My wife and I spent part of July 4th enjoying the Broadway play Hamilton starring the original cast, now available on the Disney+ channel. Our matinee was the perfect way to spend a sheltered-in-place Independence Day.
Hamilton’s life was so large, much that was praiseworthy about him couldn’t be contained in the two-hour, 40-minute play. I refer to this daring man’s defense of Catholicism in our early history.
Four years ago, in the Jesuit magazine America, Jason K. Duncan, professor of History at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., described Hamilton as a key player in opposing anti-Catholic bias in New York state.
In the early years of our republic, anti-Catholic bias was rife, having been imported from England, where the religious wars between the Church of England and the Catholics were bloody and long-lasting. When Hamilton was elected for a one-year term to the New York State legislature in 1786, he squarely opposed those who would have enshrined anti-Catholicism into state law.
The issue (1786-1787) was whether Catholics could be trusted to pledge allegiance and loyalty to the new United States government. The rural residents of New York, mostly farmers and residents of villages and small towns, were very suspicious of Roman Catholics. Many of these people were from independent churches opposed to the hierarchical structure of Catholicism. The folk who opposed and mistrusted Catholics were the same people who opposed the U.S. Constitution because it specifically barred “religious tests” as a requirement for holding elected office.
Hamilton himself had once held an anti-Catholic position, but during the Revolutionary War he had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Catholics who supported a new nation as fiercely as did Hamilton. The future Secretary of the Treasury also served in the Continental Congress with Catholics, again finding them to be as patriotic and fervent as he.
So when an intolerant faction of the New York Legislature proposed a law requiring all citizens to renounce their allegiance to “foreign ecclesiastical bodies,” Hamilton worked assiduously to defeat the proposition, which was a thinly veiled attack upon Roman Catholics. Thanks to the efforts of this early patriot, the proposed law was defeated.
As Duncan noted, however, victories are not always lasting. Bigotry is always lurking in the background, waiting for another opportunity to gain power with intolerant legislation. A couple of years after Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in their infamous duel, the New York legislature passed a restrictive law much like the one Hamilton had successfully opposed so many years earlier.
Religious minorities still face persecution in our state and nation. One generation prevails over prejudice only to find it returns in a different guise. I believe that beneath tour nation’s recent unrest can be found a deeper, growing commitment to religious tolerance. I pray this is so, that we might move toward that more perfect union envisioned by Hamilton and our founders.