When Catholics Were the Muslims

A well-known national figure tries to rally Americans to the danger posed by a poorly understood minority religious group that’s increasingly making its presence felt in the country. He charges that their faith is a “political” religion inimical to American concepts of civil and religious liberty. He speaks darkly of how it treats women, cloistering them from the world. And he claims the press is held captive to its agenda and is failing to alert Americans to the growing threat at their door.

No, it’s not Donald Trump talking about Muslims, it’s a prominent Presbyterian minster talking about Catholics in the 1830s, and it serves as a reminder that when it comes to political demagoguery, Catholics were once the Muslims.

Robert Breckinridge was a leader of the Old School Presbyterians and the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, a city that had one of the largest Catholic populations in the country in the 1830s. He hailed from a politically prominent Kentucky family (his father was Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general), which gave him national clout even early in his career.

Breckinridge, along with his brother John, the previous pastor at Second Presbyterian, used the pulpit to whip up concern about the growing population of Irish and German Catholic immigrants, who he held couldn’t be good Americans because they owed their fealty to the pope.

He called Catholicism a “depraved and monstrous” religion that had as its goal the conversion and domination of all of mankind: “the Roman Catholic church is essentially and universally aggressive, exclusive and intolerant.” As a result, “It only remains for mankind to become papists—or to extirpate papism from the face of the earth,” he warned darkly in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, the publication he co-founded to spread anti-Catholic propaganda.

In 1836, the issue came to national attention when John Breckinridge held an acrimonious, widely publicized public debate with a Catholic priest over the question of whether Roman Catholicism was “inimical to civil or religious liberty” in which Breckinridge contended that “no good Catholic can be a consistent American.”

Sounding very Trumpian, Breckinridge in the following years called Catholics the “most degraded and brutal white population in the world.” He complained of “commercial treaties” that “open a direct trade in German and Irish Catholics” and of “public improvements that give them immediate and constant employment, at very high wages.” He also decried naturalization laws that “allow all these people to become American citizens in five years” and have full voting rights.

Breckinridge didn’t call directly for a ban on Catholic immigration (there were no controls on immigration at the time), but in addition to suggesting that Catholic immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to vote, implied that violence might be necessary for “Protestants to resist the pressing dangers that threaten us.” He said he hoped they wouldn’t let things “run on, till in mere self defense they will be obliged to take arms in their hands and put down by force, what can now be easily extirpated by moral means.”

And like Trump, he suggested that the press was failing to report accurately on the growing threat because it was “converted, subsidized, afraid, or totally indifferent”:

I believe the Catholic population of Baltimore, with less than one quarter of the aggregate wealth, enterprise, and intelligence of this good city, has for years exerted tenfold the influence over the press, that all the remaining three-quarters ever did.

And in the parallels between Breckinridge and Trump lies a warning. Breckinridge regularly made rhetorical attacks against a Carmelite convent in Baltimore, which, like other convents, he suggested were not only inimical to God’s ordering of the relationship between the sexes, with women properly being wives and mothers (who “train up children in God’s fear”) or pious old maids (who “generally prefer kittens to children,” ouch), but were holding women against their will:

…these poor Carmelites, we verily believe, would every one of them rejoice to be out of their cage.

Breckinridge recounted favorably in an article how a mob in Charlestown, Massachusetts, burnt down an Ursuline convent following a series of riots precipitated by rumors that a woman was being held there against her will. He also trumpeted a story told by a group of local Protestants who claimed to have heard a woman screaming as they passed the Carmelite convent—screams presumably produced by torture.

Breckinridge’s demonizing of “nunneries” reached its apotheosis in 1839, when rumors about an escaped crazy nun prompted three days of rioting in Baltimore as a crowd tried to storm the convent. Only the protection of the city guard prevented the riots from turning deadly.

Breckinridge, along with his brother John and co-publisher Andrew B. Cross, was ground zero for an anti-Catholic movement that would not only incite further violence, but culminate in the formation of the Native American Party. The party, popularly known as the Know Nothings, briefly flourished in the 1850s, fueled by the influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, before being subsumed by the modern Republican Party—a party, ironically, that can do little to stop the man who may repeat history, violence and all.

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