BOOK REVIEW: Our Dear Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America by Michael D. Breidenbach (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021)
Most Americans in pre-revolutionary times had a strong dislike of Catholicism. They believed it to be a religion of ignorance, a religion of tyranny, and the religion of the enemy. The ever-opinionated John Adams attended a mass in Philadelphia in 1774, motivated by “curiosity and good company.” He wrote home to Abigail to describe the “poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria’s. Their holy Water—their Crossing themselves perpetually—their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, wherever they hear it—their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar.” He described the priest’s ornate vestments, the beautiful music, and the bloody crucifix above the altar. “Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.” He admitted, though, that the sermon was good.
Protestants’ views of Catholics aside, it was the Church itself, and more specifically the Papacy, that presented a problem for the British Empire. The influential political thinker John Locke asserted in his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration that a “church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate, which is constituted upon such a bottom, that all those who enter into it . . . deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.” By tolerating such a church, a ruler would “suffer his own people, to be lifted, as it were, for soldiers against his own government.” The example he used was Islam, but it was Catholicism he was concerned about.
Michael Breidenbach is a Cambridge University-educated associate history professor at Ave Maria University, an orthodox Catholic school in Florida. His book Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America illustrates the remarkably rapid transformation of Americans’ treatment of Catholics during the Founding Era. Irish Catholics like Capt. John Barry, Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald, and Col. Stephen Moylan played important roles in the Continental Navy and Army. Maryland’s Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence and held a seat on the Continental Congress’s powerful Board of War. Generals Lafayette and Pulaski were both Catholic, as were the French and Spanish empires that came to America’s aid.
The political power of the papacy was real. Centuries before, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV responded to his excommunication by traveling to Canossa, Italy to beg for forgiveness. He stood barefoot and wearing sackcloth in the snow for three days before Pope Gregory VII admitted him to the castle. Pope Boniface VIII’s 1302 bull Unam Sanctumasserted that “in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal.” The temporal sword was to be administered “by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.” Moreover, he declared “that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Later popes divided the New World between Spain and Portugal and sought to oust the House of Hanover from the British throne.
One way Britain, and eventually her colonies, addressed their fear of Catholicism was by administering oaths. The most important was the Oath of Allegiance, in which a person swore specific loyalty to the King and denied the pope’s authority to authorize the monarch’s overthrow or murder. The Oath of Supremacy denied the spiritual or ecclesiastical authority of any foreign prince, person, or prelate. The Oath of Abjuration denied the right of the ousted (and Catholic) House of Stuart to reclaim the throne.
British Catholics were viewed with suspicion, especially after Guy Fawkes’ 1605 “Gunpowder Plot.” They were largely disenfranchised and unable to hold office, serve in the military, or even sit on corporate boards. Catholics seeking to improve their situation looked to traditions from within Catholicism itself stemming from earlier debates over the papacy. Breidenbach uses the term “antipapalism” throughout the book to refer to resistance within the Catholic Church to the centralization of power in the person of the pope. (It should not be confused with anti-Catholicism.) The alternative to papalism was “conciliarism,” a structure in which ultimate church authority was vested in councils such as the ancient Council of Nicaea, the medieval Council of Constance, or the modern Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Conciliarism provided a path for British Catholics like George and Cecil Calvert to be both Catholic and loyal to the king. The strong language in the Oath of Allegiance, however, remained a problem. Pope Paul V had promised to excommunicate any Catholic who swore it. George Calvert resigned from the King’s privy council rather than take the oath. The Calverts, who remained in the Crown’s good graces, then faced another problem as they planned their Maryland colony. Colonists were routinely required to take the oath before sailing to America. The Calverts sought to resolve this by rewriting the oath. Though historians have known about this effort for a long time, Breidenbach discovered an additional draft that illustrates the intensity of the project. The eventual product was an oath that declared loyalty to the king and removed all references to the pope (or his power to depose kings). Remarkably, the King and the Vatican both accepted it. Equally important was the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, which assured that Catholics and Protestants could coexist in the colony and foreshadowed the English Toleration Act of 1689. Despite these successes, the Calverts’ proprietorship of Maryland was overthrown the same year by Protestants leveraging the events of the Glorious Revolution.
More than six decades later, the French and Indian War was to a significant degree framed as a war against Catholicism. It was a shock, therefore, to many colonists when the Quebec Act of 1774 allowed the church and its institutions to remain in place in Canada and Florida while also extending the boundaries of Quebec south to the Ohio River. The First Continental Congress expressed its “astonishment, that a British Parliament, should ever consent to establish in that country, a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion, through every part of the world.”
But when pre-revolutionary protests turned to war, these attitudes changed quickly. Canadians were immediately seen as potential allies. Catholics, previously barred from military service, were allowed to serve in the Continental Army as long as they did not hold papalist views. Washington prohibited celebrations of Guy Fawkes’ Day in the army. Charles Carroll, a conciliarist Catholic from Maryland, served in the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was sent as an emissary to Canada along with his cousin, John Carroll, who was a Jesuit priest. When the Catholic Bishop of Quebec learned they were coming to advocate for the American cause he threatened to excommunicate anyone who joined with them. After the war, John’s brother Daniel represented Maryland at the Constitutional Convention along with another Catholic, Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania. Fitzsimons, Daniel Carroll, and Charles Carroll were elected to the first Federal Congress.
Breidenbach’s careful history of Catholicism in the British Empire and early America is well-done. His discovery of Cecil Calvert’s draft Oath of Allegiance provides an important corner piece to the documentary puzzle. However, his analysis of the dawn of religious freedom in America may be his most important contribution. It is quite different from the common understanding and helps us understand the moment by looking not only at what the Founders did, but also at what they did not do.
In 1790, John Carroll became the first Catholic Bishop in the United States. Seven years earlier, the Vatican sought the Confederation Congress’s approval of his appointment as an ecclesiastical superior. In doing so, the Holy See was adhering to a protocol that had developed through centuries of struggle. The appointment of even Anglican bishops had been such a touchy subject in North America that none were ever appointed in the colonial era. But in 1783, the Congress simply declined to approve or disapprove of Carroll’s appointment. It politely replied that authority in “purely spiritual” matters was “reserved to the several States individually.” Congress had no interest in a power, for which monarchs and princes had fought for centuries. John Carroll himself noted that “the American Congress does not wish to treat of matters which concern one or another group of Christians, but to those who profess a certain creed it allows full liberty, without governmental interference, with respect to whatever pertains to its cult, discipline and internal organization, provided however that no harm ensues to the Republic.”
Four years later, the Constitution, in Article VI, established that state and federal office-holders “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be Required as a Qualification To any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This, according to Breidenbach, is arguably the Constitution’s “first establishment clause.”
In Britain and its American colonies, the legal requirements to swear to support or reject a particular religion or set of religious doctrines were the clearest manifestation of state sovereignty over religion. Religious tests had the implicit intent of making dissenters conform to the state religion or at least of excluding them from positions of authority. And since swearing was considered a religious act, religious tests were considered state-mandated religious acts.
Consequently, Breidenbach argues that Article VI was more fundamentally important for religious freedom than the First Amendment. A ban on religious tests implied and necessitated the absence of a state church. Even Charles Carroll did not think the First Amendment was necessary, because the Constitution respected state sovereignty. “As a principal drafter of the Maryland Declaration of Rights in 1776, he had eliminated taxation for the support of the Church of England, which effectively disestablished the church—an act as yet without parallel in the other states.” Federalists such as James Madison generally agreed with Carroll, but they also thought the Amendment would reconcile Antifederalists with the new government.
“While much of the contemporary discourse about church-state relations and religious liberty has been preoccupied with the First Amendment, that Amendment was, in part, a later outcome of what had already been set down in Article VI.” Moreover, the First Amendment’s establishment clause could be and still is construed to mean any number of things, including “governmental command over doctrines, liturgy, and ministers; church attendance requirements or restrictions; financial support for the established church; the performance of mixed functions such as marriages and welfare programs; religious tests for public offices; or other restrictions on nonconformists.” Breidenbach asserts that there was only one clear meaning at the time: Congress would not present or approve of bishops for installation.
It is hard to overstate the historical significance of this, and yet it is seldom mentioned. “While scholarship on religious liberty in early America has generally focused on individual religious liberty, the freedom to consecrate local bishops showed that the American church-state settlement also recognized a liberty of the church.” The balance, and the evident meaning of a “separation of church and state,” was that bishops would “not hold any authority in temporal affairs, and the source of their authority would not derive from civil powers.” In emphasizing the importance of this, Breidenbach notes, “The acceptance of bishops in the United States without a church establishment or even governmental approval was exceptional for its time. But no less remarkable was the willingness of Anglican and Catholic ecclesiastical authorities to install bishops in contrast to their long-standing traditions.”
Breidenbach has more to say that runs counter to common modern understandings. While Article VI prohibited religious tests, it did require an oath, and an oath is a religious act. Consequently, Article VI was understood to bar atheists from public office. He also writes that “While the American founders insisted that bishops be without temporal power and the national government be without ecclesiastical power, no interpretation can accurately claim that the establishment clause amounted to a strict separation of church and state.”
Despite their seeming secularity, Article VI, the oath bill, and the First Amendment still allowed legislators much latitude in creating a moral establishment. Neither the religious-test ban nor the later establishment clause of the First Amendment could preclude a de facto church-state unity. . . . [A] government could still consist of officeholders of the same religion through election. . . . Moreover, members of Congress could infuse law with their religiously inspired principles; pay ministers to run civilizing missions; elect and support congressional chaplains; display religious iconography in federal buildings; and allow states to have established churches and religious tests. For much of American history, Protestantism was the moral establishment.
Breidenbach convincingly argues that Catholics played an active, intentional, and philosophically-grounded role in creating a national ethic of religious toleration and a constitution that guarantees it. To do so, they had to reject “the two beliefs that had made Catholicism politically intolerable: that the pope’s spiritual and moral teachings can be infallible, and that he has the authority to intervene in countries’ temporal affairs, including the right to depose civil rulers.” They did not do this by abandoning their faith, but rather by searching deep into Catholicism’s roots. Nevertheless, Breidenbach says, “Religious liberty for Catholics . . . has historically been tenuous since it depends on whether others perceive or prejudge Catholics’ orientation as either papalist or antipapalist.” Future events did not make it any easier. On the one side, waves of Irish and Italian immigration and the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s revived anti-Catholic sentiment in many American quarters. On the other side, papal infallibility became dogma in 1870 and in 1885 Pope Leo XIII endorsed the connection of church and state and specifically warned against the American example.
As late as 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy felt the need to declare himself an antipapalist in terms so strong that fifty years later another Catholic presidential candidate, Sen. Rick Santorum, asserted that “Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear, he chose to expel faith” from the public square entirely. Today, seven of the nine Supreme Court justices are or were raised Catholic, but the intersection of religion and government remains a touchy subject. Muslims, Evangelicals, and others continue to feel that their views are not welcome where and when it matters most. Breidenbach’s thorough and scholarly study of how Catholics navigated intolerance—thoughtfully and courageously—provides a roadmap for future debate and encouragement for those who feel disenfranchised.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, October 9, 1774, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0111.
Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, November 18, 1302, Papal Encyclicals Online.
Rick Santorum, “Charge to Revive the Role of Faith in the Public Square,” September 14, 2010.