By John C. Pinheiro
Oxford University Press, 2014
Anti-Catholicism was the driving force behind the Mexican-American War, argues John C. Pinheiro in his gripping new study. The evidence he carefully assembles suggests an even stronger point: that it was the defining attitude undergirding the early Republic and antebellum years.
“Anti-Catholic” in Pinheiro’s thesis is not simply disagreeing with Catholicism theologically, or even attempting to convert Catholics, but a deeper form of fear and contempt. The worldview held that “Catholics were not Christians” and that the Pope was the “anti-Christ.” This extended to a belief that the Roman church actively was attempting to undermine Providentially ordained American republicanism: “Jesuits were leading an immigrant Catholic army into the West as part of a papal-orchestrated takeover of the United States.”
To white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America, Catholicism represented all that was wrong about the Old World. These WASPs saw Catholicism as superstition, overseen by the likely anti-Christ in Rome, which led to indolence and ignorance. As such, it posed an impediment to the right and just expansion of republicanism and freedom.
In the New World, Mexico embodied these Old World stereotypes. The “United States was all of those things that Mexico was not: free, Protestant, republican, and prosperous,” writes Pinheiro. Americans saw it as the their national duty to spread republicanism in contradistinction to such Romishness, their Manifest Destiny: “American Anglo-Saxons, by Providential design and reason of their cultural and racial superiority, were destined to extend themselves and their republican institutions throughout the western hemisphere, if not the world.”
This thinking blossomed during a religiously dynamic time in American history. The Second Great Awakening gave rise to the American Evangelical who was moved by a personal conversion experience. It was also the time when Mormonism, which also became a target of Protestant hegemony, was born.
A cohesive expression of this growing Protestant and nativist sentiment soon emerged, something Pinheiro calls the Beecherite Synthesis. Lyman Beecher, an evangelist and reformer, “synthesized into one argument American anxieties about westward settlement, economic uncertainty, and immigration by joining them to a theological commentary on what Divine Providence had in store for the future of liberty.”
The new Native American Party gave Beecher’s ideological framework political expression. Casting themselves as a non-partisan and patriotic alternative to the corrupt Democrats and Whigs, the Native Americans pointed to rising Irish Catholic immigration and the influx of Jesuits as dangers from which American republicanism must be protected.
Like the Catholics, Joseph Smith’s Latter-Day Saints were also deemed a threat to Protestant and republican America, but for different reasons. “What made Mormons a threat was their ability to organize, succeed, and prosper outside the prevailing white Protestant paradigm, much like Jewish Americans.” However, following the death of Smith, and the migration of the Mormons to the West, “Catholics remained as the only major, visible threat to republican government.”
As the politicians debated Texas annexation, the Beecherite Synthesis took on new life. Furthering the rush toward Texas annexation, and thus war with Mexico, was the infamous 1845 essay by John L. O’Sullivan, titled simply “Annexation.” O’Sullivan had six years earlier written an essay called “The Great Nation of Futurity.” In it, O’Sullivan declared that America’s mission “was to develop freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality.” This was essentially a secularization of John Winthrop’s early vision for America, a substitution of the salvation of souls with “the expansion of freedom for freedom’s sake.”
This was a reworking of the Beecherite Synthesis, “finalizing the inseparability of anti-Catholicism and Anglo-Saxonism from American expansionist sentiment” Manifest Destiny became America’s civil religion. As war inevitably broke out, the fires of jingoism were flamed by such convincing slogans as “Our Country: Right or Wrong.” “After all, if the war was part of the nation’s destiny under Providence’s guiding hand, then how could one oppose it without sinning?” writes Pinheiro.
Distilling much of the anti-Mexican sentiment was the suggestion by Alabama minister William F. McRee, who urged President Polk to let the war be decided by single combat. The McRee war plan was that each side would choose a representative chaplain to face off at one hundred yards. McRee volunteered himself to represent the United States, of course. “Choose me on the part of our Nation, & trusting in the God of our Fathers I would bring that Papal priest to his mother earth,” McRee wrote to the President. Polk opted for more traditional military options.
In the end, Texas was annexed, but a defeated Mexico was not, nor was Mexico freed from the perceived Roman menace. This disappointment was explained by some, such as historian Brantz Mayer, as the fault of the Mexicans themselves. Pinheiro explains: “Expecting Mexico to be republican was too much to ask of a ‘mongrel race of Spaniards and Indians,’” but “even without Mexicans’ racial defects, Roman Catholicism would hinder the growth of republican institutions.”
John C. Pinheiro has opened the door to a fresh, but convincing, understanding of the events and ideological milieu that led to the Mexican War. He reminds us of the ugly anti-Catholic roots of America’s civil religion that found its early expression in Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War. Therein lie the seeds of much of American foreign policy thinking that has led to millenarian mischief-making for a century and a half.
Alan Cornett studied history at the University of Kentucky and the University of South Carolina, and served as an assistant to Russell Kirk. He writes from Lexington, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter: @alancornett