Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

Synopsis

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholicism was often presented in the U.S. not only as a threat to Protestantism but also as an enemy of democracy. Focusing on literary and cultural representations of Catholics as a political force, Elizabeth Fenton argues that the U.S. perception of religious freedom grew partly, and paradoxically, out of a sometimes virulent but often genteel anti-Catholicism. Depictions of Catholicism's imagined intolerance and cruelty allowed writers time and again to depict their nation as tolerant and free. As Religious Liberties shows, anti-Catholic sentiment particularly shaped U.S. conceptions of pluralism and its relationship to issues as diverse as religious privacy, territorial expansion, female citizenship, political representation, chattel slavery, and governmental partisanship.

Drawing on a wide range of materials--from the Federalist Papers to antebellum biographies of Toussaint Louverture; from nativist treatises to Margaret Fuller's journalism; from convent expos's to novels by Catharine Sedgwick, Augusta J. Evans, Nathanial Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain--Fenton's study excavates the influence of anti-Catholic sentiment on both the liberal tradition and early U.S. culture more generally. In concert, these texts suggest how the prejudice against Catholicism facilitated an alignment of U.S. nationalism with Protestantism, thus ensuring the mutual dependence, rather than the putative "separation" of church and state.

Excerpt

Reflecting on the origins of U.S. liberal democracy, the narrator of Catharine Sedgwick’s The Linwoods: or, “Sixty Years Since” in America (1835), claims that Protestantism facilitated the development of a nation that honored both individual freedom and collective equality. The North American colonists “agreed (if agreeing in nothing else),” the narrator asserts, “in the communion of the spirit of liberty.” Different in every respect save their commitment to liberal government, Sedgwick’s revolutionaries embody what William C. Harris has identified as “the problem of the one and the many” in U.S. culture. Noting that the nation’s motto—“E pluribus unum” or “From many, one”—suggests “the creation of an integrated whole from disparate, independent elements,” Harris argues that much U.S. literature tests the “logical contradiction on which the nation was founded, the impossibilium that both supports and subverts: the attempted simultaneous execution of the principles of unity and equality.” Most significant for my purposes is that Sedgwick’s novel attempts to manage this tension by evoking the specter of Catholicism. In contrast to the varied Protestantisms that give rise to U.S. democracy, the Catholic Church appears in The Linwoods as a monolith. “The political institutions of a people may be inferred from their religion,” Sedgwick writes: “Absolutism, as a mirror, reflects the Roman Catholic faith.” Democracy, on the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.