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Catholicism and the American Founding

The “fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people on the earth. . . . Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out of impaired . . . . The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”— Edmund Burke, 1775

When the first pilgrims—a small and radical separating sect of English congregationalists—landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they declared themselves a Christian commonwealth. In just one paragraph known now as the Mayflower Compact (but, originally, as the “Plymouth Combination”), these hyper-Calvinist settlers asserted that they could rule themselves, absent any immediate temporal or spiritual bureaucracy. Whatever their socio-economic makeup, the pilgrims were an astounding people. They barely survived the first year in New England, only to find themselves quickly swallowed up by roughly 30,000-40,000 mainstream Puritans, the non-separating and less radical kind. Still, they matter. Greatly.

It’s very difficult to imagine any people taking such a step with such confidence and such fortitude, time and the world over. Granted, most peoples are imperial—that is, they always want to move and lay claim—but they usually do so in the land adjacent to them, not in a world 3,500 miles and an ocean away from their homeland. Yet these pilgrims were the first of those we readily recognize as what would become the “American”.

It is even more difficult to imagine an equally-sized group of Catholic families doing the same thing in 1620, anywhere in the world. A band of priests, brothers, and sisters, certainly. But, lay families? Lay Catholics absent any king or bishop? In, say, 1215 or 1275, sure. But probably not in 1620. That spirit seemed to have passed on to the Protestants of that day.

What, then, made these Protestant pilgrims of 1620 so confident? Two things. First, they had utter confidence in the wisdom of the Holy Bible to govern their most intimate affairs and most of their public ones. Second, those things not covered in Scripture, though, could still be answered, as they came from a source almost equally divine, at least in their minds of the pilgrims—the common law.

Without question, these pilgrims set the pattern for migration to the Americans from the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic world. Three major ethno-religious groups followed the Pilgrims and Puritans: the Anglicans who settled the Chesapeake; the Quakers who settled Pennsylvania and surrounding areas; and the Scotch-Irish who settled the backcountry mountains throughout the thirteen colonies. Thus, five immigrant groups made up the vast majority of the American population, not just in 1774, on the eve of revolution, but as late as 1846. Four had come freely from the British Isles and the fifth, the Africans, had come as prisoners of war, unwillingly.

Where were the Catholics in the settlement of the thirteen colonies? Aside from living in an over-the-top exaggerated horror in the paranoid fears of American Protestants, almost nowhere. Certainly, there had been some settlement in Maryland (but Catholics were illegal there by 1689 and would remain so until 1774), and the Jesuits and Franciscans were quite active on the frontier. But, as to any sizable population? That would have to wait until the Irish and the Germans came in the late 1840s.

Read more at Catholic World Report. 

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