Catholics in the American Revolution

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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

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.  Determining how many Catholics served in the Continental Army or the American militias is a matter for speculation as records of religious affiliations were not normally kept.  From anecdotal evidence my guess would be at least five percent, far in excess of the Catholic percentage of the population.

The foreign volunteers who came to fight for our freedom were overwhelmingly Catholic, including LaFayette,  Duportail, Kosciuszko  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.

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.

 

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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7 Comments

  1. It is always worth noting the Spanish contributions to American Independence. Fray Junipero Serra sent money. The society ladies of La Havana raised funds. The Spanish King sent his navy to tie up the British Navy and kicked the British out of the Mississippi Valley.

    Catholic contributions to American Independence were numerous and vast.

  2. We must recall that one of the grievances of the colonies, the New England and Mid-Atlantic ones especially, was that the English crown tolerated the presence of Catholics in Quebec and Montreal.

    I am pleased that leading our nation’s Founding Fathers were able to hold their anti-Catholic prejudices in check and eventually overcome them.

  3. No one could deny that there was a lot of anti-Catholicism in the 13 colonies, but there was more to the Quebec Act than ensuring the practice of Catholicism in Quebec. It also extended the boundaries of Quebec south to the Ohio River and West to the Mississippi, nullifying the western claims of colonies down to Virginia, and threatening the western expansion of the 13 colonies that was now well underway. The Colonists were also afraid that the government established for Quebec, a Royal Governor appointed by the Crown and an appointed legislative council, was a model that would be imposed on the 13 colonies, doing away with their elected legislatures.

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