Liberty’s Lions: The Catholic Revolutionaries Who Established America
By Dan LeRoy, Sophia Institute Press 2021, 400 pages
America’s “sweet land of liberty” of “pilgrims’ pride” and Plymouth Rock has historically had a Protestant-majority understanding of “our father’s God.” But Catholics also revered this “author of liberty.”
These “noble free” made leading contributions to “freedom’s holy light” in the American Revolution, as Catholic author Dan LeRoy reveals in an important new book, Liberty’s Lions: The Catholic Revolutionaries Who Established America.
Catholics were a small minority in colonial America. “Common estimates suggest between 1.2 and 1.6 percent of colonists were Catholic,” LeRoy notes. “In a nation of 2.5 million people, that amounted to between 30,000 and 40,000 Catholics.”
Nonetheless, LeRoy documents that this tiny minority attracted “vehement anti-Catholicism” amid a Protestant majority shaped by Britain’s wars of religion and empire. Take the example of Maryland.
Founded in 1634 under a charter given by the Anglican king Charles I to the Catholic Lord Baltimore, the colony “was an experiment in religious tolerance.” Given a mixed Catholic-Protestant population, the Maryland assembly in 1649 passed the Act Concerning Religion, or Toleration Act, in 1649. This “guaranteed freedom of conscience to all Christians, the first legal promise of tolerance in American or British history.”
Yet the Protestant tide ultimately turned against Catholics even in Maryland in 1704 with laws like the Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery. The legislation forbade “priests from offering Mass or baptizing anyone who is not Catholic—i.e., conversions are forbidden. ‘Papists’ are barred from teaching—even their own children,’” LeRoy writes. In 1718, Catholics also lost voting rights.
Catholics’ taste of freedom in Maryland nevertheless made a lasting impact. The Toleration Act had briefly guaranteed Catholics freedoms they had not legally enjoyed in Britain. “It forever put Maryland on a separate path from the Crown,” LeRoy observes. “One day, that path would lead to revolution—not just in Maryland, but throughout the colonies.”
In Maryland, the center of American colonial Catholicism, LeRoy focuses on the patriots of the Carroll family, particularly Charles Carroll who “[f]or many years was the most prominent and influential Catholic in America. He was certainly the richest—possibly the richest man in the colonies, period,” and “the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.”
On July 4, 1776, this document proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” yet Carroll “usually owned between three hundred and four hundred slaves, who worked on his plantations and in the family ironworks in Baltimore,” LeRoy notes. Like other Founding Fathers, Carroll embodied America’s original sin of slavery, which also was a “particular, and particularly shameful, failing of Catholics,” a flagrant violation of Catholic Magisterium teaching on human dignity. LeRoy observes:
The history of American Catholicism, which is rooted in places such as Maryland and Louisiana, is inextricably tied to slavery. From the Jesuit plantations to the estates of the landed gentry, slaves played a major role in advancing the fortunes of Catholics in the South.
Like other Founding Fathers, Carroll’s conscience struggled with slavery. “As a Maryland legislator, Carroll made multiple, unsuccessful attempts to gradually emancipate all slaves in the state,” LeRoy notes. Additionally, Carroll’s “record as a slave owner is relatively humane and consistent with his ideals,” but he still left largely unfulfilled his various proposals to use his enormous wealth to free his slaves.
Conflicts over freedom and slavery concerned not just America, but the wider world, in which most allies of the American Revolution were Catholic. LeRoy in his extensive analysis of the revolution’s often underappreciated international dimensions delves deep into the biographies of famous foreigners like the French general, the Marquis de Lafayette. He “had been deeply moved by the plight of the slaves he saw in America and bought a plantation in Cayenne, French Guiana, with the goal of freeing its slaves,” LeRoy notes.
Poles like Casimir Pulaski, who revolutionized the American cavalry, similarly fought for American freedom while losing their own homeland to European empires. Like Lafayette, Thaddeus Kościuszko, whose engineering brilliance shone at the decisive 1777 Battle of Saratoga, could not forget the slaves in the United States after securing its independence. He wanted to use backpay owed him by the new American government to free as many slaves as possible of Thomas Jefferson, the declaration’s lead author.
One of America’s greatest allies, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau, almost became a priest before, at age 15, his older brother died, leaving Rochambeau to carry on the family’s military legacy.
This commander of the expeditionary force France dispatched to America after France entered the war against Britain in 1778 “had been training faithfully for the priesthood since he was six,” LeRoy writes. “After turning his sights from the priesthood to the battlefield, Rochambeau assembled a distinguished thirty-year military career” and became an “international hero.”
Rochambeau’s religious training showed, LeRoy notes, for “while many upper-class Frenchmen, like Lafayette, paid only lip service to Catholicism, Rochambeau apparently took his faith far more seriously. …
“Like George Washington, he made it a point to insist on regular church services for his men. Both men believed this was important not only for instilling discipline but also as a way of ensuring God’s favor,” LeRoy adds. Moreover, Rochambeau’s “simple but effective principles—troops needed to be both well-trained and well-supplied—won him the loyalty of his men, who affectionately called him ‘Papa.’”
Washington’s behavior both as wartime commander and president reflected the outlook of this Anglican on faith in a free society. “Washington believed government could, and sometimes should, support religion—if there was a legitimate civic reason to do so,” namely the “need for encouraging moral behavior,” LeRoy notes. Washington’s “latitudinarianism” brooked no prejudice, as demonstrated by his prohibition among his soldiers of Pope’s Night, where pope effigies were burned in the American version of England’s Guy Fawkes Day. “Catholics would remember well Washington’s leadership,” LeRoy observes, for Washington “welcomed troops of all races and faiths.”
The same principle yielded enormous dividends when George Rogers Clark led a small militia force to take Illinois from the British in 1778-1779. Britain had won the territory from France at the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, and reports indicated to Clark that the region’s few French settlers had little love for the British.
After taking Kaskaskia in what is now Illinois on July 5, 1778, Clark told Father Pierre Gibault, a Montreal-born priest who served frontier Catholic communities, that the “United States makes no war on any man’s religion.” Thus assured, the French Catholics followed Gibault in pledging allegiance to America and gave Clark a largely bloodless victory.
LeRoy’s broad cast of characters bring to life the significant yet often overlooked role that Catholics played in America’s formative struggles. On his pages overlapping conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, blacks and whites, slaves and masters, play out as patriots fight for freedom in America and Europe while rival empires intrigue.
Yet, miraculously, a mustard seed of freedom took root and grew in American soil, which makes LeRoy’s book all the more worthwhile to read.