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The American Pope – The Atlantic

Even as the Revolution raged, Pope Night remained popular enough among Continental Army soldiers that George Washington had to ban the practice as “ridiculous and childish”—not to mention supremely impolitic at a time when he was courting the Catholics of Quebec to join the fight.

Such celebrations waned in the early republic, but the pope remained a volatile symbol, often employed to justify the era’s rampant anti-Catholic biases and violence. As Nancy Schultz recounts in Fire and Roses, her book about the burning of a convent near Boston in 1834, the mob shouted “Down with the pope!” as they gathered around the nuns’ residence. Days before, a rabble-rousing preacher had warned the city’s Protestants that Catholics were seeking “a site for the palace of the Pope and the Romish church” on American shores.

At the time, this inflammatory claim was only the speculation of an ardent anti-Catholic, but just over a decade later, when political upheaval in Italy drove Pope Pius IX from Rome, it was widely reported that “the influential Catholics of New York” had invited him to make their country the new seat of his power.

“The relative weight in the scale of importance between the two Hemispheres,” a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer opined in 1849, “would be changed the moment the Pope’s foot had touched American soil.”

While the pope did not, in fact, join the influx of Catholic immigrants that transformed American culture in the years that followed, he became all the more common in the press. Yet even as “American popery” was supposedly on the rise, the pope himself was now invariably shown as diminished. Thomas Nast’s widely circulated caricatures depicted the pope no longer as a world-bestriding menace, but an ineffectual bumbler ill-equipped for modern times. One memorable picture showed a portly pontiff claiming “I am infallible” while clutching an umbrella as his only defense against a locomotive speeding his way.

The American Pope – The Atlantic

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