Religious establishment prohibited. Freedom of speech, of the press, and right to petition.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Many people today take for granted the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees religious and political freedom. Since its conception, the United States of America has been famed for promising this right and offering equal opportunity to all.
However, that freedom that is sometimes forgotten in modern times would have been inconceivable four hundred years ago.
The Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century spawned wars and political upheaval. When it became apparent that some Catholics clearly were not reforming, and it was no longer acceptable to be a Catholic in some European countries, many of the “problem citizens” were simply exiled.
Historically, a great deal of the Catholic European settlers came to America. While some sought political and religious freedom, it was also clear that there was much money to be made in the English colonies. In addition, some settlers carried lofty ideas of converting the “heathen” Native Americans to the true religion.
In 1634, George Calvert founded the first primarily catholic settlement in America. Along with Pennsylvania, Maryland set out to practice religious tolerance, meaning that every (Christian) religion could be practiced without the fear of government persecution. This was a radical notion then, when the King decided the religion of his subjects.
However, this freedom did not last long for George Calvert and other Catholics of Maryland. Virginia, a royal colony, expressed hostility towards Maryland settlers by orders of the King. Soon, due to a small battle between the two in 1689, Maryland succumbed to the crown, and became a royal colony as well.
Unfortunately for residents of Maryland, this meant that they could no longer practice Catholicism freely and openly. Harsh restrictions were placed upon Catholics. In 1704, an “Act to prevent the growth of Popery” within the province was passed. The stipulations of the act stated that Catholics were not allowed to have mass. They were not allowed to baptize their children, nor were they allowed to teach them anything about Catholicism. They were prevented from practicing law, or holding any governmental position. Any violation of these guidelines would result in a considerable fine and six months in Jail . In 1756, a special Catholic tax was issued, hurting Catholics economically.
By 1765, there were about twenty thousand Catholics in Maryland. Due to the strong economic discrimination they had faced, only about one Catholic in twenty was considered wealthy. However, because of their high population in the upper South, many Catholics did have slaves. Deeper in the south, large plantations were owned by Catholics. Now, Catholicism was considered a primarily southern religion. There were some German Catholics thriving in Pennsylvania as well. However, their numbers were small, and in 1765, there were only about six thousand.
With the dawning of the Revolutionary war upon the Colonies, many Protestants turned their hatred from Catholics to the King. Catholics also united with Protestants to fight the common enemy. However, they weren’t fighting the crown because they didn’t want to pay their taxes; they were fighting for religious freedom and an end to persecution.
After the war was over, and the first constitution was written, the social and political atmosphere in the new America seemed to have shifted greatly for the Catholics. By 1779, due to the first amendment, Catholics were holding offices, voting and holding respectable positions in the military. Two Catholic men were even invited to the Constitutional Convention.
However this new idea of democracy caused some conflicting emotions for some. In the Middle Ages, the idea of an entire country united under one religion and one king was widely accepted. The Church was a hierarchical institution, with the Pope having the final say on everything. In America, the complete separation of church and state was looked upon as a necessary evil for most Catholics. During this time, most Catholics were republican, and extremely conservative, while regarding themselves first as Catholic, and second as American.
With the coming of the 1800s, the American view of Catholics was about to be changed forever. From 1820-1920, a gigantic wave of immigrants came to the US. First came the Irish. Almost all Irish immigrants were Catholic, and almost all were dirt poor, fleeing famine. They came to the US with dreams of a better life, and streets paved with gold. However, when they stepped off the boat, they encountered a different situation entirely. Most were unskilled, did not know a trade, and could not afford land to farm on. Therefore, they settled in the big cities on the eastern coast, mostly working in factories. Entire families worked, including children, and they earned next to nothing. From 1851-1920, 3.3 million Irish came to America.
Next, the Germans came in somewhat smaller numbers than the Irish. 1.5 million of them came, almost all of them Catholic. However, their dreams of wealth and prosperity generally came true, mostly because they came to America with money, and could afford land to farm on. Thus, they generally settled in the mid-west.
Italian immigration from 1880 on is an interesting subject. Again, they were all Catholic, but four out of every five Italian immigrants were male. 3 million of them came in search of their fortunes. Like the Irish, they settled in big east coast cities, working in some skilled labor positions, and some factory jobs. However, as soon as some Italians made enough money, they went back to Italy. In fact, sometimes the number of Italians leaving the country was greater than the number entering.
Polish and French Canadians came too, numbering three million all together, all catholic. Most Polish settled by the Great Lakes to work in mines, while the French Canadians were well off, settling in the Midwest with the Germans.
By the year 1916, all these immigrants made up %75 of the entire catholic population. It was clear to every native born American that Catholicism was strictly an immigrant religion. Because of the poor socio-economic stance of most immigrants, Catholicism was also seen as an inferior religion. Catholics had their own parochial schools, while Protestants went to better, public schools. They lived in their own neighborhoods, and formed communities among themselves, not interacting with non-Catholics. Now most of them were voting democratically, partly of their working-class status. However, they were and remain conservative in much of their ideology.
However, in the 1920s, much of this changed. Many of the immigrants were no longer considered immigrants, but Americans, and most people of working age were born in America. The Irish, who encountered strong prejudices before partly because of their accents, had lost the brogue. Catholicism was generally accepted.
In the year of 1961, John F. Kennedy was elected into the Presidency. Being a Catholic, many opponents were worried that he would take orders from the Church, and not the American people. JFK was very open about his religion, and assured the American people that he would work for them. This is an interesting election to study. They voted in record numbers.
Because he was so open about his faith, Catholics adored him. He was the American dream to them.
From the 1700s to the 1900s, Catholics did not traditionally participated in partisanship. They remained loyal to the Church. To this day, they have not voted on a large scale.
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