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  • Citizens or Papists? The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685-1821
  • Thomas J. Shelley
Citizens or Papists? The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685-1821. By Jason K.Duncan. [Hudson Valley Heritage Series, 3.] (New York: Fordham University Press. 2005. Pp. xviii, 253. $70.00.)

Jason Duncan analyzes the political fortunes of New York Catholics from the anti-Catholic populist regime that came to power in the colony in 1689 after the downfall of James II to the state constitutional convention of 1821, which finally accorded Catholics full civil rights. From the beginning of the eighteenth century to the year after the British evacuation of New York City in November 1783 Catholic priests were legally barred from entering the colony under penalty of life imprisonment.

During the Revolution anti-Catholic sentiment among the Patriots gradually subsided in New York as elsewhere in the colonies. Loyalists, more numerous in New York than anywhere else, taunted Patriots for their connivance with [End Page 174] popery. As early as 1777 the first state constitution guaranteed religious freedom to all, including Catholics. However, supplementary legislation limited the practical consequences of this declaration by requiring office holders to renounce their allegiance to all foreign jurisdiction "ecclesiastical as well as civil" and prescribing the same religious test for immigrants seeking citizenship. In Duncan's words, "[I]t was convenient . . . to grant religious liberty to Catholics in the abstract and then to erect legal barriers to discourage them from entering the state and deny full citizenship to those already there" (p. 42).

The restrictive state naturalization law lapsed with the adoption of the federal constitution. After a protest signed by 1,300 New York Catholics, the religious test for office holders was repealed in 1806, allowing a Catholic, Francis Cooper, to take his seat in the state Assembly. That same year the state legislature voted to give St. Peter's Church in New York City the same subsidy for its parochial school as was granted to Protestant schools. During the War of 1812 the state legislature repealed the law that gave election inspectors the right to require voters to renounce foreign ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The offensive law was not included in the new state constitution adopted in 1821.

Duncan demolishes the myth that colonial New York was a model of religious toleration by documenting that Catholics were excluded from its benefits after 1689. He also delineates the sometimes tortured relationship between Catholics and New York political parties after the Revolution by tracing the constantly shifting attitude to Catholics on the part of both Federalists and a bewildering variety of Republicans. In the 1790s Federalists and Catholics shared a common antipathy to Jacobin anticlericalism, but it did not lead to a permanent alliance because patrician Federalists could not bring themselves to embrace poor Irish immigrants as desirable political allies. On the other hand, New York Catholics frequently found unexpected allies in religiously radical American Republicans, since they shared a common dislike of Tories in Great Britain and Federalists in the United States, especially after the revolt of the United Irishmen in 1798.

Building on the pioneer work of Patrick Carey, Duncan adds a new dimension to the standard accounts of the trusteeism controversies at St. Peter's Church by linking them to the rival political allegiances of the trustees, which were not always dictated by class differences. Cornelius Heeney, one of the wealthiest trustees, was a staunch Republican because of their support of Irish nationalism. An unexpected combination of circumstances led to a bizarre situation in a civil suit involving St. Peter's Church in 1819. An Irish Protestant lawyer with impeccably radical credentials championed the rights of the hierarchy on behalf of working-class Irish immigrants against the claims of wealthy conservative businessmen who sought greater lay control of the parish.

Duncan demonstrates that decades before the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s Irish Catholics were already an important factor in New York politics. By 1821 half-hearted Federalist coquetting of the Catholic vote had ended [End Page 175] in failure as the majority of Irish Catholics gave their allegiance to the "Bucktail" Republicans and later to the Jeffersonian Democrats.

Jason Duncan...


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