Fortnight For Freedom Day Eleven: Catholics in the American Revolution

Sunday, July 1, AD 2012

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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jordi Farragut Mesquida, the father of Admiral Farragut of Civil War fame, was an immigrant from Spain. He served in the Revolution as both a naval officer and as a volunteer at the Battle of Cowpens.

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  • I had no idea the Catholic population was so small. I always wondered why there weren’t more among the founders.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jacques: When you entertain men who are courageous enough to die for the truth, all you can give them is the Virgin.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • She was born almost sixty years after the death of Washington Anzlyne. She could believe whatever she wished to about Washington, but her wishes do not alter the historical record and that is what we deal in here.

  • “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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • [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.

  • “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.

  • The problem with you republicans is that you take ancient Roman models as an ideal (Enlightenment conceit again, yawn).

    Oh goodie, is Morning’s Minion commenting here again?

  • 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.”

Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Without Morals A Republic Cannot Subsist Any Length of Time

Sunday, July 3, AD 2011



And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

                                           George Washington, Farewell Address

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as he signed his name when he added his signature to the Declaration of Independence, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  When he died at the age of 95, he was the last of the Signers to depart this vale of tears.

The scion of perhaps the richest family in the colonies, Charles Carroll was initially uninterested in politics and, in any case, was debarred by his religion from participating in politics in his native Maryland by his religion.  However, in his thirties he became a passionate advocate of American independence from Great Britain and quickly became one of the chief leaders of the Patriot cause in his home colony.  It was only natural as a result that he was sent to Congress, in spite of his religion, where he was one of the chief spokesmen for independence and happily placed his signature on the Declaration even though by doing so he risked not only his fortune but his life if the British had prevailed.  By the end of 1776 the revolutionary government of Maryland had issued an act of religious freedom, and Carroll and his fellow Catholics in Maryland enjoyed the same civil rights as Protestants.

In 1778 he returned to Maryland and helped draft the state constitution and in setting up the new state government, serving in the State Senate until 1800, and briefly in the United States Senate.

A slaveholder, throughout his career Carroll spoke and wrote of slavery as an evil that must come to an end as soon as possible.  He attempted, but failed, to have Maryland implement a plan of gradual emancipation.  At the age of 91 he took on the task of being president of the Auxiliary State Colonization Society of Maryland, part of  a national movement to have free blacks voluntarily colonize what would become Liberia in Africa.

Something of a Renaissance man, he had a strong interest in science and in his nineties helped set up the B&O Railroad, lending his prestige to this new technology in his native Maryland.

Throughout his life his two main passions were the American Revolution and his Faith.   Like most of the Founding Fathers he regarded the idea of political liberty divorced from sound morality, derived from religion, as an absurdity.  He set forth his ideas on this subject in a letter to Secretary of War James McHenry in 1800 in which he lamented the then current American political scene:

These events will be hastened by the pretended philosophy of France; divine revelation has been scoffed at by the Philosophers of the present day, the immortality of the soul treated as the dreams of fools, or the invention of knaves, & death has been declared by public authority an eternal sleep; these opinions are gaining ground amongst us & silently saping the foundations of religion & encouragement of good, the terror of evildoers and the consolation of the poor, the miserable, and the distressed. Remove the hope & dread of future reward & punishment, the most powerful restraint on wicked action, & ye strongest inducement to virtuous ones is done away. Virtue, it may be said, is its own reward; I believe it to be so, and even in this life the only source of happiness, and this intimate & necessary connection between virtue & happiness here, & between vice & misery, is to my mind one of the surest pledge of happiness or misery in a future state of existence. But how few practice virtue merely for its own reward? Some of happy dispositon & temperament, calm reflecting men, exempt in a great degree from the turbulance of passions may be virtuous for vitrtue’s sake. Small however is the number who are guided by reason alone, & who can always subject their passions to its dictates. He can thust act may be said to be virtuous, but reason is often inlisted on the side of the passions, or at best, when most wanted, is weakest. Hence the necessity of a superior motive for acting virtuously; Now, what motive can be stronger than ye belief, founded on revelation, that a virtuous life will be rewarded by a happy immortality? Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore, who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, & insures to the good eternal happiness are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free government.

Carroll didn’t think much of John Adams as President, but Adams had precisely the same views on this subject as he stated in an address on October 11, 1798 to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the militia of Massachusetts:  “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Most of the Founding Fathers left similar sentiments in their writings.  Something to ponder as we celebrate the Fourth tomorrow.  Here is the full text of the letter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton to James McHenry: 

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14 Responses to Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Without Morals A Republic Cannot Subsist Any Length of Time

  • Chesterton said morality consists in drawing the line somewhere. The problem in America is that the line keeps moving. And, Don, your old pal Thoreau said, “Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”

    Does one need to have religion to be moral? An old question that defies an answer. As the resident troll, let me aver that as an agnostic or an atheist can still know the difference between right and wrong.

    Enjoy the holiday!

  • The basis of all morality Joe is religion. Without that basis one merely has opinion which does sway with the times. A great Fourth to you Joe!

  • ‘The basis of all morality Joe is religion.’

    Don, the defense will stipulate if the prosecution will stipulate that the definition of ‘religion’ is open to interpretation.

  • Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
    Priest: “No, not if you did not know.”
    Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?”

  • Oh there have been many religions Joe. Today the two main schools of thought tend to be that they are equally true or equally false. I of course adhere to the belief that Catholicism is true with elements of that truth contained in some other religions.

    Western man, particularly in Europe, is living off the capital of Christianity when it comes to a common moral code. As that capital wanes over time, so does the common moral code. Winston Churchill, a believer in God but probably not a Christian, once said that something was as impossible as a law legalizing sodomy. We see in regard to homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia and contraception how quickly morality shifts once the religious basis of a moral code fades away. That is also why Europeans, most of them, have such a difficult time standing up to challenges from Islamic immigrants to what were once thought to be bedrock Western ideas such as tolerance, freedom of speech, etc. Quite a few people are willing to die in defense of something that they view as eternally true; very few over a difference of opinion that might cause them to risk physical harm.

  • Albert Camus, as conflicted a man as there ever was, considered himself an atheist but wrote: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t and die to find out there is.”

    So it’s always good to leave oneself a little spirtual wiggle room. 😆

  • Pascal’s wager in modern dress. A shame that such a promising work in progress as Camus came to an untimely end in a car crash.

  • One can safely say that a society that abandons its religion-based moral code often loses its civilized state. Compare the French, American, and Russian Revolutions. The US was the only country to emerge healthier. The other two descended into chaos. So, on the macro level, I think that Carroll is right.

    What about the micro level – can individuals be moral without religion? Well, that depends what you mean by “moral”. If you’re referring to objective standards, well, some people without religion deny that objective standards exist. Those people may act morally, but it’d be difficult to say that they are moral. As for those who deny religion but claim that morality consists of objective standards, how are we to judge their actions? By our shared standards, by those that they hold that we don’t, or by those that we hold but they don’t?

    Take a simple case – non-religious people commit a sin every Sunday that they don’t go to church. If we criticize them for it, we’re judging ther actions on our standards. If we accept their standards in assessing their morality, we lose the ability to judge a murderer’s actions by our code. And lest this seem like a trivial matter, recall that Aquinas found religion to be connected to justice, a natural virtue. Natural law and human experience tell us that it is morally good to recognize and worship the divine to the extent that you understand it. So on this basis one can argue that the irreligious are immoral.

    Just a first crack at the question.

  • Don – I’m hoping that this thread hasn’t dried up. I read this article this morning, and I haven’t been able to shake this particular sentence all day:

    If our country should continue to be the sport of parties, if the mass of the people should be exasperated & roused to pillage the more wealthy, social order will be subverted, anarchy will follow, succeeded by despotism; these changes have in that order of succession taken place in France.

    Do you know what he means? I can imagine he’s thinking about the overthrow of property rights in France, but he seems to be implying that he sees the parties of his day pushing in the same direction. The idea that a Founder was worried about pillaging of the wealthy intrigues me, given what we’ve seen in the US since the Great Society. Any insight you can provide would be most welcome.

  • Pinky, Federalists like Carroll were concerned that the followers of Mr. Jefferson would replicate in America the French Revolution. Their concerns were overblown on that score to say the least, although the vitriol of some Jefferson’s fiercer acolytes in the press gave adequate reasons for the fear of the Federalists.

    When demagogues decide to engage in class warfare rantings there is always the possibility that liberty will be diminished by the use of governmental power to seize private wealth and bring it under government control. The Communist states of the last century were the prime examples of what disasters resulted from these policies. I do not fear such an outcome in this nation. What I do fear, and what I think is coming to pass, is that the use of deficit spending to pay government benefits by churning the money out of thin air, is having a devastating impact on the ability of our economy to be productive. This simply cannot go on much longer, and whenever the benefits cease or are greatly devalued, I would not bet against significant civil unrest.

  • What I do fear, and what I think is coming to pass, is that the use of deficit spending to pay government benefits by churning the money out of thin air,

    Although there has been some currency erosion, the resources have not been ‘churned out of the air’ but borrowed from other components of the public and (since 1982 or therabouts) from the sovereign wealth funds and such in the Far East (where income routinely exceeds consumption).

    Congress and the President have been for months playing chicken games which may lead to either a sovereign default or to a government shut down far more consequential than we have seen to date. All of this is in the service of public posturing, gamesmanship, and certain idees fixes. Morals figures into this in the deficit of civic virtue amongst our political class, sometimes manifest quite brazenly and sometimes intermediated through a tendency to see reality as optional.

  • “churned out of the air’ but borrowed from other components of the public and (since 1982 or therabouts) from the sovereign wealth funds and such in the Far East (where income routinely exceeds consumption).”

    And which we have little expectation of paying Art in the absence of a severe bout of inflation lasting years, or currency devaluation. This is all heading towards debt repudiation although I am certain that a prettier term will be used to conceal the reality.

  • The ratio of public debt to domestic product has been as high as 119% in living memory. Were the debt to rise to 90% of domestic product (as it is expected to ‘ere too many years), service charges given common and garden interest rates on Treasury securities might be 4% of domestic product. (IIRC, service charges during the Reagan Administration were as high as 3.2% of domestic product). Devoting around 1% of domestic product to debt retirement would allow the serviced debt of 90% of domestic product domestic product to be liquidated within four decades. (Given normal growth rates of nominal domestic product). We can service and retire this debt, but it would require concerted action to balance our books over the next four or five years and a general policy of running small surpluses over the course of the business cycle for decades thereafter. ‘Tis possible, but ’tis not what our (federal) politicians are the least inclined to do (and Obama, Reid, and Boehner are alike in this regard).