Catholic Contributors to Independence: Faithful Patriots Played Significant Roles

There were significant contributions of so many courageous men and women, many of whom were Catholics, to what has been called ‘the great American experiment.’

The Revolutionary War and American founding included the aid of many patriots, including Catholics like (from left to right) Charles Carroll, John Barry and Father (later Bishop) John Carroll.
The Revolutionary War and American founding included the aid of many patriots, including Catholics like (from left to right) Charles Carroll, John Barry and Father (later Bishop) John Carroll. (photo: public domain)

Many people know that Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence, but many other Catholics contributed in a significant way to the fight for independence: John Barry, Stephen Moylan, Mary Waters and Thomas Fitzsimons, to name a few. There were significant contributions of so many courageous men and women, many of whom were Catholics, to what has been called “the great American experiment.”

Charles Carroll arguably took the biggest risk — and had the most to lose — since he was the wealthiest man in the colonies at the time, according to New Advent’s The Catholic Encyclopedia. Born into a wealthy family in Annapolis, Maryland, he was sent to France and England for his education.

He arrived back in Maryland at age 28, just in time for the intense reaction to the Stamp Act. At once, Carroll began to write against the unjust taxes.By 1774 Carroll was one of the citizens elected to represent both the local county and Annapolis, although Catholics were considered ineligible to hold such seats. At the time there were few Catholics in the country, and there was predominant prejudice against those who were here.

“These elections showed that, despite the anti-Catholicism of the colonial period, Revolutionary-era Americans did not see any incompatibility between Carroll’s Catholicism and America’s fledgling republic, which both shared Enlightenment ideals,” Andrew Salzmann, who teaches American Catholic history at Benedictine College, explained to the Register.

As detailed by Matthew Bunson and Margaret Bunson in the Encyclopedia of U.S. Catholic History, “His appearance at the Continental Congress irritated some Protestants, but his wealth — estimated at about $2 million — won the argument because the average American recognized that Charles was risking more than most in order to see America free.” Three months before Carroll was elected as one of Maryland’s four representatives to the Continental Congress for the fateful July 4, 1776, meeting, he was appointed with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase to visit Canada to ask for their alliance in the fight for independence. Carroll’s cousin, Father John Carroll, was asked to join them.

During the American Revolutionary War, Charles Carroll served on the Board of War, and after independence was won, he took his seat in 1788 as a senator in the first Federal Congress. When he died at age 95 in 1832, he was the last survivor of those who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Commodore John Barry was an Irish-born sea captain who emigrated as a youth to Philadelphia, which he called home for the rest of his life. He would earn the title “Father of the American Navy.”

Indeed, Capt. Barry, already a seasoned skipper, had a remarkable war career.

He would be such a proven commander that later President George Washington appointed Barry to be head of the Navy, stating he trusted in Barry’s “patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities,” according to a U.S. Navy history online. Capt. — later Commodore — Barry, the first American to receive that title, was an “ardent Catholic,” the Bunsons noted in their book.

“Barry was a firm believer in Divine Providence and regularly opened his ship day with a Bible reading to his crew,” wrote John Barry Kelly in an article about the captain available through the U.S. Navy website. (No mention is made if the writer was descended from the captain.) Capt. Barry had no children from his first marriage nor, after his wife died, from his second marriage, although he and his wife raised his two nephews, sons of his late sister.

Both wives were Protestants, but converted to Catholicism, noted Kelly: “The Barrys were regular parishioners at several Philadelphia Catholic churches: Old St. Joseph’s, Old St. Mary’s and, eventually, St. Augustine’s.” The naval hero and his wives are buried in St. Mary’s Church cemetery.

Successful Philadelphia merchant Stephen Moylan, who became quartermaster general of the Continental Army  volunteered for Washington’s Army at the start of the Revolutionary War. By June 1776, he was appointed commissary general of the Continental Army; and, before that, in 1775, he acted as Washington’s first secretary. After fighting in the Battle of Princeton, he formed a horse regiment at Washington’s request, suffered with the men at Valley Forge, and then engaged in other battles through Yorktown. He left the Army a brigadier general. While Moylan’s brother Francis remained in Ireland because he was bishop of Cork, his brother John also joined the Continental Army and was appointed the clothier general.

Philadelphia nurse Mary Waters, according to CatholicHistory.net, was a tireless worker in hospitals for the Revolutionary Army, so much so that she won the praises of one of the prominent physicians she worked with — Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was one of the Founding Fathers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Pennsylvania.

Another Philadelphia merchant, Irish-born Thomas FitzSimons, was an early supporter of American independence, serving in the Continental Congress of 1774. That same year he was elected a provincial deputy, gaining, as the Bunsons noted, “the distinction of being the first Catholic chosen for public office in Pennsylvania.”

He commanded a company in the Continental Army and proved a strong leader, raising money for the war effort as well as gathering supplies. After America’s victory, he was one of only two Catholics — the other being Daniel Carroll of Maryland — to become a framer of the Constitution. FitzSimons then was elected to the first House of Representatives.

Daniel Carroll, another delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and his brother Father John Carroll, were Charles Carroll’s first cousins. Daniel worked early on for American independence.

After the war, Gen. Washington himself asked him to “develop the nation’s capital, and he worked with two others to fashion a suitable site,” the Bunsons explained. Carroll chose the site, owned and donated one of the four pieces of land necessary for the capital, and helped convince the owners of the adjoining three pieces to relinquish theirs, too, for the patriotic cause.

By April 15, 1791, Carroll, along with one other patriot, laid the cornerstone for the nation’s capital.

His brother Father John Carroll, one of the few priests in the colonies, ministered during the Revolutionary War to Catholic colonists and many French and European Catholics joining the cause, such as Polish nationals Casimir Pulaski and Brig. Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

“As a ‘Catholic Enlightener’ himself, [Father] Carroll was dedicated to the American Revolution,” explained Salzmann. “In addition to establishing an American Catholic culture that valued education, democracy and freedom of religion, Father Carroll also worked directly for the American cause.” Father Carroll accompanied his cousin on the trip to seek Canada’s alliance, or at least neutrality, in the fight for independence. Though the mission was unsuccessful, he and Benjamin Franklin became friends along the way. “Their friendship would have a demonstrable effect on the Church in America in time,” wrote the Bunsons. It was Franklin who recommended that Father Carroll be elevated to bishop. In his Paris diary, Franklin wrote: “1784, July 1. The Pope’s Nuncio called and acquainted me that the Pope had on my recommendation appointed Mr. John Carroll, Superior of the Catholic clergy in America, with many powers of a Bishop, and that probably, he would be made a Bishop in partibus before the end of the year.” Father Carroll would later work with the new U.S. presidents and preached Washington’s eulogy at St. Peter’s Church in Washington.

After the war, the Catholic Church created a diocese in the new United States, naming Father Carroll the country’s first bishop. He tirelessly helped the Church in America grow and established colleges and monasteries, such as the Poor Clares in Fredericksburg, Maryland. He helped establish four other dioceses beside Baltimore, to which he was appointed the country’s first archbishop. And in 1792, as the new nation’s first bishop, he was the first to consecrate the country to our Blessed Mother under the title “Immaculate Conception.”

“Of those things that give me most consolation at the present moment,” he said, “one is that I have always been attached to the practice of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; that I have established it among the people under my care, and placed my diocese under her protection.”

“Throughout the colonial period and into the late 1700s, Catholics were often discriminated against in both law and attitudes,” author Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, told the Register. “Fortunately, their zealous commitment to the cause of the American Revolution and independence helped change those attitudes and even those laws. Americans generally recognized and appreciated those Catholic contributions and that loyalty. Protestants learned that Catholics loved their country as much as they loved their pope. They were not only loyal to their Church but to their nation.”

The Revolutionary War pushed the formerly anti-Catholic colonies to be more accepting of American Catholics, Salzmann said. “There were different reasons for this change in attitude, such as Americans’ gratitude for the help of France’s Catholic king and the tiny size of the Catholic population. But the Carrolls show that an important part of this shift was the ability of Catholics to embrace shared American ideals during the heyday of the Catholic Enlightenment.”

“Catholics in America really owe a debt of gratitude to the Carroll family,” Kengor added. “What the Carrolls did in the late 18th century to help establish a place and respect for Catholics in an overwhelmingly non-Catholic country was very impressive. Less so than any sort of spiritual skills (though prayer certainly helped), this required impressive diplomatic and political skills. They earned crucial personal relationships (particularly with men like Ben Franklin), and they earned crucial wider respect with the almost exclusively Protestant population as a whole. Catholics today need to know and appreciate this history and what their forebears went through and achieved for them in this nation. It wasn’t easy.”

In March 1790 President George Washington recognized the contribution of Roman Catholics in a personal letter addressed explicitly to them, catalogued in the National Archives: “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. And 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.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.

Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541

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