By John Loughery
In 1847, a rather breathless British travel writer, a Protestant named Susan Minton Maury, published her Statesmen of America in 1846 and was sufficiently impressed (not to say awed) by New York City's bishop, John Hughes, to devote twenty-five pages of her book — more space, in fact, than she gave to Daniel Webster, Chief Justice Taney, William Seward, or Martin Van Buren — to someone she described as “the historical man of the day” and the most impressive cleric in America. With his name appearing regularly in national newspapers, Hughes was certainly the most talked-about clergyman in the country.
Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America, courtesy of Cornell University Press.
The invitation — like the jubilation that greeted Pius IX’s ascension — suggested that times might be changing; more than a few of those men, including the ailing former president and Massachusetts representative, were known to have made anti-Catholic remarks in the past, some of which had been reprinted in the Freeman’s Journal. Despite inclement weather, the floor and gallery of the House were filled with a standing-room-only crowd when the bishop took to the podium on December 12 and observed in his audience not only the noted men who had invited him but such equally prominent figures as the great orator Daniel Webster. It was a shining moment for John Hughes. Exactly thirty years earlier, a poor immigrant had disembarked to begin a new life not so many miles from the capital. Now, for two hours, he had the ear of many of the country’s leading figures.
For this occasion, Hughes knew enough to avoid remarks that could give offense to any group and to avoid any mention whatsoever of Mexico or the famine exodus. Not surprisingly, then, “Christianity: The Only Source of Moral, Social and Political Regeneration” pleased everybody — except, of course, Jewish and Protestant evangelical readers and those nativist legislators appalled at the lack of judgment the leadership had shown in letting a Catholic priest address Congress in the first place. Correspondents as far away as Ireland read of the speech and sent their plaudits.
Change, so much of it uncontrollable and most of it unpredictable, was fast becoming the order of the day. The violence that overtook Europe in the “year of revolutions” (1848) demanded any American bishop’s attention no less than the war or the famine exodus. When Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate in February and fled to England, republicans in Europe and the United States hailed the end of the French monarchy; the Catholic hierarchy on both continents was less sanguine, fearing the coup would inaugurate another brutally anticlerical period in France. When Metternich fled Vienna and Emperor Ferdinand was forced to abdicate, the cheers in the American press were even louder. The fight of Hungary to break free of Hapsburg rule was a cause dear to the heart of progressive Americans. A new Europe seemed to be in the making almost overnight as Danes forced an end to their absolute monarchy, Germans demanded constitutional rights, Italians rose up against their Austrian overlords, and even in John Hughes’s homeland a new group — the Young Ireland movement — announced that the day of Daniel O’Connell’s tepid parliamentary efforts to secure freedom from Great Britain belonged to the past, like the great man himself who had died two years earlier, and that the time for more forceful resistance had come.
Hughes had multiple concerns about these developments, even when some of them seemed positive enough at first glance. First, there was the question of their origin in physical violence. Cobblestones torn up, soldiers attacked, and crowds fired upon, houses of authority besieged, civilian martyrs to liberty: these might be images that some could romanticize, but he looked upon them as deeply troubling. New York City was still a tinderbox itself, populated with people too volatile — including many of his co-religionists and fellow Irishmen — for their own good. Men who should know better, like Horace Greeley, acted as if the violence that saw the success of their liberal causes was always justified, even inevitable. New Yorkers had fashioned a city grown too accustomed to violence, Hughes insisted. They lived in a time where men could burn down a theater and turn Astor Place into a site of carnage to make a point — a point that cost twenty-five people their lives — about which actor, a native American or a suspect Briton, had the right to play Macbeth before New York audiences. This was not the moment or the place, he felt, to glorify blood in the streets over legislative reform or a Burkean gradualism. The fact that so many of the radical movements in Europe, particularly in Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, were overturned the following year simply confirmed Hughes in his judgment about the mistaken glamour of revolutionary violence.
Then there was the problem of the expectations that were raised by a rapid rearrangement of the social and political terms men had long lived under. In Italy, this issue was especially evident with the tenuous position Pius IX had been placed in. When the movement to unite the peninsula under republican rule began, many Italians assumed the new liberal pope would give his sanction to raising arms against Austria, which occupied large sections of the peninsula in the north and the south. Though privately pleased when it seemed as if the Austrians might be dislodged from Italy in a timely way and with minimal bloodshed and willing initially to commit a small number of his troops to the cause, Pius quickly concluded that events were spiraling out of control. He was horror-struck at what the ravages of a full-scale war in Italy would unleash and let it be known he could not countenance a nationalist attack against a fellow Catholic nation. He scorned the politicians’ talk of a “holy war.” The nature and extent of his progressivism had been misread. Thus, to republicans, the papal hero became a papal traitor in the space of a few days — in both Italy and in the United States. When one of his chief ministers was stabbed to death in the fall, and the Swiss Guards were finding it harder each day to restrain the discontented crowds outside the Quirinal Palace, Pius decided Rome was no longer safe for him and fled in disguise to Gaeta in Neapolitan territory controlled by Austria. Giuseppe Mazzini arrived in Rome, a republican government was proclaimed, and once again, echoing events of the Napoleonic years, a pope was in exile.
An Italy without the pope was almost impossible to contemplate. Unnaturally raised political expectations had the potential, then, to cause the greatest harm of all in the eyes of a Catholic bishop — an alienation from one’s faith. It was bad enough when this occurred among Italians, Hughes felt, but even worse when it transpired among “his people,” the Irish. The men of the Young Ireland movement were idealists who led the least formidable of that year’s uprisings. Some accounts of this momentous year in European history don’t even mention their efforts, for a plausible reason. The Irish “1848” moment was a debacle and a humiliation. And when it was all over, some of the participants wanted to lay the blame for their defeat on Ireland’s Catholic clergy. They seemed to be suggesting that the Irish would be better off without their priests, that the church stood for passivity and opposition to change. This sentiment Hughes found intolerable.
The Young Ireland leadership was a disparate, fractious group of journalists, poets, politicians, firebrands. Most—Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Thomas Francis Meagher, Richard O’Gorman, Michael Doheny, Joseph Brenan, Thomas Devin Reilly, Charles Gavan Duffy — were Catholic, while some, like William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel, were Protestant. What they had in common, inspired by developments in France, was a sense that their time had come. Unfortunately, they had a poor grasp of timing and seriously underestimated the willingness of a famine-stunted population to see 1848 as the year in which to take on the might of the British Empire. Their moment of defiant confrontation, such as it was, took place in midsummer in the tiny village of Ballingarry in Tipperary, where the Irish constabulary was attempting to arrest one of the group’s leaders. Young Ireland men showed up ready to prevent that. The group envisioned an uprising across the island when the people heard of their eagerness to fight back. Nothing of the kind happened.
The “battleground” was the house and backyard garden of a local widow where the constables initially took cover and then emerged to subdue an outnumbered band of armed rebels without much difficulty. British troops hadn’t even needed to be called in. The ignominy of the situation was impossible to deny. Parisians had brought life to a halt in their capital and sent a king packing; Irishmen had been vanquished by forty-odd paramilitary volunteers in Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch. “Every Irishman from Maine to Texas who has taken the slightest interest in the cause,” Hughes complained when he read of the pathetic rout at Ballingarry, “must blush and hang down his head for shame.” The press on both sides of the Atlantic agreed.
$6,000. He knew that Bennett and other editors would never let him forget that summer of excitability and gullibility — and he was correct. Now he urged his parishioners to withhold money from Irish political groups and not to attend any more rallies until saner, more intelligent men were leading a movement with a better grasp of reality. Enough damage had been done by a wild-eyed “set of Gasconaders.” He tried to get his $500 back and have the money sent to the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin.
Then the gasconaders started arriving in New York — Thomas D’Arcy McGee in the fall of 1848; Michael Doheny and Joseph Brenan in 1849; Thomas Francis Meagher and John Mitchel later after they had been tried and exiled and escaped from their confinement on Tasmania. They arrived ready to put their extensive journalistic expertise to good use and — McGee especially — didn’t give much thought to which opinions it might be wise to air and which to hold back. Within weeks of landing in the city, McGee found some backers and brought out the first number of the Nation, a paper modeled on a Dublin version with the same name. Then he started slashing away. One target was the clergy at home who had failed to rally round the Young Ireland banner. “The present generation of Irish Priests,” he wrote in a January 1849 editorial, “have systematically squeezed the spirit of resistance out of the hearts of the people.” All things considered, that was one opinion worth holding back.
In a series of letters published in the Freeman’s Journal beginning the next week, Hughes responded to McGee’s accusations. Rather than publishing under his own name, a response he felt might be lacking in dignity, he signed himself simply “An Irish Catholic,” but he made sure that McGee was apprised of the identity of his formidable opponent. The Young Ireland crowd knew perfectly well, he asserted, “that the Irish clergy never gave [them] any reason to suppose they would join them.” The priests of Ireland “had no more idea of committing themselves and their flocks to the issue of a bloody struggle with the overwhelming power of the British Empire than the people of England had... seeing, as they must have seen, the certain and inevitable consequences of a movement so nobly conceived but so miserably conducted.” Weak men looked for scapegoats. Boys playing at soldier caused irreparable harm to serious causes. Any man who tried to lure good people away from their faith, as if deserting the Catholic Church could actually help pave the way for an independent Ireland, was not to be trusted. He also charged McGee and his crowd with having kept the Catholic clergy at a distance from their activities when it suited them in the hopes of gaining Protestant followers. McGee was no better than “the cutthroats who had expelled the Pope from his capital.”
In February, a nervous McGee tried to make amends. He assured the bishop that he was a loyal son of the church and that his political and spiritual beliefs were entirely separate, and he promised to temper his remarks. He beseeched Hughes to stop the onslaught of bad press. Peace of a kind reigned for a few months, until McGee found it impossible to refrain from writing what he truly believed. After learning that many Irish bishops were planning to participate in the official welcome to Queen Victoria on her visit to Ireland, he described them in the Nation as “vermin engendered by bad blood and beggary.” When he didn’t back down a second time, Hughes went after the paper more directly, denouncing it from the pulpit as an infidel publication and instructing his clergymen to make sure that no one in their parish subscribed. He hit his mark. Readership dropped off by the week. Early the next year, the Nation folded and McGee left for Boston, where he made a second short-lived foray into American journalism with the American Celt.
Hughes wasn’t the only man in New York glad to see McGee depart for another state. McGee’s relations with other Young Ireland exiles, always a contentious bunch, had soured and even turned violent. Some found his anticlericalism unseemly and counterproductive, while others thought him too moderate in his Fenianism, too critical now of how the movement had botched its attempt at rebellion the previous summer. Michael Doheny, one of the most militant of the group, encountered him on the street one day and pushed him down a flight of stairs into a building’s cellar. McGee took him to court. Joseph Brenan challenged him to a duel. McGee took to carrying a gun.
John Hughes’s life story is peopled with individuals who should have been his soul mates in a common struggle but, as a result of circumstances and timing, were not. Thomas D’Arcy McGee is potentially one of these. A prodigy of energy and nerve, he had come to the United States for the first time in 1844, for a year, to edit the Boston Pilot at the age of nineteen. Hughes read his columns and, in 1845, had favorably reviewed McGee’s book O’Connell and His Friends. He might well have had hopes for a young Irishman of such fertile intellect, impressive literary and oratorical skills, and right-thinking opinions, which included a hatred of anything British and a skeptical view of unbridled capitalism. The two loved acidic language, hyperbole, unpopular causes. They even shared the same feelings about the new practice of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day. A day named after a saint that involved no religious observances but plenty of fighting, drinking, promenading, and “frothy orations” did nothing, McGee had argued in 1845, to help the reputation of Irish immigrants. Unlike Hughes, who was in a far less advantageous position to do so, McGee was willing to take Americans of Irish descent to task, often in blistering language, for their parochialism, ward-boss politics, anti-intellectualism, and indifference to education, hygiene, and middle-class decorum. Advancement, he insisted, meant putting aside a victim mentality and cultivating self-scrutiny and self-improvement. Here was a man after an Irish bishop’s heart. By 1848, though, McGee was in a different place in his thinking on many issues. He was back in Ireland and had become more politicized and more radicalized. He didn’t want to wax ecstatic about Daniel O’Connell anymore, and he was impatient with his countrymen who weren’t ready to stand up to their British masters. Then came Ballingarry and his flight to the New World.
The antipathy between Hughes and the Young Ireland men had a profoundly ironic dimension to it in that both sides agreed on one important idea that Hughes felt should be reiterated as often as possible: namely, the validity of what the twentieth century would term a hyphenated identity.
Hughes wanted the Irish immigrant to see himself as an American with all the rights and the respect for his country’s past and its potential that any native-born citizen experienced. But, at the same time, he saw nothing meritorious in any immigrant’s desire to play down his Irish origins, his interest in the fate of Ireland, his love of Ireland. Irish Americans, he hoped, would form a new social/political entity in the West, and their vitality, their passion and energy, would benefit both the United States and Ireland. McGee, Meagher, Mitchel, O’Gorman, et al. would not have disagreed. In fact, in 1851, when McGee published his immensely popular History of the Irish Settlers in North America, the first book to be written about the Irish in the United States, he went beyond Hughes in his propagandizing on the point, producing what his best biographer called “a masterpiece of myth-making, which could easily have been entitled How the Irish Saved North American Civilization.” Though the book covered its topic to the year 1850, McGee made sure to mention Hughes only in passing.
McGee’s Boston paper, the American Celt, was likewise intended as an explicit attack on the alleged purity of the country’s Anglo-Saxon roots. “In choosing the name this paper bears,” he wrote, “we mean to adopt the opposite side of a popular theory, namely: that all modern civilization and intelligence—whatever is best and most vital in modern society, came in with the Saxons or the Anglo-Saxons.... When the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ cease to claim America as their exclusive work and inheritance, we will cease using the term ‘Celt’ — but not sooner.” Thomas Francis Meagher echoed McGee: it was the Celts’ “democratic antipathies... against the Gothic, brutish George III [which] produced the American Revolution.” Nativism, John Mitchel likewise affirmed, wanted to deny the fact that “a variety of hardy races and diverse faiths” had built the real America. Like Hughes, Mitchel saw the charge that the Irish could not function in a democracy as ludicrous: “There is no section of the foreign population,” he wrote, “who so truly appreciate Republican institutions as the Irish.” Young Irelander Richard O’Gorman threw himself into New York electoral politics and Catholic charities.
Life in another hemisphere eventually led these young men down very different paths. Meagher, once he had renounced his erring ways, became quite friendly with Hughes and went on to become a brigadier general in the Civil War and the acting governor of the Montana Territory, where he hoped to found a New Ireland and died under mysterious circumstances in 1867. Mitchel, who had moved to Tennessee and then Virginia, became an outspoken defender of slavery and sided with the Confederacy. Hughes thought him a contemptible man. O’Gorman became a Tammany judge and Boss Tweed crony; Brenan, a New Orleans newspaper editor. McGee left the United States for Canada before the Civil War and became one of the founders of the Canadian Confederation. A member of the Canadian Parliament, he was assassinated in 1868 at the age of forty-three and is a prominent name in the history of Irish Canadian politics. Hughes’s regard for these men and their colleagues was always conditional, dependent on whether or not they were eventually willing to stop criticizing the clergy and accept, if they were true Catholics, the embrace of the church.
Yet even after McGee experienced a change of heart and became a few years later an ultramontane Catholic and staunch spokesman for parochial-school education, he and Hughes maintained an on-and-off relationship, sometimes admiring and more often wary. The warmth Hughes came to feel for Meagher, a generous soul, he could never feel for McGee. In 1852, McGee gave up on Boston, too, and relocated to Buffalo, where he tried his luck —not much better — with another bishop.
John Loughery is the author of three books, Alias S.S. Van Dine, John Sloan: Painter and Rebel, and The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities, a Twentieth Century History, the last two of which were New York Times Notable Books. His biography of John Sloan was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography.