- Citizens or Papists? The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685-1821
In Citizens or Papists? The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685–1821, the author sets out to address an important but largely overlooked period in U.S. history, when Catholics made the transition from being a despised and persecuted minority to an equal partner in the building of the new republic. By examining the political activities of Catholics from the colonial period through the eve of the Jacksonian era, he hopes to show how the efforts to advance and defend their political interests influenced the formation of the political party system in New York.
The book's seven chapters are organized chronologically, and the author begins by providing readers with a brief history of Catholicism in New York during the colonial period. He brings attention to the work of French missionaries among the native peoples in what is now upstate New York; to the brief and tumultuous tenure of Thomas Dongan, the Catholic governor of the colony at the time of Leisler's Rebellion; and to the Slave Uprising of 1741 that resulted in the execution of John Ury, a man wrongfully accused and convicted of being a Catholic priest. The thread that connected all of these events was a pervasive anti-Catholicism that resulted in the enactment of penal laws intended to stamp out the nascent Catholic community and fueled countless rumors of Catholic plots and conspiracies. These deep-seated feelings predominated until the American Revolution, when, as Duncan shows, the contributions of [End Page 661] Catholics to the Patriot cause along with the critical French alliance relieved tensions between Catholics and other colonists.
When the new country embraced the principle of religious toleration for its citizens, Catholics were at long last free to practice their religion without fear of persecution. This period in U.S. history is typically portrayed as an "Era of Good Feeling," when Catholics and Protestants learned to live together peaceably and be respectful of each other's religious traditions. While conditions were markedly improved, Duncan argues that historians have downplayed a palpable anti-Catholicism for the sake of upholding this perception. He shows how in New York a distinction was soon made in the minds of many between allowing Catholics to worship freely and granting them equal rights under the law. Nowhere is this distinction more apparent, he points out, than in the annals of the New York state legislature for 1787–1788, where debates over whether Catholics should be denied the franchise and prevented from holding public office can be found. Political factions soon stood on opposing sides of these issues, with the Anti-Federalists, led by Governor George Clinton, supporting the movement to deny Catholics these rights and the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, arguing that religious discrimination of any kind had no place their new society. A majority of Hamilton's colleagues felt differently and enacted legislation that prevented Catholics from holding public office through the use of a religious test. This act remained in place until 1806 when it was repealed largely through the efforts of DeWitt Clinton, an emerging leader in the Atlantic Republicans, an urban-based faction of the party that was courting the immigrant vote.
What role did Catholics play, if any, in determining the rights they were to hold as citizens? Duncan admits that they remained on the periphery of New York politics until the end of the eighteenth century, when the Anti-Federalists declined in importance and were replaced by the Jeffersonian Republicans. An alliance between Catholics and Federalists was borne out of this struggle and further reinforced when both reacted strongly against the radicalization of the French Revolution and the excesses that followed. Duncan argues, however, that this alliance would prove to be short lived, as the social, political, and economic forces set in motion by the Revolution resulted in a period of unprecedented growth and change. These growing pains were...