The Man Who Paved the Way for Irish America’s Rise

(Library of Congress)
Archbishop John Hughes could never have dreamed how far his ‘flock’ would fly.

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from John Loughery’s Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America. It appears here with permission.

There is a kind of modernity to the 19th-century story of New York archbishop John Hughes, in terms of three issues we still have cause to ponder in the United States: namely, the nature of community, the utility of any form of identity politics, and our national embrace of — and, in some quarters now, new skepticism about — multiple cultural identities. Hughes gave thought to the forces that were necessary to forge a tight-knit community, and his answers, if dangerous in our own day, seemed more reasonable to him. He did not share Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick’s gentleness when convents were sacked or Bishop Francis Kenrick’s desire to turn the other cheek when churches were burned to the ground before cheering crowds. He believed in fighting back; in calling men to arms if need be; in adopting a distinctly American, even fiercely Jacksonian role and style of rhetoric. From the earliest days of his priesthood, he was well aware that a people under siege were more likely to come together, to forge a durable common identity, than those who feel secure and respected. The fourth archbishop of New York didn’t invent or exaggerate nativist anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant rage, but he turned it to useful account.

Hughes’s belief that men and women needed — craved — community of some sort was central to his life’s work. A country that built a national mythology on the promotion of rugged individualism, unfettered free-market competition, and the acquisition of wealth as a validation of one’s worth was, in his view, in danger of creating a world governed largely by egotism and the worship of mammon. The cost of the isolation and the alienation was frightening to contemplate. For Irish Catholics, that wider sense of community could best be found, he was certain, in heartfelt ethnic and religious bonds, celebrated with greatest resonance in an urban setting. By refusing to forget or downplay their ancestry and by becoming loyal members of the Catholic Church, they would know who they were. It was a wonderful thing to be an American in the antebellum period, years when the country was still defining itself, but it was not enough to be, solely, an American. American values, for one, were still in too formative a stage, too jingoistic, too focused on expansion and material growth. John Hughes was a patriot, but hardly an uncritical one.

At the same time, the ideal of community Hughes hoped would evolve over time for Irish Catholics as they fought the arsonists and the belittlers did not lean toward a separatist mentality. Modern religious scholars and social commentators have made much of the “ghettoization” of American Catholics from the late 19th to late 20th centuries. It is hard to see how that would have been pleasing to John Hughes. The point of rejecting the abolitionist creed, turning a blind eye to what Manifest Destiny really meant, or fighting to save the Union in its darkest hour was precisely to ensure that Irish Catholics were not seen as un-American, as dangerous aliens, as a people who didn’t understand and love the country that had taken them in. His constant theme was that it was possible to be a devout Catholic, a heritage-minded Irish American, and a proud American at the same time and in equal measure. Hughes would have found himself very much at home in the post-melting-pot world where multiple identities were affirmed.

The world where he would have been less at home is the one we inhabit today — an increasingly secular society uneasy with any affirmation of religion in the public realm, a homogenizing suburban culture that has seen the gradual erosion of ethnic differences and loyalties (or at least of those originating in Europe), and an American Catholic population that feels a significant measure of alienation from the papacy. It was John Hughes’s fate, in any case, to pass from the scene before either the fruition of his dreams or their diminishment took place. Dying while the Civil War still raged and so soon after the hideousness of the draft riots, he had no way of knowing if “his flock,” as he thought of them, would become esteemed members of society on these shores, valued for their contributions and sense of self-worth, or if they would remain, except for a small elite, perpetual outsiders, doomed — as Catholics and Irishmen — to a derided second-class status. It was his accomplishment to have helped set in motion a process that bore remarkable fruit for the better part of a century as Ireland achieved its independence with Irish-American support, Irish Americans climbed their way out of poverty, Catholicism became the largest Christian denomination in the United States, and his adopted country elected an Irish Catholic president.

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