It comes as a complete surprise to many people today to find out that one of the most burning issues of the latter half of the nineteenth century in U.S. politics was “the Catholic Question.” The fact that not even textbooks in Catholic schools mention this, or give any hint that something was amiss, may be a symptom of just what is wrong with both Academia and politics today. After all, if you don’t know why something is the way it is, how can you expect to come up with a just or even workable solution?
|Today's "Good News" was very bad news in the 1800s.|
Reading the newspapers and popular and scholarly journals of the day, we discover something even more surprising to our modern notions. The Catholic school system, the U.S. Church’s “jewel in the crown,” was widely viewed in some circles as a serious danger to the survival of the United States.
The usual argument was that Catholic schools prevented enculturation, and thus Catholic children from becoming good Americans. America, as the many nativist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Protective Association insisted, is for Americans. It is not for the ragged masses of degenerate subjects of some Italian princeling heading up a religion alien to the American Way of Life.
|McGlynn and George defending the U.S. from the Roman Menace.|
There were even Catholics who made this claim. Anxious to become more American than other Americans, even Catholic priests like Father Edward McGlynn (1837-1900) — who also dissented on matters of Church doctrine and discipline, as well as championing the agrarian socialism of Henry George (1839-1897) — declared that Catholic schools were the single largest stumbling block to widespread assimilation and acceptance of Catholics into American life.
Not that McGlynn, who was excommunicated in 1887 for disobedience, represented more than a tiny fraction of Catholics, especially Catholic clergy. McGlynn’s friend and fellow priest, Father Richard Lalor Burtsell (1840-1912), even questioned the orthodoxy of some of McGlynn’s more radical religious opinions, while some of McGlynn’s political and economic stands made him a little nervous. Interestingly, Burtsell himself favored ordination of women and explored with McGlynn the possibility of setting up an independent parish in New York City to get out from under the thumb of tyrannical Church authority in the Archdiocese.
|KKK Defenders of the Master Race|
What triggered the animus of nativists and academics was the fact that by the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had become the single largest religious denomination in the United States. Combined with the outstanding war record of Catholics on both sides during the Civil War, the Catholic Church represented a clear and present danger to the “WASP”/Aryan establishment, convinced it had a divine mandate to rule the world through the American Republic and the British Empire in tandem.
Ironically, the same argument had been made during the 1850s to justify the continuation and expansion of slavery. David Christy’s Cotton is King (1855) made the argument that the economic and political survival of the United States and the British Empire depended absolutely on the slave cultivation of cotton. After the war, the argument changed to the claim that the survival of America and Britain was seriously threatened by the growth of the Catholic Church, and the franchise given to so many people brainwashed in Catholic schools.
|Boss Tweed funding Catholic schools to take over the U.S.|
With the rapid growth of the Catholic Church and its consequent increasing influence in politics, there was great fear expressed that the Catholics would use their votes to conquer the country and impose the Romish religion and install the pope as ruler. A graphic example of what the Catholics would do if they got into power was how Tammany Hall — the Democratic political machine in New York City controlled by William Magear “Boss” Tweed (1823-1878), a Protestant — used the predominantly Irish gangs of New York to work elections with ward heelers (low level bosses), shoulder strikers (thugs), and repeaters (repeat voters) . . . techniques learned from the nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s.
The real issue, then, was not whom the Catholics would control with their votes, but who would control the Catholic vote. Tweed kept control for so long (which enabled him to steal between $25 to $200 million from the city) in part because he divvied up the spoils in strict proportion to the numbers and size of religious and civic institutions, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish.
|Catholic education...according to Thomas Nast|
In consequence, Catholics and Jews tended to vote the Democratic Party ticket, while Protestants tended to vote Republican. Only by getting rid of Catholic influence (there weren’t enough Jews to worry about, and they generally knew their place and kept it) would America be made safe for Americans and secure against the rising tide of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”#30#