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To what extent, if any, can the government limit the political rights of religious groups believed to pose a threat to the country?

It's 1837. Catholic immigration to the United States, particularly from Ireland and Germany, is increasing. The new arrivals are facing hostility from many native-born Protestant (non-Catholic Christian) Americans, who distrust the extent to which these immigrants often stick together and the prominent role of priests in Catholic communities. They worry that Catholics are more loyal to the pope and foreign Catholic nations than they are to the United States. A political movement called nativism has begun to form that seeks to protect the interests of native-born, white Protestant Americans. Nativists want to change the laws that allow immigrants to become U.S. citizens to prevent Catholics from organizing into powerful voting blocs that could sway elections.

Catholic-run newspapers publicly defend their beliefs and loyalty to the United States, but the nativists continue their attacks, at times resorting to violence; in 1834, a mob attacks and burns a Catholic convent in Massachusetts. In this charged atmosphere, a group of residents from Washington County, N.Y., sends a petition to Congress asking lawmakers to investigate Catholic immigrants and block them from citizenship.

Take the role of a historical figure below and find evidence to argue your case.

  1. Petition to Deny Catholics Political Rights, 1837 (2 of 2)
    Written petitions usually include the signer's address as well as name.
    Courtesy Charles C. Haynes

    Residents of Washington County, N.Y., petitioning Congress to deny Catholics political rights

    Catholic immigrants hold views that threaten our democratic principles. Congress should change our naturalization laws to deny them citizenship, in order to protect our country against their dangerous political influence.

    "[We] view with deep concern the great influx of Roman Catholics into this country from the various nations of Europe, and their admission to citizenship while they retain their principles, as eminently threatening our civil and religious liberties."

    — Their petition to Congress, 1837
  2. Samuel Morse, Leading Nativist Activist
    This portrait from circa 1850 shows Samuel Morse posing with his famous telegraph. Mathew Brady, best known for his portraits and Civil War images, took the photograph.
    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

    Samuel Morse, leading nativist activist

    Catholic countries in Europe are conspiring to overturn democracy in the United States by sending Catholic immigrants here to influence our political process; if we don’t stop this plan by barring all future immigrants from voting, these foreign governments will take over.

    "Our institutions ... are at the mercy of a body of foreigners, officered by foreigners, and held completely under the control of a foreign power. We may then have reason to say, that we are the dupes of our own hospitality."

    — "Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States," 1835
  3. Catholic Bishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio
    This woodcut of Bishop Purcell was originally published in the Old and New World, an illustrated Catholic monthly magazine, in 1870.
    Courtesy Trier University Library

    Catholic Bishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio

    Contrary to claims by nativists, Roman Catholicism is not incompatible with liberty, and Catholics are loyal to the United States. Many Catholics come to the United States to escape religious persecution.

    "The head of the Catholic Church in the United States is an American; so is a large number of our clergy. The rest preferred this country, believing there was here, what their own country denies, what our constitution guarantees, liberty of conscience."

    — Bishop Purcell to Alexander Campbell, a vocal critic of Catholicism, in an 1837 debate

  • Why did these Catholic immigrants come to the United States?
  • Should immigrants have to prove they will be loyal to the United States to enter the country? If so, how could they prove this? If not, why not?
  • Should freedom of religion protect religious beliefs that discriminate against other religions, including Protestant anti-Catholic beliefs or Catholic anti-Protestant beliefs?
  • Should freedom of speech protect verbal attacks on other religions? What about physical attacks?
  • Should freedom to petition the government protect the right to ask the government to discriminate against certain groups?
  • How does this case show the ways in which freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom to petition can come into conflict with each other?



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