Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.—not a Catholic—made the oft-quoted assertion. It acknowledges that England rallied to Protestantism with the establishment of its national church, and British mistrust of Rome was imported to the New World. So few Catholics came to the colonies (35,000, or 1% of the population by 1790) that no threat seemed apparent. Catholics kept to themselves in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The 1800s, however, saw a century of massive immigration. The spirit of nativism arose in some Protestant enclaves, as migrating waves from historically Catholic countries arrived on “their” shores. Catholicism gained an official foothold with the appointment of John Carroll as Bishop of the new See of Baltimore. Carroll put an emphasis on opening seminaries and schools, to create a homegrown, educated leadership and laity capable of engaging the national conversation. The schools attracted religious orders from Europe to staff them, and as convent schools sprung up in the Northeast and Midwest, nativist alarms grew louder.
A church was burned in Charlestown, Massachusetts, followed by two more in Philadelphia. Convents and rectories were likewise visited with arson. A visiting papal nuncio was burned in effigy in many cities. In Indiana, Mother Theodore Guerin’s sisters were spat upon in the streets and denied the customary store credit. Wherever Katharine Drexel purchased land for schools, she typically worked through agents so the sellers didn’t know the buyer was Catholic.
Nativist groups assumed names such as the “United Sons of America” in 1844 and “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849. The latter became known as the “Know-Nothings” for their secrecy about their membership. Future U.S. saints including Guerin, Drexel, Philippine Duchesne, John Neumann, Marianne Cope, and Frances Cabrini all reported dealings with Know-Nothings and their offshoots. Finally, the most aspiring opposition group, the American Protective Association, was founded in 1887. APA members swore not to hire Catholics, enter into business with them, or elect them to public office. They sought to curtail immigration to staunch the Catholic population, and falsified scandalous documents from the pope or bishops to perpetuate fear of Rome. At its height in 1894, a million Americans were on the rolls of the APA, and the group controlled local governments in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Kansas City.
The APA fizzled by 1911; by 1915, a reconstituted Ku Klux Klan added anti-Catholicism to its principles. The story of U.S. bias has hardly reached its end.
Books: Documents of American Catholic History – John Tracy Ellis (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987)
The Party of Fear – David Bennett (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)