Anti-Catholicism and American History

I’m not a Catholic, and not an anti-Catholic. And I won’t whitewash the many heinous crimes of boarding schools and deviant priests. But, given that, I see a strong bent of anti-Catholicism in our history. The result of a strong current of Anglo-American Protestant triumphalism.

When students—formal high school and college students, and avocational students of history—come into our library, I ask them if they remember what they’ve read about the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, and westward expansion. Most can step up with historical anecdotes, sometimes with dates.

I then ask about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. There is usually a kind of stunned silence. Maybe a vague recollection that it had something to do with Arizona—or California, or New Mexico or Mexico. That the 1848 Treaty had to do with the US acquisition of Arizona, New Mexico, California, and pieces of Colorado and Utah is new news rather than reminder.

I then go on a spiel about historical movement and the role of anti-Catholicism. The treaty with Mexico was over lands that were Spanish conquered and largely Catholic. To the north, I point out, the fur trade moved across the continent, often led by French-Canadian and Metis who were largely Catholic. (The Metis are the culturally mixed offspring of French Voyageurs and Northern tribes, the Cree, Ojibwe, and Assiniboine.)

Meanwhile, the “standard” version of American historical development from Jefferson to David McCullough and Jill Lepore, is that of an Anglo-Protestant movement across the center of the continent. It is made up of yeomen farmers working small plots of ground acquired through government donation acts and homestead laws (in truth, stolen Indian lands).

It is, in the minds of modern historians, also a fulfilling of the promises in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our history is the gradual extension of the assertion that “all men are created equal” and are free to pursue their happiness. “Men” grows to include non-property owners, African-American men, then women, and, finally, American Indians.

In one of his last books, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, David McCullough lauds the people who brought public education and anti-slavery to middle America. The subtitle tells the story: bringing “The American Ideal West.” In this case it was implicit but evident that the carriers of the ideal, and the ideal itself, were Anglo and Protestant. Tecumseh and the Indian resistance, a last valiant attempt to stop the Euro-American advance across the continent, get little mention.

The title of Jill Lepore’s massive rewrite of American History, These Truths, carries the same message. The advancement of the nation was on the backs of brilliant white men who wrote the founding documents, and then on those, who, over time, found ways to make the meaning of “men” a more inclusive term.

Jefferson himself was a deist, so his embrace of Anglo-Christianity was cultural, going back to the Enlightenment’s English thinkers who had inspired the Declaration and Constitution. It is interesting that Benjamin Franklin, also a deist, is taken with the French, and is the one founder to acknowledge the political brilliance of the Iroquois. Franklin extolls the peacemaking of the Iroquois League, and wonders why British colonies cannot manage their ways of resolving conflict. In other words, there is in Franklin an appreciation for other notions of civilization, and their potential contributions to an “American” civilization. But it is Jefferson who is elected President, who concludes the Louisiana Purchase and dispatches Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, and thus sets us on the Middle American historical path.

Academics have left the northern fur trade, which marched across the country in rough step with the Jeffersonian settlers, to those Alvin Josephy called the “history buffs.” The people who have written accounts of the fur trade were traders themselves, Catholic missionaries, and the county and state historians in the Canadian border states. They publish in small journals and sometimes find homes in books at university presses in Nebraska and Oklahoma. Not Harvard.

Expansion along the Northern borderlands with Canada, driven in great part by the Hudson Bay Company and its offspring—the Northwest Company; the American Fur Company—was Anglo in its management, but oftentimes Roman Catholic on the ground. As Alvin Josephy pointed out, Hudson Bay was not interested in settlement. The few settlements it fostered were small and incidental to the enterprise of turning furs into profits. It did not bring Euro-American families into the fur trade, but single men, often French-Canadian voyageurs.

And Hudson Bay brought Catholic priests and missions along who could marry the Frenchmen to their Nartive women. Protestant churches were divided in specifics, but largely against the marriage of Europeans and Indians; the Catholics embraced intermarriage.

Recent books have chronicled the anti-Catholicism of missionary Henry Spalding, who proclaimed that Catholics had put the Cayuse up to killing the Whitmans, and that Marcus Whitman was a martyr to the cause of a Protestant Manifest Destiny.

And minutes of KKK meetings in La Grande, Oregon recently discovered and published in Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, speak to a virulent anti-Catholicism in Oregon. Predominantly white Oregon was a leading state in the Klan’s 1920s revival, and anti-Catholicism was its primary message.

These stories are minor chords—or a different song—than that of “American Progress” heralded by Jefferson, McCullough, and Lepore. And different history than that promulgated by Spalding and the many spokesmen—yes, men, who have oftentimes openly promoted anti-Catholicism as they imagined a Protestant Manifest Destiny, an inevitable settling of the continent by White Anglo-Protestants.

Just maybe the rise of “Christian Nationalism” is the echo of these Protestant promoters in response to the recent and popular wave of Black, Indian, and Latino histories of the country. Ironically, it’s a response that would dismay Jefferson and McCullough, and likely bothers Lepore today.

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Note: the Image is of a Protestant “teaching ladder” concocted by Henry and Eliza Spalding for their ministry. The ladder displays the essentials of human history in biblical terms, and in this one the Pope is seen dropping into the fires of hell. It’s at the Oregon State Historical Society

1 Comment

  1. Rich: This copy of the Protestant teaching ladder is also on display at the Tamastlikt Cultural Center outside of Pendleton. I’m not sure, but they might also have a copy of the Catholic teaching ladder as well.

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