Monday, January 30, 2017

“Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”

On the morning of October 29, 1884, the Republican candidate for president of the United States, James Gillespie Blaine (1830-1893), attended a rally of Protestant clergy at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City.  The afternoon was to be devoted to a final visit to the city’s Irish neighborhoods to clinch the Catholic votes Blaine seemed certain to get, and on which he relied to secure his election.
Rev. Burchard single-handedly lost the election.
Unfortunately, in his welcoming speech, the Reverend Samuel Dickerson Burchard (1812-1891) declared, “We are Republicans and don’t propose to leave our Party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.”[1]
The sentiment was not original with Burchard.  During the 1880 election, the Republican candidate James Garfield had written in a letter to a supporter, “the combined power of rebellion, Catholicism and whiskey [is] a trinity very hard to conquer.”[2]
Blaine at first appeared to take no notice of the statement.  A little later in the proceedings, however, he commented to the event’s organizer, James King, “That ‘Rum, Romanism and Rebellion’ remark is exceedingly unfortunate.”[3]
The damage, however, had been done.  The Democratic Party’s New York press agents immediately printed pamphlets and flooded the city.  Within a few days, tens of thousands of them had been distributed throughout the Northeast, the bulk of them to Catholics following Mass on Sunday, November 2, 1884, just before Election Day.
James G. Blaine noted the "exceedingly unfortunate" remark.
Efforts to get Burchard to apologize for his statement were unavailing.  Despite that, the results were so close that had Blaine been able to carry New York, he would have been elected.  When the votes were counted, however, it was found that the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, had won New York with a margin of less than 1,200 votes.
Ironically, while “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” cost Blaine the election and is virtually the only thing most people today remember about him — even though he wasn’t the one to say it — the three Rs that concerned most people about the Catholic Church in the latter half of the nineteenth century were Readin’, ’Ritin’, and ’Rithmetic.  From the time of the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852 that urged the establishment of parochial schools, Know-Nothings and their nativist sympathizers had portrayed the nascent Catholic school system in varying degrees of hysteria as the single greatest danger to the United States.
The explosive growth of the Church in the United States had resulted in the equally rapid establishment of Catholic institutions as well as voters without a private property stake in the economy, and therefore liable to having their votes purchased after the extension of the franchise in 1820.  Schools, hospitals, and orphanages proliferated.  Along with that came the demand from Catholics that, as these institutions provided a necessary public service and relieved the government of the expense of having to establish and maintain its own institutions, the government should contribute something to their maintenance.
Public schools if Catholics took over, according to nativist fears.
There was also the argument that without state financial aid, parents who sent their children to Catholic schools were forced to pay twice for education, in public school taxes and in tuition.  Further, the Bible used in the public schools was the King James Version, which, while venerable and poetic, distorted or changed Catholic teaching.  Finally, as parents are primarily responsible for their children’s education, simple justice demanded that the taxes they paid for education be used to pay for the education they preferred.
A compromise that worked well for a number of years was “the Poughkeepsie Plan,” implemented in New York, Connecticut, and parts of the Midwest.  A local school board would build a school and staff it with qualified Catholic sisters and lay teachers.  During the day the official curriculum would be taught, while religious instruction would be offered after hours on a strictly voluntary basis.  While successful in some areas, protests by nativists and radical Protestants prevented it from being widely adopted.
To the nativists, it was impossible for a good Catholic to be a good citizen.
The argument on the other side was twofold.  The first, and the one that continues to the present day, is that separation of Church and State in the Constitution requires the government to maintain a strict neutrality in matters of religion.  This is the case even in those areas where a religious organization provides an essential public service and no specific religious doctrines or teachings are promulgated.  Thus, mere association with a religious organization, Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, was enough to mandate that there be no public funding, even if most or all of the services provided had nothing to do with any specific religious tenet.
Fr. McGlynn: Catholic schools are un-American.
The second, and the one that whipped nativists into a frenzy, was the specious claim that Catholic schools were inferior and prevented the enculturation of Catholic children as good Americans.  Catholic schools and other institutions must not only receive no government funds, they must be outlawed.  As Father Edward McGlynn and others contended, the doctrines taught in Catholic schools were un-American, and they would cause Catholics to vote for candidates for public office who would destroy the country.
While most people opposed to aid to religious schools based their position on a combination of these two arguments, the second revealed what was really at stake.  The question was not whom Catholics would control with their vote, but who would control the Catholic vote.  Most Catholics lacked property, and thus power, and would vote for whoever would deliver the most benefits — “Welfare Blackmail” did not come in with the New Deal.
#30#


[1] George J. Marlin, The American Catholic Vote. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2006, 110.
[2] Edward Richter, Religion and the Presidency.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1962, 50; cited in Marlin, The American Catholic Voter, op. cit., 106.
[3] Richter, 36, cited in Marlin, 110.

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