Ballots & Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence

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Ballots & Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence. By Evelyn Savidge Sterne. [Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in TwentiethCentury America.] (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2004. Pp. xviii, 294. $34.95.)

Most readers would be aware of the unique political arrangement of religious tolerance that Roger Williams helped to create in the Rhode Island colony (and later the state) because of his view of how God chose to save mankind. Evelyn Savidge Sterne in her Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence reminds Rhode Islanders, and perhaps informs a wider readership, of another way in which Rhode Island was politically different from other states.

In 1842, the nativist-inclined faction which controlled Rhode Island, in order to protect the state from what they saw as the injurious influence of foreigners, most of whom were Catholics, wrote into the state's new constitution a provision that required foreign-born citizens to hold $134 worth of taxable property in order to qualify to vote. Although Rhode Island's foreign-born population was still relatively small in 1842, it was growing rapidly. The conservative leaders of the state looked at what was happening in contemporary New York city politics and resolved not to let the same thing happen in Rhode Island. While the leaders of most states at this time were moving in the direction of universal manhood suffrage, Rhode Island's leaders took their state in the opposite direction, although only after putting down a "rebellion" led by Thomas Wilson Dorr.

Second- and third-generation Irishmen in Rhode Island did not begin to make their influence felt in the state's Democratic Party until the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the Irish made a serious, sustained challenge to "Yankee" leadership positions in the Democratic Party organization (and later in the state). How was it possible for a politically disenfranchised group to make the political progress the Irish did in the years after 1890? That is the question answered in Dr. Sterne's book. After providing the historical background necessary to understanding the main focus of her work, Dr. Sterne moves to a consideration of the multiplicity of parish, diocesan, and fraternal societies which the clergy and lay Catholics of the state created, beginning in 1827, and how they helped aspiring politicians to develop the skills and build the constituencies necessary to success when the opportunity arose to participate in Rhode Island politics. …