How Catholics were treated in New York

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVIII (5) start of chapter

We shall now see how Catholics were treated in New York. In 1683 Colonel Thomas Dongan, a Catholic, was sent out as governor, and under his liberal administration the Legislative Assembly—the first which was convoked—proclaimed that 'no person or persons, which profess faith in God by Jesus Christ, shall at any time be any way molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any difference of opinion or matter of religious concernment, who do not actually disturb the civil peace of the province; but that all and every such person or persons may, from time to time, and at all times, freely have and fully enjoy his or their judgments or consciences, in matters of religion, throughout all the province—they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly, and not using this liberty to licentiousness, nor to the civil injury, nor outward disturbance of others.' By another article, all denominations then in the province were secured the free exercise of their discipline and forms, and the same privilege extended to such as might come. Bancroft describes this Charter of Liberty as eliminating 'the intolerance and superstition of the early codes of Puritanism.'

The New York Assembly of 1691 declared null and void the acts of the Assembly of 1683, and, instead of the Charter of Liberties, passed a Bill of Rights, which expressly excluded Catholics from all participation in the privileges which it conferred. It had been the same in Maryland, where Catholics had first proclaimed religious liberty, and where the Protestants, who soon gained the ascendancy, proscribed the Papists and their creed.(20)

In 1690 a wicked law was passed, enacting that any priest coming into the colony, or remaining in it after a certain day, should be deemed an incendiary and disturber of the public peace and safety, and an enemy to the true Christian religion, and adjudged to suffer perpetual imprisonment. If he escaped, and were retaken, death was the penalty. And any one who harboured a priest was made liable to a fine of 300l., and to stand three days in the pillory. In 1701 Catholics were excluded from office, and deprived of the right of voting; and in the following year they were specially excluded from sharing in the liberty of conscience granted by Queen Anne to all the inhabitants of New York.

It may be easily imagined that, whatever their condition at home, there was little inducement for Irish Catholics to emigrate to the American colonies while under British rule, and so long as the spirit of their laws was more than a faithful reflection of the odious intolerance breathing in every page of the statute-book of England. They did come, nevertheless, and, though not in great numbers, they were to be found scattered over the country in various directions, and carrying on business in New York and other of the principal cities.

The Revolution did much for the Catholics of America, if not to change the public sentiment in their favour, at least to afford them relief from positive persecution. No doubt, men of just and generous minds, like Washington, would, without the pressure of special circumstances, have been willing to extend the same liberty to Catholics as to all other religious sects; but had there not existed the necessity of endeavouring to conciliate, or even neutralise, the Catholics of Canada, and of not offending the pride of France, a Catholic nation which had rendered such material assistance to the revolted colonies of England, it is possible they might not so soon have been allowed to participate in the full measure of freedom secured to the citizens of the infant Repubiic. Even the fact that Catholics—soldiers and merchants, and among them gallant and high-spirited Irishmen—distinguished themselves by their heroism and generosity in the cause of American independence, would not, of itself, have been sufficient to break down the barriers of exclusiveness which intolerance and fanaticism had raised against the just claims of that faithful but persecuted body of Christians.

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America