The American Constitution

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVIII (6) start of chapter

There is little mention made of religious matters in the Constitution, but what is there proclaimed has often since been appealed to, and will many times again be appealed to, as the solemn declaration of a great and fundamental principle of religious toleration and equality. 'No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.' 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' This is the entire; but it was like a grand key-note, to regulate all future legislation, which ought to be in harmony with the principle embodied in these few but memorable words, It rather pointed out to the thirteen States then in the Union what they ought to do, than what they should not do. This broad proclamation notwithstanding, each State was at full liberty to legislate according to its own views, in reference to the important matter of religion. This is put clearly by the authors of 'The Catholic Church in the United States:'—

The original thirteen States, one after another, granted to the Catholics liberty of conscience, but many of them long refused the Catholics civil and political rights. Thus it is only since 1806 that Catholics, to hold office in the State of New York, have been dispensed with a solemn abjuration of all obedience to a foreign ecclesiastical power. Down to January 1, 1836, to be an elector and eligible in the State of North Carolina, it was necessary to swear a belief in the truth of the Protestant religion. In New Jersey, a clause excluding Catholics from all offices was only abolished in 1844. And even now (1856), eighty years after the Declaration of the Treaty of Independence, the State of New Hampshire still excludes Catholics from every office, stubbornly resisting all the petitions presented for a removal of this stigma from their statute-book.

As to the States founded on territory ceded by France or Spain, such as Louisiana, Florida, Michigan, Indiana, or severed from Mexico, like Texas and California, the Catholics, original proprietors of the soil, obtained, by the act of cession, the free enjoyment of their worship; and there is on the side of Protestantism mere justice, but no generosity, in keeping the faith of treaties.

In 1790 a remarkable Address was presented to Washington from the Catholics of America, signed by Bishop Carroll, the first Catholic Bishop, on the part of the clergy, and by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, David Carroll, Thomas Fitzsimmons, and Dominick Lynch,(21) on the part of the laity.

Two passages, one from the Address, the other from the reply, may be usefully quoted.

This prospect of national prosperity (say the Catholics) is peculiarly pleasing to us on another account, because, whilst our country preserves her freedom and independence, we shall have a well-founded title to claim from her justice equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood spilt under your eyes, and of our common exertions for her defence under your auspicious conduct; rights rendered more dear to us by the remembrance of former hardships.

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