The story of the American founding usually begins in the East. In that account, we speak of the War of Independence, the establishment of the American republic, and prominent founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. However, there is an older story involving other founding fathers which took place in the West.
Nearly 80 years before the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo explored the coast of California under the flag of the Spanish Empire. Named after a mythical island in a popular Spanish novel, California was claimed for Spain by virtue of its nearby imperial strongholds in Mexico and Peru. However, the Spaniards made no serious effort to occupy the region until a Franciscan friar, St. Junípero Serra, arrived with other colonists in 1769. Over the next fifteen years—covering the American Revolutionary War period—Serra established nine of California’s famous missions, helped lay the foundation for much of its modern economy (including its agriculture and winemaking), and planted the seeds of the Catholic faith for generations to come.
For these reasons, Serra has been hailed as “one of the founding fathers of the United States” by Pope Francis. It is most likely no coincidence that Serra’s memorial in the Catholic Church is celebrated on July 1, just a few days removed from the celebration of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Still, if Serra is a founding father, he is clearly one of a different sort. Rather than espousing the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and self-governance which fueled the American Revolution, Serra brought an older scholastic worldview to California, one which was more inspired by the likes of John Duns Scotus than by John Locke. And yet Serra’s arrival in California also heralded the arrival of a broader legal and historical tradition which—in theory at least—was equally dedicated to the advancement of freedom and human rights.
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