Risking Hell for Harvard

The development of education was job one when Coadjutor Bishop John Joseph Hughes came to New York in 1837. As one expert explains: 

eight makeshift parochial schools, meeting in church basements or rented halls, had on register about 5000 Catholic children. An additional 7000 either lacked accommodation or made no effort to go to school. 

Public aid had been given to some of these basement schools by the Free School Society, but in 1825, when it became the Public School Society, funding for denominational schools (Catholic and Baptist) ceased.

The Society wasn’t unwilling to educate Catholic children; it just intended to do so in a Protestant manner, using, for instance, the King James Bible (KJV). . .for the development of students’ moral rectitude.

Some devout Catholics had no desire to enroll children in the Society’s schools: better not to go to Harvard for four years than to hell forever.

The Society wanted Catholic children for the government funding that would follow, and so convinced the city’s Board of Aldermen to pass legislation making it “an offence [sic] in a minor to be found idle and uninstructed and subject to commitment if reformation did not take place.” Commitment meant exiledto a farm-labor school.

A few years before Hughes’ arrival, Bishop John Dubois had gone, miter in hand, to ask the Society to accommodate Catholic kids; asking also for some say in choosing teachers, textbooks, and a Bible. Without irony, the Society said this would be unconstitutional: “religious and moral instruction is given in the schools entirely free from sectarianism.”

But to obtain those subsidies (and also for the reclamation of souls from popery), the Society added Catholic laymen to its board and agreed to consider removing any book from its curriculum that offended Catholic sensibilities, although not the KJV. Bishop Dubois might have said yes (or no). He decided not to decide.

Governor William H. Seward was aware of the plight of immigrant children in New York. Early in 1840, he told the state’s legislators that more than 25,000 immigrant children were not being educated. If Catholic, Seward said, they should be allowed to learn from Catholic teachers – and taught in the language of their heritage.

Bishop Hughes was in Europe at the time raising money for the diocese. His vicars general – the Irishman, John Power, and the Cuban, Félix Varela – did their best to rally support for Governor Seward’s position.

Six month’s after Seward’s speech, Hughes returned. He quickly assessed the pros and cons, and embraced Varela’s side: separate but equal schools, funded as were the Public School Society’s. Hughes wrote:

Whether we shall succeed or not in getting our proportion of the public money. . .the effort will cause an entire separation of our children from those [Public] schools – and excite greater zeal on the part of our people for Catholic education. 
Then Bishop Hughes committed a series of blunders.

He failed to understand that there were too many Protestants and too much anti-Catholic sentiment in New York.

He underestimated the extent of Catholic opposition to his plan. The ambition of not a few Catholic parents was to see their children rise up in American society, i.e., Protestant society.

          Archbishop Hughes by the Fratelli D’Alessandri (Rome, c. 1862)

He overestimated his support in Albany. Seward’s position was more political than moral.

But when the Society learned that the governor was parleying with Hughes, they offered to let the archbishop review all Society texts and promised to drop anything deemed anti-Catholic. The sides were now stuck only on which Bible to use.

Hughes, however, believed justice demanded public support for separate school systems. Period.

Nativists began attacking the notion of any public funding for Catholic education. The Methodist Episcopal Church issued a statement reminding New Yorkers of Catholicism’s intolerance: “the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the fires of Smithfield, . . .[and] the crusade against the Waldenses,” incidents of violent Catholic anti-Protestantism from 1629, 1572, 1531, and 1487 respectively.

At the end of October, arguments were made before the Board of Aldermen: Hughes spoke for Catholics; able and experienced lawyers represented the Society. These latter argued that, since no one was disputing Bible use, the sole issue was finding passages acceptable to both sides.

Hughes delivered a stem-winder that focused on Colonial anti-Catholicism, blaming the Society for reviving it. Thus: separate but equal schools were needed.

He believed he’d won the day, but the Board voted 15-1 against him.

Churlish in defeat, Hughes called the Society a “wicked monopoly which claimed to take charge of the minds and hearts of Catholic children.” And he told one cheering crowd: “The Union is repealed!”

Governor Seward went ahead and proposed a bill that affirmed “religious and moral instruction” ought to be part of every child’s education, seeming to imply support for state-funded Catholic schools.

Then the bare-knuckle politicking really began, so much so that Father Varela was forced to write:

The Church recognizes no political party, and the Ecclesiastical Authority is prepared to exercise its spiritual power, should in future any individual of any party whatever . . . [engage in “Catholic” politics.]

Then, on the eve of the 1841 elections, Hughes, who also and often pronounced the Church apolitical, stunned everybody by forming a Catholic Party, a slate of candidates offered as alternatives to Tammany Hall’s Democrats and Seward’s Whigs.

This was the greatest blunder.

Tammany’s “sachems” voted to “rebuke, censure, and renounce” Hughes. William Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald wrote that his “attempt to convert his Church into a political faction” was an instance of the “worn-out impudence of priestcraft imported from Rome.” And Bennett was Catholic!

In the end, a much-modified bill did become law. It established an elected school board for New York City, eradicating the Public School Society. It also forever banned public support for parochial schools.

Would conciliation have mattered? Almost surely not.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.