Catholics and Southern Honor: Rev. Patrick Lynch's Paper War with Rev. James Henley Thornwell

By Tate, Adam | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Catholics and Southern Honor: Rev. Patrick Lynch's Paper War with Rev. James Henley Thornwell


Tate, Adam, The Catholic Historical Review


The author examines the ability of Catholics in the American South to utilize the language of honor, a major facet of Southern political culture. The 1843 newspaper clash on the Apocrypha between Patrick Lynch (future bishop of Charleston, South Carolina) and James Henley Thornwell (influential Old School Presbyterian minister) demonstrated that Catholics in the South had adapted well to republican politics. The debate transcended doctrine and became an "affair of honor?' Catholics in the antebellum South learned to use the tools of Southern political discourse to demonstrate their sectional loyalty while rigorously defending Catholic doctrinal positions.

Keywords: Lynch, Patrick; nativism; Southern Catholics; Southern Presbyterians;ThornweIl, James Henley

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson worried that significant European immigration from countries with absolute monarchies would doom American self-government."In proportion to their numbers," he predicted,"they will share with us the legislation." "They will," he intoned, "infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass." Jefferson articulated a concern shared by many in the early Republic: a fear of non-English immigrants. Catholic immigrants faced great opposition in the United States during the nineteenth century not only from Protestants hostile to Catholic religious beliefs but also from nativists who believed that immigrant Catholics, with their sup posed monarchical ideals and priest-ridden folkways, threatened the Anglo-American republican political culture. Nativists pushed for restrictions on immigration and longer waiting periods for naturalization. Although some couched their concerns in secular terms, many nativists attacked Catholic religious beliefs as well. Catholics faced tensions over allaying nativist worries on the one hand and maintaining an identity as Catholics on the other.1

American regionalism complicates the story. Catholics entering the country during the 1830s and 1840s confronted not only an American distrust of Catholicism but also growing sectional animosities. If Catholics wanted to participate in American politics, they would have to choose sides as well as learn a new political culture.The political context affirms the observation of Timothy L. Smith that "each immigrant had to determine how to act in these new circumstances by reference not simply to a dominant 'host' culture but to a dozen competing subcultures."2

Although most antebellum Catholics, particularly the Irish, joined the Democratic Party, participation in the public culture of the antebellum era was complex and potentially treacherous. Choosing one side meant alienating others. As a religious minority often facing deep suspicions by a Protestant majority, Catholics dedicated to maintaining their religion faced certain opposition. Successful combating of nativism partially depended on Catholics' skillful use of the political and social tools of American culture.

For Catholics migrating to the Deep South, one such tool was the Southern ideal of honor. Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues that the social ethic of honor distinguished the South from the rest of the country during the antebellum period and led to a highly aggressive political culture. Southern honor, according to Wyatt-Brown, consisted of an "inner conviction of self-worth" on the part of an individual, a public claim made by the individual of his "self-assessment," and the judgment of the public thereby establishing the individual's "reputation." The public nature of the culture of honor led to the creation of a stylized discourse and ethical code by which its practitioners could establish and protect their reputations. Dueling represented the extreme recourse, but other forms of combat arose, particularly the paper war-what historian Joanne Freeman terms a "bloodless duel" carried out in newspapers. In a paper war, conflicting parties attacked one another's reputations in print while defending their own positions. …

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