“The easy access of foreigners to the elective franchise in the United States, by the present laws of naturalization, and of foreigners of doubtful morals and hostile political principles, is a source of danger to our civil and religious liberties “
In 1837 ninety-seven voters from Washington County, New York, petitioned the US Congress to act against what they perceived as an alarming trend in population growth in the country. Their actions were part of a larger movement initiated by Protestants in the Northeast to call attention to the danger posed by the large increase in the number of Roman Catholics moving to the United States from Europe. The petitioners argue that they are in favor of religious liberty but concerned that the intolerance inherent in Roman Catholicism is inimical to republican government, because Catholics owe a higher allegiance to the pope than to their political rulers. The petitioners feared that if Catholics became a majority they might use the political process to establish Roman Catholicism as a state religion and ban other forms of worship. According to the petitioners, the only way to avert such a calamity was to establish controls on immigration and enact restrictive rules for naturalization of foreign-born citizens.
Anti-Catholic sentiments existed in the United States from colonial times. Until the nineteenth century, Catholics made up on a small minority of the populace. Between 1800 and 1835, however, the number of Catholics increased tenfold, as immigrants from countries such as Ireland, and to a lesser extent Germany, moved to the United States. Many Protestants believed Catholic immigrants were susceptible to direction from their clergy, many of whom were foreign-born. Some expressed fears that if immigration trends continued and naturalization laws remained unchanged, Catholics would soon have sufficient political clout to turn the United States into a vassal nation subservient to the pope.
During the 1820s, thirty religious papers were established to promote Protestant cause and attack Catholicism. Books and pamphlets providing lurid accounts of Roman Catholic practices and the church’s political designs in America appeared regularly. Anti-Catholic feelings centered on the perceived incompatibility between Catholic values and democracy. W. C. Brownlee, an influential Protestant minister and editor of several anti-Catholic newspapers and tracts, revived the New York Protestant Association in 1832. In 1835 the Association sponsored a debate in New York City on the topic “Is Popery Compatible with Civil Liberty?” In response, Catholics established their own news outlets, including the Truth Teller, which in 1835 published a series of debates between Brownlee and three Catholic priests.
Anti-Catholic activity was not limited to verbal sparring. In 1834 a group of Protestants burned down the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. While some Protestant clergy and several newspapers denounced the violence, the few rioters brought to justice were acquitted, and no reparations made to the nuns. Meanwhile, the Society for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge, founded in 1835, and the Protestant Reformation Society, created a year later, galvanized Protestants against the Roman Catholic Church and worked to promote Bible study and the conversion of Catholics. Its efforts were aided by publication of several sensational (though not always accurate) accounts of abuses by Catholics, most notably Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (1836). Hence, the petition sent to Congress by electors in Washington County, New York, was part of a larger movement designed to save the United States from a perceived threat to its existence.
Though generally referred to as a petition to Congress from ninety-seven electors of Washington County, New York, the title of the document published in the Executive Documents of the Twenty-Fifth Congress, Second Session, reads: “Memorial of James P. Miller and 96 Other Electors of Washington County, New York, Praying a Revision of the Laws regulating the Naturalization of Foreigners.” The full title identifies the principal author of the petition, the Reverend James Patterson Miller, who in 1837 was serving as pastor of the Associate Church (Presbyterian) in South Argyle, New York. Miller was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in 1792 and was educated at Jefferson College in Canonsburg. He studied theology under Reverend John Anderson, DD, the first professor of divinity at Service Seminary in Beaver County. After teaching in Ohio for several years, he was ordained in 1827 and moved to northeastern New York in 1829 to serve at the Associate Church in Argyle, Washington County.
An advocate of public religious covenanting, Miller was clearly unafraid to bring his faith into the public sphere. He often preached on political topics and published several pamphlets with a decidedly political slant, including Does the Constitution Favor Slavery? (1844) and Address from the Liberty Party of Washington County, to their Fellow Citizens of All Other Parties (1844). He also wrote Biographical Sketches and Sermons of Some of the First Ministers of the Associate Church in America (1939). Presumably to supplement his income, Miller also served as postmaster in South Argyle for several years. He left New York in 1851 to lead a missionary effort in Oregon. Miller died there in 1854, killed by the explosion of a boiler aboard a steamboat on which he was traveling.
It is likely that the other ninety-six electors who signed the document were members of Miller’s congregation or other Protestants in the area who felt strongly that the nation was being threatened by the influx of Catholics whose political allegiances were suspect. Given what these men knew about the hierarchal nature of the Roman Catholic Church and concerned that there really might be a conspiracy against the United States from foreign powers, it is no wonder that they readily subscribed their names to the document asking Congress to take action before the nation faced a crisis from within that would threaten it existence.
The petition submitted by Reverend James Miller and his fellow citizens from Washington County, New York, is structured as a formal argument. Its aim is to convince Congress to take action to prevent the possible downfall of the United States by agents of foreign powers that, if left unchecked, might infiltrate the political process and destroy the country’s republican form of government. The general outline of the argument is as follows:
First, history shows that prosperous nations have often declined and fallen because leaders failed to heed warning signs that forces were at work undermining the institutions that supported the nation in its time of strength.
Second, the United States is a nation that is experiencing great prosperity; yet there are already ominous signs of a force at work that could, if left unchecked, lead to the downfall of the republic. That force is the Roman Catholic Church, which is sending immigrants from European countries to settle in America.
Third, the nation’s policy of welcoming immigrants with open arms is permitting a large group of Roman Catholics to come to the United States from various countries in Europe. These people pose a danger to republican government because they belong to a church which demands obedience to its spiritual head, the pope in Rome, rather than to any temporal authority.
Fourth, foreign powers are supporting efforts to establish a Catholic majority in the United States so that the country can eventually be forced to abandon its republican form of government. The result would be the repression of religious and civil liberties.
Fifth, before Catholics become a strong political force within the United States, Congress should act to limit immigration and naturalization of those professing to be Roman Catholics.
Within this structure, the petitioners make their case positively by pointing out the nature of the evil they perceive, appealing to authority and trusting that their intended audience, members of Congress, is familiar with details of what was at the time a much-discussed topic, especially in northeastern States. They also acknowledge that their request of Congress will necessitate changes to government practices that might be perceived as contrary to constitutional principles and accepted norms regarding citizenship. Hence, the petition lays out a case for change by suggesting that the issue of immigration and naturalization of Catholics from foreign countries demands a balancing of constitutional rights, with the right of self-defense taking precedence over the rights of individuals to enter the country and obtain citizenship.
The petitioners knew they were challenging two popular American ideas, one of which was clearly protected by the Constitution. They also knew that the idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants, welcoming to all who wished to escape the tyranny of European monarchical government, remained popular with many of their fellow citizens. In 1837 the United States was still a frontier nation, and those coming from other countries were often viewed as necessary for settling lands to the west that might otherwise remain in the hands of hostile Native Americans. The nation had no strong federal policy regarding immigration. An act passed by Congress in 1819 required that immigrants be reported upon arrival in American ports, but for virtually all white people the pathway to citizenship was clear once they arrived in the country. Anyone establishing permanent residence in the United States had to wait only five years before applying for citizenship.
The petitioners’ argument in favor of limiting immigration and modifying naturalization laws is based on the premise that the Constitutional principle of majority rule would be negated if suffrage—the right to vote—were extended to foreigners who did not value the principles of American democracy. According to the petitioners, the framers of the Constitution “did not contemplate a majority hostile to [republican] principles.” They point out that United States already prohibits foreigners from voting because they might not support the civil and religious liberties protected by the Constitution—ones “cherished” and “esteemed” by citizens. Only after a probationary period, during which a person presumably would demonstrate a commitment to American ideals, would citizenship be granted.
The lynchpin of the petitioners’ case lies in the assertion that the continuous influx of Roman Catholics into the country poses a threat to national security. Since the Constitution allows for defense from “foreign invasion,” the Congress should employ naturalization laws to combat an invasion that is being launched not openly, but insidiously. If the threat to democracy were as real as the petitioners believe, no responsible representative could argue that strong means were not necessary and appropriate. Members of Congress had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, which establishes in the preamble the right of the people to “provide for the common defense.” Hence, acting to limit immigration in this instance, when foreigners were being used as a means of sabotage, would not be a violation of one of the country’s most honored principles, but rather a means of protecting those principles in a time of crisis.
In order for the petitioners to make their claims against Catholic immigrants valid, however, it would be necessary for them to prove that the Roman Catholic religion was somehow inherently incompatible with America’s republican form of government. Their argument on this point begins with the plea that Congress devise some way of assuring that people admitted to the United States “from the lap of tyranny” and granted the “right of suffrage” be “friends of our cherished liberties.” To show that Roman Catholics from Europe may not be friends of liberty, they make an appeal to authority, in this case the writings of a respected Protestant clergyman, Dr. William Robertson. Author of several highly regarded historical works, including a multivolume history of America, Robertson was considered an important figure in the Enlightenment and a moderate on most matters. Hence, to use his descriptions of Roman Catholicism would be useful in appealing to those who might otherwise be skeptical of people employing an argument of political necessity to mask their religious zealotry. Robertson makes two important points about the nature of Roman Catholicism. First, he says it makes individual practitioners into servants of the church’s political agenda. Second, he finds it is intolerant of other denominations, to the point of using persecution to force people to abandon other religious practices and submit to the authority of the church in the person of the pope.
The emphasis on the political aims of the Roman Catholic Church is intentional, as the petitioners realized that only if they could present the church as a foreign foe intent on sabotaging the United States did they have a chance of succeeding in having laws altered. A direct attack on any single religion as a form of worship might be perceived as an attack on the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. The petitioners are careful to distinguish between the Roman Catholic Church as an institution and the individuals who practice the Catholic faith. They state clearly that they have “no hostility” to “Roman Catholics, as men” (meaning, as individuals). Further, they claim to be asking for no legislation against the practice of Roman Catholicism, but only against “principles interwoven with their religion”—namely, the principle that the church has a political agenda. The core of their argument lies in the distinction they make between the republican principle of toleration and what they describe as the despotic Catholic principle of intolerance for all other forms of worship. The question they raise about this matter is one that haunted them, and continues to haunt the United States nearly two centuries later: “Does our constitution, by allowing the toleration of all religions, contemplate the toleration of a politically intolerant religion?”
The petitioners believe that some restrictions must be placed on the growth of the Catholic population before it becomes so large that agents of the Catholic Church might use this group for political purposes. Their plea to Congress is to limit the immigration of Roman Catholics as a means of “secur[ing] our free institutions, our liberties, civil and religious, against the danger of subversion by foreign influence” operating “under the cloak of religion.” In their view, Congress should act swiftly and decisively to enact laws so that real religious and political liberty can be preserved.
The string of five rhetorical questions in the sixth paragraph, led by the key one about the conflict between a tolerant Constitution and an intolerant religious sect, is reminiscent of techniques used by orators to inflame an audience and gain support for one side in a contentious debate. One might look, for example, at the effective use of rhetorical questions employed by Marc Antony in act 3, scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which turn a crowd that only moments before had been praising Caesar’s assassins into a mob ready to lynch them. Miller and his fellow petitioners knew they were dealing with a highly emotional issue, and they take advantage of that fact in constructing an argument sure to appeal to those who shared their fear of any group within the United States that might challenge individual liberties.
Much of the language used in the petition is highly formulaic and is consistent with that used at the time by individuals and groups appealing to a higher authority for action on a specific issue. For example, the petitioners, who refer to themselves as “memorialists,” begin by asserting their humility in approaching the august body of the United States Congress and end by noting that their petition is “respectfully submitted.” They insist that they do not wish to “encroach” on the “patience” of their elected representatives, but must do so because their cause is so serious. To their credit, the petitioners do not go on at great length about the problem; their appeal is made in less than a thousand words. Throughout the petition, they take pains to point out the “excellence” of the American political system, partly as a means of acknowledging the role of Congress in establishing and maintaining that system and partly to highlight the dangers that can befall the country if action were not taken to preserve it.
Although a twenty-first century reader may be surprised by the stridency with which the petitioners attack the Catholic Church, their language echoes many of the contemporary documents published on the issue of Roman Catholic immigration and the many (perceived) plots by foreign powers to undermine American democracy. For example, in 1834 Samuel F. B. Morse outlined the dangers of a Catholic conspiracy in a series of newspaper articles in the New York Observer; these were published a year later in book form under the title Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. “There is imminent danger to our free institutions from the increase of foreign Catholics,” Morse writes. “No one can doubt that the unusual efforts of despotic foreign governments to spread Popery in the United States has for its principal design the subversion of our republican institutions.” Claiming to have discovered the conspiracy when he was in Europe, Morse explains how the St. Leopold Foundation, an organization founded in Austria, was commissioned to send priests to the United States to infiltrate civic organizations and dictate these new Catholic citizens’ voting practices. The organization did exist, and its stated mission was to assist fledging Catholic communities in America. The petitioners’ rhetorical question whether the Catholic Church requires “allegiance to the Pope of Rome, holding the obligation to obey him, as paramount to all other authority” echoes Morse’s similar pronouncement, “Are not the Catholics of this country the subjects of the Pope; do they not owe him an allegiance superior to any due to our laws? And is this a religious or a political question?”
The petitioners’ claim that the present laws are allowing “foreigners of doubtful morals and hostile political principles” to enter the United States restates arguments made by others, including Morse and Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher. In A Plea for the West (1835), Beecher exposed the threat to America posed by the Catholic Church and called upon Protestants to take action to prevent the overthrow of the republic by foreign forces already at work to undermine democracy. He asserts that “Catholic Europe is throwing swarm on swarm upon our shores. They come, also, not undirected”; priests are being sent to keep the new immigrants in line. Protestants like Beecher saw the threat of Catholic domination as real. The Catholic Church was losing ground in Europe, and some Protestants believed that church officials thought their only hope of maintaining the church’s place as a dominant world power was to establish a firm foothold in America. Beecher goes on to say that “it is perfectly certain that the Catholic powers of Europe” have a goal: they will set up educational institutions in America. “By immigration and Catholic education” the United States will “become to such an extent a Catholic nation, that, with their peculiar power of acting as one body, they will become the predominant power of the nation,” and will work against “republican movements, by the easy access and powerful action of foreign influence and intrigue.” Certainly no American concerned about the future of the nation could stand by idly in the face of such a threat.
The concession of the petitioners that individual Catholics should be free to practice their religion while the number of Catholic immigrants should be limited is an echo of Beecher’s claim that Catholics in the United States may “perceive and renounce the past unscriptural and anti-republican claims, maxims, and deeds of the church of Rome,” but that does not mean that “the Roman church is reformed.” Beecher argues that history has shown the Catholic Church “always” to have been “hostile to civil and religious liberty.” In fact, he says the Catholic Church has shown a readiness to interfere in political affairs and interpose ecclesiastical authority. These sentiments find a place in the petitioners’ claim that the “great influx of Roman Catholics into this country” is “eminently threatening of our civil and religious liberties.”
The perilous nature of the situation the petitioners believed to exist is made apparent in the vivid and sometimes alarmist language they use to describe the potential effects of unchecked immigration. They fear that the nation, now seemingly prosperous, is showing a “fatal disregard” for the threat coming from the country’s lax immigration power. By contrast, “despotism”—meaning here the Roman Catholic Church—is “eagle-eyed,” ready to pounce on a weak opponent. Martial language runs throughout their memorial, as the petitioners suggest they are ready to combat Catholic doctrine with “appropriate weapons of education and religious institutions.” Additionally, key words sure to trigger emotional responses among the patriotic (and mostly Protestant) members of Congress are scattered throughout the document: “tyranny” in one form or another appears three times, “despot” or a cognate four times, “liberty” thirteen times, “foreign” fourteen. While purporting to be a document arguing for a change in immigration policy, the petition from the Washington County electors is delivered in the language of a declaration of war.
The petition from the ninety-seven electors of Washington County, New York, highlights two important themes in American political and cultural history that bear further study. The first is anti-Catholicism. Despite being founded as a nation where all religions are ostensibly treated equally and individuals free to practice without hindrance, over the course of its history the United States has seen repeated attempts to curtail activities of the Roman Catholic Church and prevent individual Catholics from exercising fully the freedoms granted to them by the Constitution. Aware of the church’s history of repression and close alliance with political powers in Europe, many Protestants believed they were acting in good faith to call for restrictions on a group whose political allegiances were suspect. For nearly two centuries after the American Revolution, motives of Catholics running for political office were questioned openly. In 1928 a strong campaign against New York governor and Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith raised doubts about his fitness for the nation’s highest office because he was a Catholic. Smith lost the election to Republican Herbert Hoover. In 1960, similar doubts were raised about Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s suitability for the presidency, but Kennedy overcame negative campaigning to become the first Catholic elected president.
A second theme highlighted by the petition is the presence of a nativist movement in the United States. Nativism is generally defined as a belief that citizens who are born in a country deserve favored status in that country. In the United States, it is usually associated with the notion that whites of European descent, particularly white Protestants, are the true inheritors of the rights promised by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution. Nativists look with suspicion on any other ethnic group or race, questioning their fitness to be granted full rights of citizenship. The nativist movement first began in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the arguments laid out in the petition from Washington County are typical of those advanced by individuals who believed that granting suffrage to groups that might bring different values with them from Europe posed a threat to the nation. Similar arguments were advanced when Asians came to the United States decades later, and again between 1880 and 1920 when millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to America to create new lives for themselves and their families. As a political movement, nativism in the United States seems to gain strength whenever groups of nonwhites seek to become citizens. One can see echoes of the arguments raised by the New York electors in twenty-first century protests against relaxed requirements for naturalization for immigrants from countries in Latin America or calls for stricter control and monitoring of individuals from the Middle East seeking to make their homes in the United States.
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