Elizabeth Fenton Rice University



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Elizabeth Fenton

Rice University


Religious Liberties:

Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in U.S. Literature and Culture, 1774-1897


This dissertation explores anti-Catholicism’s formative but oft-ignored importance to the U.S. liberal democratic tradition. Charting the echoes of the Continental Congress’s characterization of Catholicism as “dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion and to the civil rights and liberties of all America” through later writings by figures such as Catharine Sedgwick and Mark Twain, I show that U.S. liberal democracy emerged out of a discourse that constructed the nation as religiously “free” by placing it at odds with the Catholic. Analyzing works spanning genres as diverse as the essay, the news dispatch, and the novel, this project demonstrates that fabrications of Catholic intolerance were a vital component of the emergent liberal democratic system’s constructions of individual and religious freedom. I argue that the symbiotic relationship between democracy and anti-Catholicism ultimately contributed to the rise of U.S. imperialism by allowing territorial expansion to be configured as a means of securing the nation against foreign Catholic encroachment.
Catholicism is an ideal site through which to interrogate the parameters of U.S. liberal democracy, because it stands in many texts at the intersection of the religious and the national. Writers across decades and genres have struggled to reconcile liberal democracy’s promises of egalitarianism and tolerance with Catholicism’s ostensibly tyrannical hierarchy and dogmatism. Perhaps because of a dwindling interest in religious culture, U.S. literary critics of the past three decades generally have ignored representations of Catholicism. Critical work that does address religion tends to focus on the importance of Protestantism to U.S. literary and cultural productions, and the few studies that place the Catholic at the center of inquiry—most notably histories of Catholic immigrant experience and the recent literary scholarship of Jenny Franchot and Susan Griffin—emphasize its importance to Protestant identity formation but elide its shaping influence on U.S. politics. Similarly, theorists of liberalism such as Richard Rorty often downplay the tradition’s religiosity in order to assert its secularity. In treating Catholicism as a discursive category rather than an embodied identity, this project excavates the U.S. liberal democratic tradition’s religious roots and casts a critical eye on the discourses of tolerance and pluralism that have long sustained it.
My first chapter, “Birth of a Protestant Nation: Catholic Canadians, Religious Pluralism, and National Unity in the Early U.S. Republic,” charts the founding and enduring relevance of the seemingly insignificant Quebec Act of 1774 to the process of U.S. nation-formation. The chapter first analyzes the Continental Congress’s responses to the act’s legalization of Catholicism in colonial Quebec to show that the concept of national religious pluralism that undergirds U.S. liberal democracy emerged from an anti-Catholic discourse that positioned “Protestantism” as the guarantor of national religious liberty. I then turn to the writings of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison to show how in the early national era the figure of the Catholic embodied the potential horror of both national and international religious establishment. I argue that as the discourse of national religious liberty forged during the Quebec crisis evolved into one of personal religious liberty, representations of Catholicism allowed political theorists to shift the burden of separating church and state from the state onto the religious “choices” of private citizens.
Recognizing this political history’s formative influence on U.S. literature, my second chapter, “Strangers in the Text: Democratic Expansion and the Roots of U.S. Nativism,” argues that early fictional representations of Catholic tyranny laid the groundwork for the U.S.’s emerging Nativist culture. In so doing, it highlights the liberal democratic system’s dependence on anti-Catholic logic and thus revises scholarly attributions of nineteenth-century Nativism to rising immigration rates. As I demonstrate, early national novels such as Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers participate in ongoing discussions about the relationship between national pluralism, territorial expansion, and the future of democracy through their figurations of the Catholic. Tracking a previously ignored genealogy from those novels through Lyman Beecher’s 1835 anti-Catholic diatribe, A Plea for the West, this chapter reads representations of the Catholic as both embodiments of early national concerns about democracy’s limitations and critiques of its dependence on perpetual territorial expansion.
Chapter three, “Democracy’s Crusade: The Crisis of Representative Government in Writings of the Mexican War,” brings this literary and political history to bear on the U.S.’s 1846 invasion of Mexico, arguing that the anti-Catholic discourse of earlier periods underpinned justifications of violent U.S. territorial expansion. Numerous scholars have shown that racism and nationalism furthered the U.S. imperial project during this era, but far less attention has been paid to the role of religion in accounts of the Mexican War. Analyzing Margaret Fuller’s anti-war dispatches alongside pro-war news editorials and literary works such as George Lippard’s Legends of Mexico, I show that writers on both sides of the war debate used anti-Catholicism to argue for the sanctity of liberal democracy. However, as I demonstrate, even as war discourse promoted the primacy of U.S. governmental forms, it also constructed the specter of a new kind of citizen imagined, because Catholic, to be inassimilable to liberal democracy. Thus the Mexican War forced Anglo-American Protestants to confront not only the “problem” of Catholic inclusion within the liberal democratic system, but also the limits of the pluralist and representational logics that defined that very system.
Having brought to light the links between anti-Catholicism, liberal democratic discourse, and U.S. expansionism, in my final chapter, “Far from Rome: The Anti-Catholic Meets the Anti-Imperial in Mark Twain,” I argue that Twain’s late-nineteenth-century critique of the imperial project paradoxically draws its force from the anti-Catholic logic that has structured U.S. nationalism since the late-eighteenth century. Taking as its focus A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the anti-Catholicism of which has been long recognized but little remarked upon, this chapter shows that Twain’s self-conscious caricature of the Catholic Church allows him to construct imperialism as an affront to democracy. Reading the oft-overlooked body of late-nineteenth-century anti-Catholic texts, including Justin Fulton’s vitriolic Why Priests Should Wed, alongside Twain’s canonical satire, I demonstrate—contrary to traditional histories—not only that anti-Catholicism remained a salient force in the U.S. after the Civil War, but also that the discourse shifted to produce new understandings of national expansion.
While numerous studies of anti-Catholicism have demonstrated its centrality to the development of Protestant identity, this project is the first to unearth the discourse’s seminal and lasting influence on the U.S. liberal democratic tradition. Rather than simply demarcating a religious identity or theological practice, Catholicism has long operated as a test case for the efficacy of liberal democratic notions of privacy, pluralism, and equality. In its insistence that U.S. political culture cannot be understood apart from anti-Catholicism, this project demonstrates that, in their efforts to construct a religiously free public sphere, proponents of liberal democracy have over time rehearsed a discourse that fuses nation and religion.


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