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Catholics and the American Revolution

God bless America, land that I love! Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above…

With the Fourth of July here, if your family is anything like mine, it’s time to revisit the lyrics to a few patriotic hymns on the big day. After all, no one wants to be the one at the family picnic who forgets the words to “God Bless America” or—even worse—the national anthem.

It’s also time to revisit American history. Most of us are familiar with the story of America’s founding and the role of the Founding Fathers. We can even name some of them—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams… Most of us, however, cannot name the important Catholics who helped found our country and establish the Church in America.

At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics were not very popular. In fact, every state except Pennsylvania had some version of an anti-Catholic law. In Maryland, for example, Catholics could not hold public office, vote, practice law, or worship in public, and their land was double taxed. They could not even teach their children Catholicism without facing the likelihood of having their children permanently removed from their care. To the Protestant colonists, Catholics were despised almost as much (if not equally as much) as the king—militiamen would even ride into battle during the revolution crying, No king, no pope!

Nevertheless, Catholics did contribute to the revolutionary effort. Perhaps the best known Catholics at the time were three prominent members of the Carroll family from Maryland. Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, and in addition to being the only Catholic signatory, he was the only one whose property (Carrollton) was mentioned after his name. Widely regarded as the wealthiest colonist, he supported the war with his own funds.  He later became one of Maryland’s first two senators. Charles Carroll outlived all of the other signers of the Declaration, dying in 1832 at the age of 95.

Daniel and John Carroll were cousins of Charles. Daniel Carroll signed the Articles of Confederation and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, the U.S. Constitution. He and a delegate from Pennsylvania, Thomas Fitzsimons, were the only Catholic signatories. Daniel Carroll later served as a representative from Maryland in the first Congress.

Fr. John Carroll, Daniel’s younger brother, was a Jesuit priest and the founder of Georgetown University. In 1789, Fr. Carroll became the first Catholic bishop (and, later, archbishop) in the United States when he was appointed bishop of Baltimore, the nation’s first diocese. He entrusted his diocese to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary even before she had been named the patroness of America, under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Archbishop Carroll was friends with George Washington and, along with other prominent Catholics, sent Washington a letter congratulating him upon his inauguration. In response, Washington expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by Catholics in the American Revolution, even though they had often been treated distrustfully by the Protestant majority:

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

Happy Fourth of July from Catholic Door! May God bless you and your families, and may God bless America.

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