Michael D. Breidenbach

Mar 24, 2022

Our Dear-Bought Liberty

Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America

Harvard University Press 2021

Here is a fun quiz question. What distinction does Charles Carroll (1737–1832) hold in American History? Answer: he was the longest-surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and the only Catholic to have signed it.

And therein lies a tale of religious prejudice against Catholics and the ingenious and determined efforts over decades of leaders like Carroll and the founding family of Maryland, the Calverts, to prove their devotion to their country while not compromising on the tenets of their faith.

In his fascinating 2021 book, Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (Harvard UP, 2021), Michael D. Breidenbach traces in detail the delicate balance Catholics in the period of roughly 1600-1832 had to maintain in order to secure basic civil and property rights in both Britain and the New World colonies while avoiding excommunication by the pope for swearing oaths to British rulers that often entailed denying certain rights the pope claimed.

We read in the book about the crucial importance of the exact wording of a series of oaths crafted and argued about over centuries and the implications of even a slight change to each for the often persecuted Catholic minority on both sides of the Atlantic.

A major contribution of this book is its discussion of the conciliar movement (or conciliarism) and its intellectual and political impact on American politicians of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Ranging back to medieval figures and then to John Locke and forward into the early years of the United States as a nation proper, Breidenbach illustrates the difference between religious toleration versus religious liberty and helps us see why the matter of bishops and even church architecture were matters of such contention in the founding era.

This is a book not just for Catholics, but for all of us who care about and live under the protection of the First Amendment—and, as Breidenbach makes clear, under this part of Article 6 of the Constitution, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” As we saw during the hearings for Amy Coney Barrett’s initial judicial appointment, this issue and anti-Catholic sentiment live with us still.

Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America makes intellectual, legal, religious and political history come alive. It is global history too, given its coverage of all these matters in locales such as Jamaica and Barbados.

We see powerful and influential Catholics like the Carrolls (including John Carroll 1735 –1815, the first Roman Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States) taking both brave public stands and maneuvering tirelessly and shrewdly behind the scenes with non-Catholic allies like James Madison and Benjamin Franklin on behalf of religious liberty. This is a work abounding in insights about heretofore little recognized but crucial players and modes of thinking that made us the freedom-focused country we became.

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Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.

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Hope J. Leman

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.

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