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Much more is to be dreaded from the growth of POPERY in America than from Stamp-Acts or any other Acts destructive of men civil rights. —Samuel Adams, 1768[1]

Roman Catholics have always been uneasy Americans, a religious minority in a country dominated by Protestants often hostile to their beliefs. Catholics have repeatedly felt tension between their loyalty to an authoritarian and hierarchical Church on the one hand and their devotion to decentralized and democratic political institutions on the other. Blending perfect obedience to Church authority in religious matters with individual autonomy in the political realm has proved to be a thorny undertaking, one made all the more difficult by the suspicion in which Catholics have traditionally been held by Christians of the Reformed sects. Catholics have been accused of having a double loyalty, beholden to Rome as well as to their civil governments. Or perhaps it is better to say that Protestants believed that Catholics had a single, dangerous loyalty, for few doubted that in a crisis “Papists” would choose fidelity to the pope over duty to their country.[2]

From the first English settlements, Catholics lived in a country dominated by Protestants. This was true even in Maryland, founded by the Catholic Calvert family. The Ark and the Dove, the first ships that brought settlers to that colony in 1634, carried more Protestants than Catholics to the New World. This was by design, for the Calverts, knowing that the success of their venture depended upon the migration of Protestants as well as Catholics, advertised their colony as a haven for people of all sects. Religious freedom, they understood, was good for business. The promise of toleration induced many Catholics to come to Maryland, as well as to Pennsylvania and Delaware, which also possessed liberal constitutions. But Catholics in Maryland soon found their hopes of enjoying full civil rights and the ability to practice their religion freely quashed by the Protestant majority, and in most of the other colonies they became the focus of suspicion, the victims of legal discrimination, and sometimes the targets of violence.

The roots of American anti-Catholicism lay in English history. Henry VIII’s decision to break away from the Church of Rome in the mid-sixteenth century immediately tarred any Englishman who retained his Catholic beliefs as a potential traitor to king and country. Prominent Catholics who opposed Henry’s actions, such as Sir Thomas More, or who attempted to evangelize Protestants, such as Edmund Campion, were executed. [3] Parliament passed laws that barred Catholics from holding office and denied them various civil rights. The attempted bombing of Parliament in 1605 by the Catholic radical and madman, Guy Fawkes, reinforced the notion that Catholics were subversives, and Englishmen were constantly on guard against Roman conspiracies—for the most part, imagined ones—to overthrow the British constitution and subvert English liberties. Later in the seventeenth century, Englishmen began to worry that Catholic influence was infecting the government, reaching even to the king himself. “Popery” and arbitrary government became the twin specters that haunted the minds of Englishmen. Though the link between the two was not clearly explained, it was feared that the two phenomena always occurred concomitantly in nature.[4]

The rise of republican political theory in the mid-seventeenth century bolstered the idea that the danger to English freedom came from the monarchy. “Republicanism” is a term historians have given to a body of thought whose leitmotif was the fear of the exercise of tyrannical power by government. At the heart of English republican thought was a desire to imitate the commonwealths of classical antiquity, especially Sparta and Rome, in their reliance on the people as the source of the nation’s power and the government’s legitimacy. Republican theory, historians argue, was born in the classical world, revived in the Renaissance, and achieved its modern form during the English Civil War in the writings of such radical thinkers as Algernon Sidney, James Harrington, and John Milton. The great dialectic that drove history, republicans held, was the tension between power and liberty. Power was possessed by the government; it was aggressive and expansionist. Liberty was the property of the governed; it was sacred and delicate. The history of liberty in the world was a history of its recurring defeat by the forces of tyranny. Republicanism turned on its head the traditional English belief that the king was the protector of the rights of his people and was unable to do wrong.[5] Some republican theorists, such as John Locke, also included a dose of anti-Catholicism in their analyses. The English were a receptive audience for such notions.[6]

Catholicism, then, came under increasing attack in the second half of the seventeenth century. The Puritan Roundheads who emerged victorious in the English Civil War unleashed a violent persecution of English Catholics (as well as of unrepentant Anglicans) during the 1650s, which abated only with the Restoration of the monarchy at the end of the decade. Though no longer violently persecuted, Catholics continued to suffer discrimination, and the accession of the Catholic James II in 1685 revived anti-Roman hysteria. A Catholic sitting legitimately on the throne was the worst nightmare of English Protestants, and when it became known that the king’s wife had produced a male heir, thereby raising the specter of a succession of Catholic rulers, the English monarch was toppled for a second time. James, who was fortunate to escape with his life, was replaced by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. This bloodless coup became known forever after by English Protestants as “The Glorious Revolution,” for it was believed that the ousting of James had preserved Protestantism and liberty—which were inextricably linked—for future generations of Englishmen.[7]

English anti-Catholicism was transplanted to the New World by both the Puritans who landed in New England and by the Anglicans who settled in the South. Like their English brethren, American republicans viewed Catholics with suspicion, and colonial lawmakers passed statutes aimed at smothering the danger to Protestantism from the few Catholics in their midst. In 1647, for instance, Massachusetts Bay declared that all Catholic priests were to be banished and any who returned executed. Though the penal legislation of Puritan Massachusetts was extreme, Catholics in nearly all the colonies were commonly deprived, at a minimum, of the right to hold office and to worship in public. Often, additional disabilities were inflicted. New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania at various times passed laws depriving Catholics of the right to possess firearms. Virginia and North Carolina prevented them from serving as guardians, and the former colony additionally prohibited Catholics from serving as witnesses. Connecticut in 1743 enacted legislation that for practical purposes made it impossible for Roman churches to exist. At times, anti-Catholic penal legislation crossed the line into the ridiculous; a Virginia statute of the 1760s, for example, made it illegal for any Catholic to own a horse valued at more than five pounds. Even in Maryland, originally founded by the Catholic Calvert family, Protestants took control of the legislature and passed laws denying basic civil rights to Catholics, including the right to vote.[8]

Next: The American Revolution & the Quandary of Colonial Catholics

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


 1. “A Puritan,” the Boston Gazette, April 11, 1768, in Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 1:203.

2.  On American anti-Catholicism, see, for example, Mark J. Hurley, The Unholy Ghost: Anti-Catholicism in the American Experience (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992); Michael Zöller, Washington and Rome: Catholicism in American Culture, trans. Steven Rendell and Albert Wimmer (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999); Robert P. Lockwood, editor, Anti-Catholicism in American Culture (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000).

3. The Catholic Church declared More (in 1935) and Campion (in 1970) to be saints and martyrs.

4. For an excellent overview of English history in this period, see David L. Smith, A History of the Modern British Isles, 1603-1707 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998).

5. On republicanism, see Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959); Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969); J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

6. In his Letter on Toleration, Locke suggested that Catholics could not trustworthy citizens of a republic. Ironically, some republican theorists, such as Algernon Sidney, owed a debt to Catholic political thoughts, specifically to that of the sixteenth-century Thomists. “Sidney,” Scott A. Nelson argues, “drew from a select group of Catholic theologians and controversialists in defending and justifying his theory of the social contract.” See Nelson, The Discourses of Algernon Sidney (Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1993), especially pp. 104-116. The quotation is on p. 104.

7. On the role that fear of “popery” played in the coming of the English Civil War, see Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), especially chap. 3.

8. On anti-Catholic penal legislation and on anti-Catholicism in general, see Mary Augustina Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism in the Eighteenth Century (1936; New York:Octagon Books, 1974); Mary Peter Carthy, English Influences on Early American Catholicism (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1959); Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Macmillan, 1938), chap. 1. Ray argues that English anti-Catholicism was transplanted to the New World and reinforced there by the bigotry of the colonial clergy, the Protestant-controlled education system, and by colonial literature in all its forms.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Good start, Steve. Remember in the upcoming section to give due honor to our comrade Brad Birzer, whose "American Cicero" biography of Daniel Carroll is perhaps the best book on the intersection of Catholicism and republicanism in America written in the last century. It is reviewed in the next issue of Chronicles by your humble servant.

  2. So good and so concise! I cannot wait for the next one. (However, people in Britain still say that Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament without ulterior motives).

    Stephen Masty

  3. Thanks, Stephen, for your comment. John, I have read Brad's excellent book on Charles Carroll, but my study was written in 2002. I may update the footnotes in the future and at that time will take note of "American Cicero."

  4. Brad Birzer's biography of Charles Carrol of Carrolton does a beautifully incisive job portraying the severe constrictions on the life of a Catholic at the time of the founding. This wealthy, erudite, civic-minded patriot could neither practice law nor vote in Maryland, although he was one of the major figures behind the political advances of his state and the nation. For those of you who haven't yet read "American Cicero," you need to. Kudos to Brad for an excellent book depicting a little-known side of America's past.

  5. I am very excited about this series! I actually wrote my major paper in my Colonial class on the Founding of Maryland, so its sad and mostly intolerant history is very familiar to me. Poor Calvert family! They essentially paid and created it, took on all the risks, encouraged fellow Catholics to keep their worship discreet, then were treated very poorly. Charles Carroll wasn't even born until the 18th century and this post's history starts way before that. Great job, Steve; eager to read more!

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