Fortnight For Freedom: Catholics in the American Revolution

Fortnight For Freedom 2014



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

From the foundation of this nation, Catholics have fought and died in defense of American liberties.  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 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.

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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  1. Spain sent her Navy to battle her ancient British enemy in defense of the fledgling American republic as well. The anti-Catholics among us have no idea how much assistance was provided by Catholics,both American and from friendly countries, in the War for Independence. Victory would not have been achieved without it.

  2. Yep.
    “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.”

  3. We too easily forget the disabilities to which Catholics were still subject in Great Britain and Ireland as late as 1776.

    In Scotland, the Penal Laws were not enforced, but they remained on the statute book. The prosecution of Bishop Hugh MacDonald of Morar, titular bishop of Diana and Apostolic Visitor to the Highland District in 1756 under the act against “Jesuits, seminaries, mass priests and trafficking papists” and the deportation of those priests who were “out” in the ’45 had shown these laws could still be exploited against political opponents. Bishop Hugh’s real offence in the eyes of government had been his blessing the Prince’s standard at the Gathering at Glenfinnan on 19 August 1745.

    However, the civil disabilities resulting from the Test Acts effectively excluded Catholics from all public employment, civil or military, from the universities and the learned professions and from sitting in either house of parliament.

    In England, the limited relief offered by the Act of 1778 led to the Gordon Riots of 1780 and showed how easily the anti-Catholic sentiments of the mob could be exploited by demagogues. In Ireland, the Ascendency, as backward as the boyars of Russia and quite untouched by the Enlightenment, continued to enforce the Penal Laws in their full rigour, until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 was adopted by the Irish Parliament in 1792-3, the London government having provided a fund for “rounding up the boys.” This largesse was inspired by a dread of Jacobin sentiments spreading from France. The ’98 Rising showed the fear was well-founded.

  4. Mr. Paterson-Seymour,

    I am aware of the hostility in England and Scotland towards Catholics that went on for centuries. Great Britain was especially hypocritical in its treatment to Catholics. Great Britain took Quebec from France in the 1760s. The terms of surrender included the religious freedom of Quebec Catholics. However, in the 13 colonies, only Pennsylvania had any real religious freedom. Maryland was established as a safe haven for English Catholics, but that was wiped out in less than 100 years. As a result, many Maryland Catholics moved west to the Pennsylvania frontiers, establishing themselves in several places, among them present day Cambria County (Johnstown). Father Demetrius Gallitzin, a Russian noble and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, converted to the Catholic church as a result of his time in France (before the French Revolution), became a priest, and served the fledgling Catholic population in present day West Central Pennsylvania in the years subsequent to the War for Independence.

    Most American Catholics are aware of the plight of the Irish. Countless Irish emigrated to these shores as a result of persecution, oppression and starvation by the English – even after the Acts of 1829 that allowed the Catholic Church to reestablish itself in England.

    The Americans of Irish descent were never in a rush to help Great Britain in either World War as a result of these evil deeds.

    Another English “sin” was the Black Legend. England cranked up the propaganda machine accusing Spain of countless horrors related to the Inquisition and the Spanish Empire in the New World. Meanwhile, England thought nothing of stealing Spanish gold, sinking Spanish shipping, invading Spanish colonies and torturing and killing Catholics in the UK. Henry Tudor and his bastard daughter Elizabeth killed more people – mostly Catholics – than the Inquisition and it isn’t even close.

    England bestowed upon us in the US its tradition of common law and an elected legislature. She gave us slavery and anti Catholicism too.

  5. Penguins Fan wrote, “England bestowed upon us in the US its tradition of common law…”
    Except in Louisiana. When the governor had attempted to promulgate common law in the new territory, the legislature protested, complaining about the “frightful chaos of the common law.” Thus, in 1808, a Kentucky lawyer, James Brown and the Paris-trained Louis Moreau Lislet (a refugee from the slave revolt of 1791 in Saint-Domingue) drew up the new Civil Code, with the French Code Civil of 1804 (Code Napoléon) at their elbow.

    Scotland, too, preserves its legacy of Roman Law, despite the Act of Union in 1707

  6. Louisiana was, of course, part of the Louisiana Purchase made by Thomas Jefferson from Napoleon, after Haiti achieved its independence from France (at a frightful cost). Napoleon had no need of the land he (took from Spain) sold. Louisiana, being a Catholic outpost and previously settled, had its own legal code in place.

    The “free associated state” of Puerto Rico, which has a population larger than several US states, also uses Napoleonic law in its own Commonwealth legal code.

    I should mention that there is a cause for canonization underway for Father Demetrius Gallitzin. No doubt it would annoy the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy, who is still annoyed at the existence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

    Another foreign born Catholic – a Pole – who volunteered for the American cause was Tadeusz Kościuszko. He was a colonel in the Continental Army for seven years.

  7. Penguins Fan

    Tadeusz Kościuszko was a very great man, who long fought for the freedom of Poland. Having met him, the astonished Talleyrand remarked, “The search of Diogenes is ended: we have found an honest man.”
    By the Décret de 26 août 1792, the French Legislative Assembly awarded Kościuszko honorary citizenship of France in honour of his fight for the freedom of his fatherland, as well as of the United States and for the ideas of equality and liberty. The decree, conferred the same honour on William Wilberforce, the English anti-slavery campaigner and Kościuszko himself left his American estate for the freeing and education of African-American slaves.
    He famously called Napoléon, “the undertaker of the French Republic.”

  8. Great post and comments. The quote from Benedict Arnold chills me.

    Bishop Carroll:
    “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.”

    Wouldn’t it be great if that could be said of us today!

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