, that has been the mother of heroes and poets, but never the mother of cowards.  (Great applause.)  When the first Apostle, St Patrick went to Ireland, he was preceded by Polladorus, and they listened to him as you now patiently listen to me. The soil of Ireland was never soiled by a single drop of martyr’s blood.  It would touch me deeply to have to reverse that record.  Perhaps you consider this a touch of blarney, but I assure you it is the truth.  (Cries of “It is, God bless you.”)

The delicacy of feeling in Ireland is very great.  You know, that Ireland sometimes produces idiots, not many of them, however, (laughter) but the delicacy of the people is such that they call them “Innocents” and not idiots.   Well, once there was a poor child in this way, and you know these people are not accountable for what they do, and he was very fond of raw eggs which he took and ate on all occasions.  Sometimes they were not so fresh as they might be, (laughter.) and one time, as he was swallowing his favorite beverage, he heard a chicken squeak in his throat.  “Ah, my dear fellow,” said he, “I am very sorry but you spoke too late.” And down it went.  But as I said before, there are very few of that sort in Ireland.  Oh, my friends, what a scene rises before me as I think of that land of my nativity, and as I glance at the long list of noble men who are exiled from their homes—such men as Field Marshal Nugent whom I knew intimately, and the O’Donnells of Spain; when I know that most of the colleges have been established by the sons of Ireland; when I know that in later days the blood of your brothers have fed the fields of the Crimea and Balaklava, and of the Delhi in India;  when I think of the Government which has persecuted them, leaving nothing for them but the United States—when I think of this, I do not envy the policy of John Bull, which replaces a noble population by a set of fat bullocks.  (Laughter.)  I took upon myself to say that you should not be molested in paying me a visit.  (Cheers.)  I thank you for your kindness—(applause.)—and I hope nothing will occur till you return home; and if by chance, as you go thither; you should meet a police officer, or a military man, why just——look at him.  (Tremendous laughter and applause.)

The crowd cheered vociferously, and demanded the presence of the Archbishop again upon the balcony.  He gratified them, bowed his thanks, and returned to his parlor, quite exhausted and greatly fatigued by the long standing and excitement.

After a while the crowd slowly dispersed, arguing among themselves as to what the Archbishop meant to have them do, some insisting that he refused to recognize them as rioters, and therefore they had done right; while others insisted that the venerable and suffering Priest intended to convey to them the wish that they should return to their homes and their work, and take things as they found them in their naturalized country—the land popularly supposed to be only the “home of the brave, and the land of the free.”

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

5 Comments

  1. I know his name is Dagger and he’s very tough, but this speech shows true love and good use of psychology! : First he praises their manhood, appeals to their instinct to protect women and children and gives a call to be gentlemen.
    He refers to his own frailty, his great heart and love for them and for all that he and they together both love, recognizing the struggles and desire to fight back. He addresses them as their father- appealing to their natural sense of order and filial piety, telling them they are “worth the whole of them”. He reminds them he is a minister of God, and that he has always been faithful to his calling and to them, his people He recognizes their grievances but puts them into a perspective and points out that change might not necessarily be an improvement. He counts his and their blessings in that the get to be here in this great land where the real and mortal grievances of the old country can not happen because of the order and system provided here by the Constitution and the electoral process.
    He appeals to their dignity as Irish Catholics; he identifies with them as their bishop having had his own troubles and persecutions, advises them to bear evils patiently. He is an Irishman with them and also a man of peace. Better to deal with troubles than rush into maybe worse trouble…he outlines the right way to change the government, at the ballot box and “Should not every man in his own modest way become a preserver of the peace?” 
    He tells them he is hurt by reports that they are rioters. So in his brilliant folksy and loving way he disarmed an excited crowd telling them to avoid being in the situation where “souls are launched into eternity” !!
    He makes them laugh with homey story of an “innocent” and warned them that the guilty are likely to escape… so he talks of innocence and guilt and practicality and honor. Irish have never been cowards, no martyrs please. He wants to remain proud of them– what can he answer if the reports of Irish Catholic riots were to turn out to be true!? Not afraid of john bull and “I hope nothing will occur till you return home; and if by chance, as you go thither; you should meet a police officer, or a military man, why just——look at him”

    I appreciate his trust in the Constitution and optimism about democracy here.

  2. Archbishop John Hughes…

    “….He unsparingly condemned those who, through fear of anti-Catholic feeling, were disposed to conciliate their opponents by seemingly harmless concessions. He was intolerant of the slightest modification or innovation in religion unless sanctioned by the Supreme Head of the Church. He believed that the adherence to Catholic faith should be bold, fearless, outspoken and uncompromising in the extreme, and especially so in the face of opposition….”http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07516a.htm

    I have no doubt that if Archbishop John Hughes lived today, he would count Frs. Theodore Hesburgh and John Jenkins of Notre Dame as members of the opposition to be resisted at all costs.

    May God bless the soul of Archbishop Hughes, this mighty champion of the victims of An Gorta Mor, and a true guardian of the Catholic faith in troubled times.

  3. Yes! Thank you Slainte we should heed and follow his example. Too many times people are just not thinking things completely.

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