Charleston's Bishop John England and American Slavery
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New Hibernia Review 5.4 (2001) 48-56

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Charleston's Bishop John England and American Slavery

Joseph Kelly

Because local elites interpret and influence the experiences of ordinary people, we can trace the corporate life of a community--and its ideology--through the biographies of its eminent men and women. 1 In the history of the American South, biography can help us explain why slavery--once considered an evil to be tolerated--came to be defended as a postive good. 2 The life the first Roman Catholic bishop of Charleston, John England, and especially his failures in the summer of 1835, helps explain this ideological reversal. Born in Cork City, John England (1786-1842) was the oldest child of a family that had suffered under the tyranny of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws: his grandfather had been imprisoned for four years, and his father, threatened with transportation to the West Indies for the terrible crime of teaching school, had spent a year hiding in the mountains of County Cork. 3

Called to the priesthood, England spent his earlier years as a cleric running a local newspaper that actively agitated for Catholic emancipation. It was not [End Page 48] long before the Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, observed England's talent for politics. 4 The young man had a great way with his pen, and his oratory, mixing a tradesman's common sense with romantic, dramatic images worthy of a poet, moved audiences, Protestant and Catholic alike, at least to sympathy if not to a singleness of opinion. He was a patriot through and through, republican in politics and Gallican in religion. His family had laid low during the 1798 rebellion and made it through the Cork retributions unharmed, but the betrayal of Catholics that followed the Union fixed in England's mind a conviction of the crown's enmity to Ireland, and under O'Connell's tutelage, he made emancipation without concession his life's work. 5 It was his effectiveness as part of O'Connell's political machine that got him sent to America. The hierarchy, not entirely averse to compromise, disposed of this thorny young agitator by promoting him out of Ireland. At the age of thirty-four he was made bishop of the newly created missionary diocese of Charleston.

No traveler ever had disembarked on the bustling piers along the Cooper River better prepared to combat racial bigotry, to undermine the tyranny of Charleston's first families, and to persuade the city of the evils of slavery than John England. He had studied the catechisms of liberty as devotedly as the catechisms of the church, and his dearest political credos were the rights to liberty of conscience--codified in America by the separation of church and state--and the freedom of the press. In fact, shortly after installing himself in Charleston, he set up a national weekly paper, the United States Catholic Miscellany, printed off a press in his own chambers. Needless to say, it did not take long for him to make a public name for himself.

England liked to exploit the apparent contradiction between his ecclesiastic rank and his advocacy of republican equality. On one of his many diocesan tours through Georgia and both Carolinas, he visited the remote village of Columbus, which was separated from Savannah by three hundred miles of dusty, sweaty travel in a horse-drawn jingle. As few Catholics of substance lived in the town, England had made reservations at what passed as a hotel. The townsfolk, all Protestant, eagerly crowded the lobby and waited for the strange creature to arrive. Finally, someone--surely not a Catholic bishop?--a middle-sized man, covered in road dust and sun-burnt, drew his two spent horses to a stop outside the hotel. He jumped down, strode into the lobby, "stripped off his coat, hat, and vest; washed his face and hands," and demanded a good glass of wine, which he drank down heartily. The crowd studied his every gesture. Only when the glass was dry did he produce a "large and lustrous" ring from his...