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Thu Dec 27, 2012, 02:51 PM


Papist Patriots: A Review, Part I

by Michael Sean Winters | Dec. 27, 2012

The historiography of the American founding is an ever-changing landscape, as historians look at evidence that was previously ignored or minimized, and, just as importantly, as a new generation of historians brings the questions of their own times to the data of previous times. Few periods are as studied as that of the revolutionary and founding generations, yet historians continue to see things that were opaque before, filling out our understanding of our shared past. It is important work not only for historians but for all of us. “Getting its own history wrong” has been called an essential part of a nation’s identity, and so it is, but the more we get right, the less likely some ideologue will be able to distort that history for improper ends.

For many generations, and still in some high school textbooks, the general narrative of religion in America was profoundly wrong. It posited a Puritan seventeenth century, followed by an enlightened eighteenth century, which gave way to a revivalist nineteenth century. The scholarship of many, most especially Patricia Bonomi, has debunked that always incredible simplification, for example noting that church attendance rates went up throughout most of the eighteenth century.

Maura Jane Farrelly has written a new book, “Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity,” that is well worth the read and serves an an important contribution to this on-going refinement of history. She offers a detailed and thorough-going look at the historical and cultural antecedents of Maryland’s revolutionary-era Catholics, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and on both sides of the Atlantic. Her thesis is this: The Catholic founders of Maryland were a tolerant bunch and, after they lost control of their colony, in the face of nearly 100 years of anti-Catholic hostility, they successfully appealed to the relatively tolerant early years of the colony to fight efforts to apply more draconian British anti-Catholic penal laws, and that this struggle gave those Catholics a distinct identity rooted in American experience. Just so, they were easy pickings for the Revolutionary movement in the 1770s.

This thesis remains debatable at the end of the book, as it does at the beginning, but along the way, we learn a great deal about the often difficult lives of English and American Catholics, presented in prose that is readable and with ample footnotes for those who wish to investigate further.


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