Contrast between Catholic and Quaker Settlers in America

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVIII (4) start of chapter

So long as England retained her power in her American colonies, persecution and proscription were the lot of her Catholic subjects. It was the same at both sides of the Atlantic—cruel laws and degrading disabilities. If anything, her colonial governors and legislators outdid in violence and malignity the policy of the mother country; for, strange as it must appear, and however dishonouring to our human nature, it is nevertheless the fact, that those who fled from persecution, who braved the stormy ocean in frail vessels, to escape from the tyranny of a sect or a government, became relentless in their persecution of others who, like themselves, had hoped to find a peaceful home and a safe asylum in a new and happy country. The Puritans of New England outdid, in their fierce intolerance, those whose milder tyranny had compelled them to seek relief in exile. The contrast offered by the different policy pursued by Catholic and Puritan colonists should put to shame those who are so lavish in their accusations of Catholic persecution. When the Catholics had power or influence, they proclaimed the broadest toleration, the fullest liberty to every sect of Christians; while, on the contrary, not only were Catholics in a special degree the objects of persecution in every colony, and by every governor or legislature, but the zealots who persecuted them did not refrain from persecuting people of other denominations. We may refer to the conduct of the Catholic settlers of Maryland, and of the Catholics during the only time they ever possessed any influence in the State of New York, and contrast their enlightened policy with the laws against Quakers and Catholics—the latter of which laws were not erased from the statute-book until after America had accomplished her independence.

The code of the New England colonies was conceived in the most ferocious spirit, and was enforced with relentless severity. A single extract from the law passed at Plymouth on the 14th of October 1657, will be sufficient to display the mild and Christian policy of those who themselves had suffered for conscience' sake:—

And it is further enacted, that if any Quaker or Quakers shall presume, after they have once suffered what the law requireth, to come into this jurisdiction, every such male Quaker shall, for the first offence, have one of his ears cut off, and be kept at work in the house of correction till he can be sent away at his own charge; and for the second offence, shall have the other ear cut off, &c., and be kept at the house of correction as aforesaid. And every woman Quaker that hath suffered the law here, that shall presume to come into this jurisdiction, shall be severely whipt, and kept at the house of correction till she be sent away at her own charge, and so also for her coming again she shall be alike used as aforesaid. And for every Quaker, he or she, that shall a third time herein again offend, they shall have their tongues bored through with a hot iron, and kept at the house of correction till they be sent away at their own charge.

The offence thus fiendishly punished was the mere coming of any of these harmless people within the jurisdiction of those ardent worshippers of human freedom and religious liberty. It were hard to say whether the Puritan was more ferociously in earnest in his persecution of Quakers and Catholics than in his extermination of witches —for a profound belief in witchcraft was one of the most striking evidences of his enlightenment and good sense.

Bancroft, the historian of America, thus describes the state of things in the Catholic colony of Baltimore:—

Yet the happiness of the colony was enviable. The persecuted and the unhappy thronged to the domains of the benevolent prince. If Baltimore was, in one sense, a monarch—like Miltiades at Chersonnesus, and other founders of colonies of old—his monarchy was tolerable to the exile who sought for freedom and repose. Numerous ships found employment in his harbours. The white labourer rose rapidly to the condition of a free proprietor; the female emigrant was sure to improve her condition, and the cheerful charities of home gathered round her in the New World. ..........

Emigrants arrived from every clime; and the colonial legislature extended its sympathies to many nations, as well as to many sects. From France came Huguenots; from Germany, from Holland, from Sweden, from Finland, I believe from Piedmont, the children of misfortune sought protection under the tolerant sceptre of the Roman Catholic. Bohemia itself, the country of Jerome and of Huss, sent forth their sons, who at once were made citizens of Maryland with equal franchises. The empire of justice and humanity, according to the light of those days, had been complete but for the sufferings of the people called Quakers. Yet they were not persecuted for their religious worship, which was held publicly, and without interruption. 'The truth was received with reverence and gladness;' and with secret satisfaction George Fox relates that members of the legislature and the council, persons of quality, and justices of the peace, were present at a large and very heavenly meeting.

This was in 1668, but in a few years after the arrival of William Penn, the Quakers had full justice done to them, In Catholic Maryland there had been no ear-cropping, no boring of tongues with hot pokers—such exhibitions of brotherly love and mercy were reserved for the Puritans of Plymouth.

'The apologist of Lord Baltimore,' says Bancroft, 'could assert that his government, in conformity with his strict and repeated injunctions, had never given disturbance to any person in Maryland for matter of religion; that the colonists enjoyed freedom of conscience, not less than freedom of person and estate, as amply as ever any people in any place in the world. The disfranchised friends of prelacy from Massachusetts and the Puritan from Virginia were welcomed to equal liberty of conscience and political rights in the Roman Catholic province of Maryland.' These halcyon days did not long continue; for when the Protestants got the upper hand in Maryland, they persecuted the Catholics, who had extended toleration and liberty to all!

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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