Lincoln, the Constitution and Catholics


In the 1840s America was beset by a wave of anti-Catholic riots.  An especially violent one occurred in Philadelphia on May 6-8.  These riots laid the seeds for a powerful anti-Catholic movement which became embodied in the years to come in the aptly named Know-Nothing movement.  To many American politicians Catholic-bashing seemed the path to electoral success.

Lincoln made clear where he stood on this issue when he organized a public meeting in Springfield, Illinois on June 12, 1844.  At the meeting he proposed and had the following resolution adopted by the meeting:

“Resolved, That the guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution, is most sacred and inviolable, and one that belongs no less to the Catholic, than to the Protestant; and that all attempts to abridge or interfere with these rights, either of Catholic or Protestant, directly or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation, and shall ever have our most effective opposition. Resolved, That we reprobate and condemn each and every thing in the Philadelphia riots, and the causes which led to them, from whatever quarter they may have come, which are in conflict with the principles above expressed.”

Lincoln remained true to this belief.  At the height of the political success of the Know-Nothing movement 11 years later, Mr. Lincoln in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed wrote:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

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  1. When I was visiting the Mission of San Juan de Capistrano in California, I learned that it had been seized from the Church by the Mexican government but was returned by President Abraham Lincoln.

  2. This is one of the reasons why I don’t understand certain Catholic efforts to paint Lincoln as the villain of the Civil War.

  3. Reconcile:

    Lincoln’s enthusiastic embrace of “Total War” against not simply armies but against civilian, non-combatant populations, see, e.g., an account of Sherman’s wasting entire regions of the south with the specific intent of causing civilian suffering (


    The Church greatly respects those who have dedicated their lives to the defense of their nation. “If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace. [Cf. Gaudium et spes 79, 5]” However, she cautions combatants that not everything is licit in war. Actions which are forbidden, and which constitute morally unlawful orders that may not be followed, include:

    – attacks against, and mistreatment of, non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners;

    – genocide, whether of a people, nation or ethnic minorities;

    – indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants.

    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2313-2314).

    Hux, perhaps some Catholics don’t simply swallow an Americanist-tinged view of our history. There is nothing inherent in Catholicism that lends support to the centralizing, revolutionary nature of what Lincoln did, much less to his warm embrace of modern notions of warfare which are nothing but war crimes.

  4. Um, I dunno that Lincoln embraced “total war” in the sense you describe. If you read Slate magazine’s recent article on Lincoln and the “laws” of war, you find that he more or less set the standards that we follow to this day for what is considered legitimate warfare and what isn’t.

    It’s true he took fighting beyond the strict limits of 18th-century warfare, where elaborately uniformed soldiers marched in straight lines to shoot at one another. However, he did also set limits that kept Sherman’s march to the sea and other offensives from degenerating into the kind of take-no-prisoners, rape-and-pillage campaigns that, for example, the Soviets and Japanese practiced during World War II.

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