Unexpected American Catholics

COMMENTARY: Long before there was a Catholic voting bloc, American Catholics made their presence known in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

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Of the 56 men who voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence, only one, Charles Carroll of Maryland, was Catholic. Of the approximately 3 million people in America at the time of the Revolution, only 1% of the population was Catholic. It wasn’t until the late 19th/early 20th centuries that Catholics began to pack on some political muscle. Now, Catholic voters are as disparate as never before.

Nonetheless, long before there was a Catholic voting bloc, American Catholics made their presence known in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.


The Viking and the Witch

Let’s start at the beginning: Four hundred and ninety-two years before Columbus came ashore on a Caribbean island, Leif Eriksson, a Viking warrior about 30 years old, made landfall in the Canadian province of Labrador, or perhaps Newfoundland. Eriksson had recently been converted by the first Christian king of Norway, St. Olaf, who sent him back to Greenland to persuade the Viking settlers there to accept baptism. It was on this voyage home that Eriksson’s ship was blown off course and he wound up in North America. Eriksson imagined a permanent settlement here, along the lines of the successful Viking settlements on Iceland and Greenland. The Viking village in the New World, at what is now L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, didn’t last long — the hostility between the Vikings and the Native-American inhabitants drove them out.

More than six centuries later, another Catholic found herself in hostile territory. Ann Glover was an Irishwoman, one of the thousands of Irish Catholics deported to the Caribbean by Oliver Cromwell. In the 1680s, John Goodwin, a Bostonian, was on business in the Caribbean; he purchased Glover either as his slave or as an indentured servant (the record isn’t clear on this point).

Glover had the distinction of being the only Catholic in Puritan Boston, and she antagonized civic and church authorities by refusing to give up her faith and adopt theirs. When the Goodwin children denounced Glover as a witch, the authorities saw their chance to rid themselves of this stubborn woman. But they tipped their hand at her trial, where the notorious witch hunter Cotton Mather denounced her not as a servant of Satan, but as “a scandalous old Irishwoman ... a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry.”

She was hanged on Boston Common in 1688. Three hundred years later, the Boston City Council established Nov. 16, the day of Glover’s execution, as Goody Glover Day (women in 17th-century Massachusetts were often addressed as “Goodwife” — “Goody” was the informal form).


Hero of the Revolution

The next time you’re in Philadelphia, stroll around to the back of Independence Hall, where you’ll find a bronze sculpture of a man in the uniform of the Continental Navy. The figure is Commodore John Barry, an Irish-Catholic immigrant who is revered as the “Father of the Navy.”

At a time when the fledgling United States had no navy to speak of, Barry managed to attack and destroy British supply depots and capture bigger and better armed British ships, most famously when he captured two British sloops and a frigate with a “fleet” of barges, longboats and row boats.

In 1797, President George Washington recognized Barry’s contributions to America’s victory over Great Britain by naming him a commodore.


Civil War History

The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision was an event that propelled the United States one step closer to civil war. Dred Scott was a slave whose master had taken him to live for a time in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory. When Scott’s master took him to Missouri, a slave state, Scott asked for his freedom, based on his residence in Illinois and Wisconsin. His master refused, and so Scott sued for his freedom.

The case went to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger Taney, speaking for the majority opinion, asserted that, as a black man, Scott was not an American citizen and had no right to sue.

Taney further antagonized anti-slavery Americans by declaring that all blacks, whether slave or free, were “of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” As it happens, both Chief Justice Taney and Dred Scott were devout Catholics.

As the Civil War was coming to a close, John Wilkes Booth, an ardent Confederate and arguably the most famous actor of his day, plotted to win independence for the South by taking President Abraham Lincoln out of the picture.

Initially, Booth and his fellow conspirators planned to kidnap the president, but as the plot evolved, the plotters decided to kill Lincoln.

The conspirators met at a Washington boarding house operated by Mary Surratt, a convert to Catholicism.

Her son John, once a seminarian, was among the conspirators. Whether Mary knew of the plot to murder the president has been debated for more than a century, although, in recent years, historians are inclined to believe that she knew of the scheme and never reported it to the authorities.

John Surratt was not in Washington the night Booth shot Lincoln, and when he learned of the assassination, he fled to Canada and then to Italy, where he joined the pope’s guard. When he was discovered, he fled again, this time to Egypt, where he was tracked down, arrested and shipped back to America for trial. The jury was deadlocked, so Surratt went free.

His mother was not so fortunate. A military commission found her guilty of conspiracy. Less than three months after the assassination, Mary was hanged with three other Lincoln conspirators. On the gallows, she was attended by two Catholic priests.


Smith Came Before JFK

In the late-19th/early-20th century, U.S. Catholics tended to vote for Democratic candidates. If ever Catholics voted as a bloc, it was in the presidential election year of 1928, when the Democrats nominated Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic ever to run for the presidency.

On Election Day, 80% of Catholic voters turned out to support Smith, but it wasn’t enough. Riding a nationwide wave of virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric, the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, trounced Smith by more than 6 million votes.

Today, the Catholic bloc is a distant memory. Even on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage,” issues on which popes and bishops have been outspoken, American Catholics are disunited. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, Barack Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote — and then 50% of the Catholic vote in 2012. So which way will Catholic jump in 2016? The vote isn’t in yet, of course, but, once again, a Pew survey gives us some sense of what could happen in November. Fifty-six percent of Catholic Republicans said that Donald Trump would be a good/great president, while 69% of Catholic Democrats said the same about Hillary Clinton. Ahead of the election, these stats are a best guess. But one thing is sure — neither Clinton nor Trump will see the Catholic landslide Al Smith enjoyed.


Catholics in the White House

  • George Washington commissioned James Hoban, an Irish-Catholic architect to design and build a home for the president. What we know as the White House was originally called the Executive Residence. After an invading British army burned the mansion in 1814, Hoban was called back to rebuild the most famous house in America.
  •  The first and second Catholic ceremony held in the White House took place during the Andrew Jackson administration. In 1831, Father William Matthews officiated at the White House wedding — held in the East Room — of Joseph Pageot, a French diplomat, and Mary Anne Lewis, President Andrew Jackson’s Catholic ward. Father Matthews returned a year later to baptize the couple’s son, Andrew Jackson Pageot. When Father Matthews asked the ritual question, “Andrew Jackson, do renounce Satan?” the president declared in a loud voice, “I do, most indubitably!”
  • The first Mass offered in the White House was a requiem for John F. Kennedy. It was said in the East Room on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the president was assassinated.
  • For generations, hysterics had warned that a particular candidate, or a particular president, in the pay of Rome would hand over the country to the Catholic Church and the pope would move into the White House. In 1979, the pope, St. John Paul II, did come to the White House — at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist. In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis were also welcomed to the White House.

Thomas J. Craughwell

is the author of 

St. Peter’s Bones and This Saint Will Change Your Life.

He writes from

Bethel, Connecticut.