Monday, October 8, 2012

"French Papist Horde Enslaves America!" Anti-Catholicism and the Quebec Act

Twenty-first century Americans aren’t accustomed to thinking of Canada as a threat. It is the nation in all the world that is the most similar to the United States, the most inoffensive and pacific of neighbors. The generation that fought the Revolutionary War, however, thought very differently of its neighbor to the North.

More than a century of sporadic warfare between Catholic New France and Protestant New England had habituated Americans to perceive Canada, even under English rule, as a potential danger.

The raid on Deerfield; the battles along the Kennebec; the defeat of Braddock; the bloody incidents of the Deportation of the Acadians; the siege of Québec with the dramatic deaths of Generals Wolfe and Montcalm; these events were on the minds of Anglo-America's leaders in the Revolutionary War period and some of them had witnessed the more recent of these affairs.

These memories were aroused when the British Parliament's Quebec Act, among other Acts the Americans perceived as "intolerable," allowed tithes to be paid to the Roman Catholic clergy of Canada. Many American colonists viewed the British government’s policy of accommodation as the prelude to the invasion of a French ‘papist’ horde with the aim of enslaving Protestant America.

Such charges sound so exaggerated, so outrageous to modern ears that there is a tendency to downplay them. They are viewed either as the extravagance of a few firebrands or as propaganda aimed at arousing popular opinion against the King.

Charles H. Metzger S.J., in his book The Quebec Act,* investigates newspapers, court records, private papers, minutes of assemblies, and other primary sources. He amasses a formidable collection of well-documented evidence that anti-catholic sentiments were a major cause of opposition to the Quebec Act. He shows that it was no small motivator of the Revolutionary movement as a whole.

Even before the Quebec Act was passed no less a figure than Samuel Adams opined, “Much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery in America, than from Stamp Acts or any other acts destructive of civil rights; Nay, I could not help fancying that the Stamp Act itself was contrived with a design only to inure the people to the habit of contemplating themselves as the slaves of men; and the transition thence to a subjection to Satan is mighty easy (Metzger 24).”

Insofar as it established “popery” the redoubtable Adams believed the Quebec Act to be a greater affront than the Stamp Act, which is cited frequently among the major causes of Revolutionary ferment.

After the passage of the Quebec Act in 1774 American pens let loose a flood of anti-catholic paranoia. The Maryland Journal held that American Protestant liberty was in danger from “French laws and popery…'the one enslaving the body, the other the mind'.” A broadside printed in New York had Lord North “dwell on the feasibility of recruiting an army of ‘papists in Canada’ who would be ‘glad to cut the throats of those heretics the Bostonians’ (40).”

The Mitred Minuet
Anti-Catholic Engraving by Paul Revere
The Royal American Magazine, October 1774
Source: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Rumors crossed the Atlantic that the Pope was set “to publish a Crusade against the Rebellious Bostonians, to excite the Canadians…to extirpate those bitter enemies to the Romish Religion and monarchial power (46).” Dark purposes were assigned to the British General Carleton’s orders “to raise an army of thirty thousand Roman Catholic Canadians without delay. Was it not high time for Protestants…to resort to effective measures for the securing of their civil and religious liberties? (45)

A Pennsylvanian scribe feared that the colonies “were surrounded by enemies, with a ‘Popish, French government’ set up for the express purpose of destroying their liberties, [and that] their all was at stake (48).”

The Newport Mercury asserted the futility of any effort to accommodate “free and Protestant Americans to that most detestable [Quebec] act” intended to bring “the whole force of the French Papists…to destroy the British Protestant colonies (51).” A New England newspaper reported “that guns and bayonets were to be sent to America and put into the hands of Roman Catholics and Canadians (77).”

The fears of the French ‘papist’ horde were not confined to print. The people of Portsmouth seized military supplies in anticipation of a Canadian/British invasion. Reports stated that Fort Ticonderoga was garrisoned with a force of 2,800 men (certainly an exaggerated figure) “to secure the people ‘from the incursion of the Roman Catholics’ (78).” Military precautions were also taken in Cumberland and York Counties in the district of Maine.

These counties would one day be the home of many thousands of Franco-American Catholics an irony not lost on Fr. Metzger. Writing in the 1930s, he comments upon the “millions of Catholics” in New England in his day including “the mill towns…overrun by French Canadians (32).”

Father Metzger’s work leaves little doubt that the fears of a French ‘papist’ horde were not merely the fancy of a handful of bigots. The theme was ubiquitous and persistent in the public and private expressions of well-known figures, including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, as well as rank and file American Patriots. 

However, we must avoid the fallacy of mistaking the part for the whole. Not all Americans were intolerant of Roman Catholicism nor did all of them harbor the French ‘papist’ horde meme.

We recall that a Catholic signed the Declaration of Independence. An embassy including this delegate and his cousin, a Catholic priest, was dispatched by Congress to garner the support of the Canadiens to the American cause. Congress also published an address to the Canadiens in conciliatory tones even if it contradicted a parallel communiqué to their British brethren.

During the American occupation of Montréal, Washington restrained New England hotheads ensuring that the Catholics of that city were treated tolerably. At last, the anti-French Catholic rhetoric withered following the 1778 American alliance with France.

The French ‘papist’ horde image faded into the background but did not die. It went into hibernation to reemerge when French-Canadians, as Fr. Metzger notes, "overran" the New England mill towns a century after the Revolution. The image was placed in a different context, and some of its features changed, but the core of this meme remained remarkably self-similar in its late 18th and late 19th century forms.

This latter-day reemergence of the French ‘papist’ horde meme will be the subject of my next post.

* The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, Metzger, Charles H., New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1936. Parenthetical references refer to this book.

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