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Fortnight For Freedom: Catholics in the American Revolution

Fortnight For Freedom 2015

 

Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.

Pope Leo XIII

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, far in exess of the Catholic percentage of the population.

The foreign volunteers who came to fight for our freedom were overwhelmingly Catholic, including LaFayette,  Duportail, Kosciuszko  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.

Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the independent United States, and the brother of Daniel Carroll, a signer of the Constitution, and cousin of Charles Carroll of Carollton who signed 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.

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Let us not forget the contribution made by the Spanish Navy. They attacked English shipping in the Caribbean and kicked the English out of the Mississippi Valley. The society ladies of Havana, Cuba (it is difficult to believe that Cuba was ever wealthy) assisted General Washington with their own funds.

    Was it not mentioned in this blog that Fray Serra, the evangelist of California, assisted the cause for independence with his own funds?

    The Church was already in existence in St. Augustine, St. Louis, New Orleans, parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California before independence though not subject to Great Britain. This is part of American history, but a matter for another time. I mention this because the Church has a history in this country that predates any other Christian church and we should all know this.

  2. 2nd Canadian Regiment From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Active 1776–1783
    Allegiance Second Continental Congress of the United States
    Type Infantry
    Size 1,000 authorized
    Part of Continental Army
    Nickname Congress’ Own, Hazen’s
    Motto Pro aris et focis
    Colors Brown and Yellow stripes
    Engagements Battle of Staten Island
    Battle of Brandywine
    Battle of Germantown
    Siege of Yorktown

    Notable commanders Moses Hazen

    The 2nd Canadian Regiment, also known as Congress’ Own or Hazen’s Regiment, was authorized on January 20, 1776, as an Extra Continental regiment and raised in the province of Quebec for service with the Continental Army under the command of Colonel Moses Hazen. All or part of the regiment saw action at Staten Island, Brandywine, Germantown and the Siege of Yorktown. Most of its non-combat time was spent in and around New York City as part of the forces monitoring the British forces occupying that city. The regiment was disbanded on November 15, 1783 at West Point, New York.

    The regiment was one of a small number of Continental Army regiments that was the direct responsibility of the Continental Congress (most regiments were funded and supplied by a specific state). Commanded by Colonel (later Brigadier General) Moses Hazen for its entire existence, the regiment was originally made up of volunteers and refugees from Quebec (some of the officers but most of the enlisted men were Catholics whose families had settled in Canada when it was known as New France (my words)) who supported the rebel cause during the disastrous Invasion of Canada. Hazen and his staff were later authorized by Congress to recruit in other areas to supplement their ranks.

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