American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:50 AM
Tremont Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Maura Jane Farrelly , Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Scholars who focus on American Catholic history have been reluctant to examine the relationship between slavery and Catholic identity in the United States. That the Church supported the institution of slavery has been acknowledged by nearly everyone writing about colonial and early American Catholicism. The Church's active opposition to the forces of abolitionism has also been explored, with the common conclusion being that this opposition was fueled primarily by the anti-Catholic leanings of abolitionists. That slavery might actually have played a role in the shaping of a distinctly “American” form of Catholic identity, however, has not yet been fully confronted by scholars. The paper I am proposing will do just that. Historians have long understood that from the 1780s until the 1830s, Catholics in the United States were comfortable with the individualism, republicanism, and religious pluralism that defined American identity, even though Catholic leaders in Continental Europe shunned these products of the Enlightenment as heresies that were dangerous to the integrity of the Church. Historians have also understood that after the Catholic landscape in America came to be dominated by ultramontane, Irish immigrants, American Catholicism's relationship with the core principles of American identity became more complicated. The Catholic debates that characterized the second half of the nineteenth-century came to be known as the “Americanist Crisis.” Few scholars have sought to understand why Catholics in the United States were comfortable with the liberal core of American identity at the start of the early national period. None has considered the possibility that the answer could lie with the reality that until the 1830s, most American Catholics lived in slaveholding states, where republicanism was based not on individualism, but on the order and mutual obligation that were defined by race-based slavery. I will argue that slavery made freedom “safe” for Catholics.