- Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 1574–1783 by Robert Emmett Curran
Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once famously remarked that “anti-Catholicism was the oldest prejudice in American history.” In a masterful work by a senior scholar covering the first two centuries of history in British America, Robert Emmett Curran illuminates what Schlesinger meant. Devoting his introduction to the European background of this story, Curran demonstrates the long-term consequences of Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. As England struggled for the better part of two centuries to determine if it would be a Protestant or a Catholic kingdom, its colonies in the New World became caught up in the turmoil. The effect of this history on American Catholics was enormous.
Once the scene shifts to America, Curran gives much attention to Maryland, the closest thing there was in those lands to a “Catholic colony.” He traces the doomed ventures of Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, to forge a pluralistic society in the Chesapeake. Those efforts ran aground in the light of an invasion by Puritans in the middle of the seventeenth century and the imposition of the penal laws in the aftermath of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. Nonetheless, Maryland Catholics remained a distinct and viable community, albeit one forced to keep much of its religious life hidden. Catholics in New York were less fortunate. Jacob Leisler, a German Calvinist, took advantage of the expulsion of James II, a Catholic, to expel New York’s Catholic leadership, appointees of the now deposed Stuart king. What Catholics remained in New York had to endure close to a century of oppression and systematic denial of their religious and political rights.
Curran deftly recovers the overlooked plight of Irish Catholics of the West Indies, some of whom were essentially enslaved after Oliver Cromwell had them sent to Barbados and other colonies. As tragic, or worse, was the fate of the Catholic Acadians. Caught between the struggle for power in America between Great Britain and France, they were forcibly expelled from their homes in the 1750s, victims of a brutal process that today would be described as ethnic cleansing.
It was during that Seven Years’ War that anti-Catholicism in British America reached a peak. What came next was truly stunning—a revolt against British rule in America, one fueled in part by anger, especially in New England, over the Quebec Act of 1774. That law granted to Catholics in lands gained from France [End Page 674] full legal protection. The religious liberties of Protestants were also guaranteed, but no matter. Curran explains how patriots in the thirteen colonies now saw George III as taking a turn toward Rome similar to that of the Stuart kings. In the war that followed, most American Catholics, having little stake in the status quo, supported the Revolution. There were Catholics, notably in Pennsylvania, where the religious climate had been more tolerant, who remained loyal to London.
The course of the War for Independence, involving as it did a patriot alliance with Catholic France, changed the direction of history for American Catholics. It also did not hurt their cause that none other than Benedict Arnold claimed his defection came from principled opposition, as a good Protestant, to the entry into the war of Catholic France. In one of the great ironies of the American Revolution, Catholics benefited enormously from its results. Soon after British ships sailed away from New York City in late 1783, for example, Catholics in that city emerged from their isolation, took their newly recognized rights in hand, and established their first parish.
One of the many strengths of Papist Devils is Curran’s deft use of recent scholarship on early American Catholic history, both published and unpublished. He may have missed an opportunity or two to integrate this history somewhat more into the general narratives of colonial America. Even so, Curran demonstrates in convincing style why Schlesinger’s claim must...