A (Very) Brief Look at Catholics in the American Revolution

Independence-HallWritten by Steve Pehanich

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” - Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

It’s Independence Day – time for picnics, fireworks and summer vacation. The 3rd Annual Fortnight for Freedom ends today, mid-term elections are still a few months off and the California Legislature begins its summer recess.

In keeping with our annual celebration of democracy and this week’s victory for religious freedom (see Supreme Court Decision on Hobby Lobby: A Great Day for the Religious Freedom of Family Businesses), it seems an opportune time to remember some of the Catholics involved in the American Revolution.

You don’t read much about them during the colonial period. That’s because there weren’t many around – probably about 40,000 or slightly less and 2 percent of the 2.5 million residents of the 13 colonies.

There were more Catholics in the Southwest regions of the continent where the Spanish crown ruled. Same goes for French Louisiana and, once President Jefferson purchased the territory from Napoleon in 1804, the Catholic population jumped significantly.

Some Catholics, however, did play significant roles in the fight for American Independence:

Charles Carroll, a Catholic from Maryland, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His cousin, John Carroll of Baltimore, a Jesuit and good friend of Benjamin Franklin, became the first Archbishop in the newly independent nation. (Before that all Catholics in the Colonies and Canada were under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic in London.) Another cousin, Daniel, signed the Constitution.

In fact, Carroll’s Maryland is recognized as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States. It was founded by a Catholic, George Calvert, as a sanctuary for Catholics facing persecution in Europe.

George Washington tapped an Irish Catholic, Commodore John Barry, to head the U.S. Navy. He and John Paul Jones share the epithet, “Father of the U.S. Navy.” General Lafayette, a French Catholic, while not a Colonist, served under Washington and was instrumental in the Battle of Yorktown – the turning point in the Revolution. And Mary Waters, a daughter of Ireland, organized hospitals in Philadelphia during the war.

The colonies had “imported” a dislike of the Roman Church from their English roots. They were, after all, Englishmen. But they were also big believers in religious freedom which caused them to, at least, hesitate.

Today nearly one-third of Congress and six of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices are Catholic. Seventy-five million people, almost 25 percent, of the U.S. population are Catholic.

But we’re also still involved in a struggle to maintain those core “unalienable rights.”  It took a Civil War to settle the “original sin” of slavery inadequately dealt with by the Constitution. And this week’s Supreme Court ruling illustrates how we are still struggling to uphold religious freedom.

Even Thomas Jefferson –author of the “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor –recognized the value of religion. He encouraged the Ursiline Sisters to continue their charitable services in Louisiana after the purchase. (Catholic Charities USA points to the good sisters as the root of its many agencies around the nation.)

Jefferson assured them that their religion would be respected:

“...the principles of the constitution and government of the United states are a sure guarantee ...your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority,...”

We as a nation are still working on preserving and protecting those unalienable rights. And we will no doubt continue to do so for a long time.

Other tidbits...

Oldest church in the U.S. – San Miguel Mission, 1610, Santa Fe, NM; although many say the first Mass was in 1565 in St. Augustine, which is now in Florida.

Oldest in California –- it’s a question that every 4th grader in CA probably knows the answer to -- Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1782

Oldest in the 13 colonies – Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Bally PA 1721

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