This Fourth of July, the United States of America celebrates its 247th birthday.
Our still relatively young nation has endured for almost a quarter millennium despite many threats, both foreign and domestic. Throughout all its trials and tribulations, America continues to stand the test of time and shine as a light—a beacon of hope—to the whole world.
Our founding principles were predicated on the fundamentally Christian truth that all people are endowed with inalienable natural rights that come from God and cannot be taken away by any government or politician. This, as reflected in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is the cornerstone of the very idea of America.
The United States is the greatest country in the world because it is simply unlike any other. It was uniquely and explicitly created as an experiment in liberty.
Our shared heritage belongs to all Americans, regardless of background or walk of life. This should serve as a reminder of our obligation to uphold our hard-earned freedom at every turn.
As we reflect on this day and the countless sacrifices of our forebears, we should not forget the many contributions scores of brave Catholic men and women have made to the success of our nation.
Here are seven facts about Catholicism and America’s founding that may surprise you.
Catholics were a small minority in many of the original thirteen colonies. Puritans and other Protestant groups founded many of the colonies, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, to seek religious freedom.
However, there was one notable exception: Maryland.
Founded in 1632, the colony and future state was a safe haven for many English and Irish Catholics fleeing religious persecution. For more on this, see CatholicVote’s explainer on Catholics and the First Amendment.
As the explainer recounts, “The colony’s primary founder was George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a former political advisor to King James I. Baltimore, along with his family, converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism.”
While the elder Lord Baltimore would pass away before his vision of liberty was realized, his son, also a Catholic, would go on to become Maryland’s first governor.
Many priests made the transatlantic voyage to the new colony to help spread the faith. One of these men, an English Jesuit named Father Andrew White, left a written account of one of his mission trips to Maryland.
On the day of the annunciation of the Holy Virgin Mary, on the 25th of March, in the year 1634, we offered in this island, for the first time, the sacrifice of the mass: in this region of the world it had never been celebrated before. Sacrifice being ended, having taken up on our shoulders the great cross which we had hewn from a tree, and going in procession to the place that had been designated, the Governor, commissioners, and other catholics participating in the ceremony, we erected it as a trophy to Christ the Saviour, while the litany of the holy cross was chanted humbly on the bended knees, with great emotion of soul.
America was not so pluralistic in the beginning, according to scholars. In a 2016 essay published in The Catholic World Report magazine, Bradley J. Birzer explains that “from the 1600s through 1774, America was really a sea of intolerance with islands of tolerance. Your freedom was essentially the freedom to choose which intolerance you liked best.”
He further explains that of the colonies that would form the United States, only Quaker-founded Pennsylvania and Catholic-founded Maryland “offered anything that we might today recognize as religious toleration.” But Maryland’s period of tolerance ended in the 1680s, just over a half-century after its founding, when anti-Catholic Protestants deposed its Catholic government.
Again from the CatholicVote explainer:
the public practice of Catholicism was outlawed, like it had been decades earlier. Mass and Catholic education were again forced underground.
The Carrolls, a large Catholic family descended from Irish immigrants, “reacted to this outright persecution by building a small chapel, where the remaining Catholic population of Maryland could secretly worship God.”
Most Catholics were patriots from the nation’s founding. According to George J. Marlin of The Catholic Thing, “After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the vast majority of Catholics sided with the revolutionaries because they considered themselves American, not British.”
Marlin quotes Theodore Maynard, an early 20th-century English Catholic historian who said that the Catholic minority of the colonies “understood the genius of America. Without hesitation they threw in their lot with [the Continental] Congress.”
In his article, Marlin named several Catholics prominent in the American Revolution. These include two Irish immigrants: Commodore John Barry, who is known as the “Father of the American Navy,” and General Stephen Moylan, who served as a top aide to George Washington.
It was the heroic sacrifices by Catholic soldiers both in the leadership of Washington’s army and in his rank and file that led the father of our country to personally declare an end to Pope’s Day, an anti-Catholic “holiday” that was celebrated annually on November 5. To put a stop to this prejudiced celebration, Washington declared:
As the Commander-in-Chief has been apprised of a design formed for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the Pope, he cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be officers and soldiers in this army so void of common sense as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this juncture…and under such circumstances, to be insulting their religion, is so monstrous as not to be suffered or excused.
Irish-born Matthew Carey was only a teenager when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but like many young Patriots at the time, he did not let his youth stop him from becoming a tireless advocate for liberty.
Of the remarkably enterprising and passionate young man, the CV explainer says:
During the early Revolution, when he was only 17, Carey wrote a popular pamphlet titled The Urgent Necessity of the Repeal of the Penal Code against Roman Catholics, bringing attention to anti-Catholicism in the English-speaking world.
Carey’s efforts quickly caught the ear of Benjamin Franklin, who became his mentor. The explainer continues: “Through his pamphlets and newspaper, Carey actively petitioned for strong religious freedom protections in the Constitution of his home state of Pennsylvania, as well as the federal Constitution.”
Charles Carroll, a scion of the Carroll family of Maryland, was the only Catholic among the 56 signatories to our country’s first founding document. Carroll, the longest-lived signer, died during Andrew Jackon’s presidency in 1832, at the age of 95.
Again, from CatholicVote:
Owing to his family’s story, Carroll was a longtime believer that the idea of a nation recognizing the divine right to religious freedom as a matter of law could be a reality.
In a letter to a friend, years before the American Revolution, he wrote, “I am of the opinion, were an unlimited toleration allowed and men of all sects were to converse freely with each other, their aversion from a difference of religious principles would soon wear away.”
Charles Carroll’s second cousin, Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, also played a crucial role in enshrining religious freedom protections in the Constitution.
A Jesuit, Archbishop Carroll served the Diocese of Baltimore from 1789 to 1815. He was the first Catholic prelate in the new country, though by the time of his death, there were close to half a dozen more.
In a 1784 defense of Catholicism, Carroll wrote that Americans were “blessed with civil and religious liberty.” He said that if they could only maintain this freedom, they would prove to the world “that general and equal toleration, by giving free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to a unity of faith.”
When the very first Congress convened in 1789, it included two Catholics—one in each chamber and both from the illustrious Carroll family.
The only Catholic among the original US Senators was Charles Carroll, who was elected to represent his and his family’s home state of Maryland.
Meanwhile, the only Catholic who was part of America’s very first House delegation was Archbishop Carroll’s older brother, Daniel, who was elected to represent Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.