The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
DEMOCRACY AND CATHOLICISM IN THE MIDDLE PERIOD

A NATIONAL FAITH NEEDS AN ADVERSARY. It thrives best, as Emerson remarked, when its prophets have a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory. The faithful require a little sense of victory, a roll of the drums, to call their powers into full exercise. What the capitalist was to Lenin in 1917 and the Jew to Hitler in 1935, the Catholic was to the American democrat in the middle of the nineteenth century. The ogre of American democracy was the Scarlet Woman of Babylon. The shadow of the Reformation still lay across America.

Catholics were a small minority in the Middle Period. Some were descended from seventeenth-century refugees from England, and others from French and Spanish colonists in communities such as New Orleans and in the Upper Mississippi Valley which had become parts of the United States. More recently they were immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Catholicism in pre-Sumter America, when the Church was still weak, was, for the democrats, an enemy close at hand. It could be attacked with impunity, a great advantage when a bellicose mood was to be created. The chief utility for the democratic faith of the Catholic "menace" was the transference of the crusade of democracy from the level of intellectual combat, where only a few champions could participate, to that of practical politics and physical violence, where every son of liberty could strike his blow for righteousness. During the 1830's and the 1840's, mobs in widely separated parts of the United States terrorized and oppressed at times the Catholic minority. When, in 1834, Massachusetts democrats burned the Ursuline Convent in

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