Anti-Catholicism in Jacksonian Philadelphia

Anti-Catholicism was present in America since its founding though, by the early 19th century it had become “largely rhetorical.” The influx of Catholic immigrants, however, as well as the increasingly aggressive and authoritarian stance of the papacy, which became more outspoken in its denunciations of modernism and liberalism, established a fear that Catholics posed a genuine threat. Conspiracy theories of a papal takeover of the United States abounded.  

 A large dimension of the Protestant revival that began in the late 1820s included militant attacks against the Catholic Church which claimed that the Catholic religion was threatening to America’s Protestant culture. Nativists and evangelicals characterized Catholicism as an authoritative religion incompatible with republicanism. Viewed as submissive and unquestioning followers, those of Catholic faith were seen as lacking the individuality and free thinking required of democratic citizens. Moreover, the Catholic immigrant, whose allegiance was to a foreign ruler, was seen as disloyal to America.               

 Anti-Catholic sentiments led to violence in the summer of 1834. Sparked by rumors that nuns were being kept against their will, a mob attacked and burnt to the ground an Ursuline convent and school (attended mostly by the daughters of wealthy Protestants) in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Fortunately, no one was killed.        

Philadelphia became one of the centers of anti-Catholic protest, second only to Hartford Connecticut in the amount of anti-Catholic materials published. The trustee problems that plagued Philadelphia beginning in the 1820s played a significant role, badly damaging the reputation of Catholics and left Philadelphians suspicious of the motives of the Catholic hierarchy.    

In this pamphlet published in Philadelphia in 1833, Samuel Smith, a former priest, discusses what he sees as significant problems with the Catholic Church



Trusteeism involved the practice of Catholic laity assuming control of the administration of churches, even to the point of hiring and firing pastors. This practice began in colonial times when laymen raised money, purchased land, and built churches themselves due to the decentralized structure of the early Church. Bishops’ rejection of such lay involvement caused frequent confrontations and denunciations that often led to the interdiction of churches. The trustees’ presentation of themselves as defenders of democratic rights against autocratic authority of the bishop bolstered Protestant beliefs that the Catholic Church was incompatible with American values.      

In 1842, the American Protestant Association was formed in Philadelphia by more than 50 Protestant clergymen from every denomination. The APA’s objective was to alert the public, through lectures, publications, and revivals, to the dangers of popery, or “romanism.” The association gained attention through a series of popular lectures, especially those by the ex-priest Reverend William Hogan, who spread incredible lies about the Catholic Church after leaving it.     




Heated debates between Catholic and Protestant clergymen occurred in Philadelphia during the 1830s. One of the most well-known were the exchanges between John Breckinridge, secretary and general agent of the Board of Education of the Presbyterian Church and John Hughes, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, who later gained notoriety as bishop of New York.         

Bishop John Hughes, circa 1861

As a way to present his side of the argument, Hughes started The Catholic Herald, the first long lived diocesan paper in Philadelphia. The newspaper would become the mouthpiece for Bishop Kenrick’s campaign to end Protestant proselytizing in public schools. 


First issue of The Catholic Herald, January 3, 1833


The nativist riots that occurred in the city of Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1844 were the culmination of anti-Catholic sentiments and the growing nativist movement in the city. Sparked by the fiercely-contested issue of the presence of the Bible in public schools, the riots resulted in at least 20 deaths and more than 100 injuries. The Irish neighborhood of Kensington was practically destroyed and two churches and a convent were burnt to the ground.     

Engraving of the "Rioters in Kensington" from A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia Philadelphia: John B. Perry, 1844


One of the numerous broadsides Bishop Kenrick had posted throughout the city on May 7, 1844 warning Catholics to stay indoors.



The 1844 riots shaped both the growth and development of the city of Philadelphia as well as Catholicism in Philadelphia. They led to the consolidation of the city and county of Philadelphia and the establishment of an organized police force. Moreover, the riots resulted in the creation of a distinct Catholic subculture in which the Catholic population would establish its own network of parishes, schools, and social service institutions as a haven from a hostile Protestant culture.      







References: Feldberg, Michael. The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975; O’Toole, James M. The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008; Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Our faith-filled heritage : The church of Philadelphia bicentennial as a diocese 1808-2008. Strasbourg : Editions du Signe, 2007.

PAHRC has a significant number of 19th-century pamphlets in its General Pamphlet Collection. The Archives also has an almost complete run of official Philadelphia Diocesan newspapers up to the current Archdiocesan paper, The Catholic Standard and Times. More information on the riots can be found in the Nativist Riots of 1844 Papers.    

Patrick Coad, patentee of the galvanic battery, and interesting miscellaneous items

I am almost finished processing a small collection, Patrick Coad Family Papers (MC 37). An online finding aid will soon be available.

Patrick Coad, undated

Patrick Coad (1783-1872), an Irish immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, was the first American patentee of a graduated galvanic battery with insulated poles. Coad was a noted teacher and lecturer of medicine and the natural sciences, but gained wider notoriety after he invented and patented his galvanic battery in March 1842. The patent Coad received was for the “improvement in the mode of constructing the galvanic battery so as to vary the intensity of its effect, and in the construction of insulated conductors applied to the same for adapting it to medical purposes.” The instrument, which Coad and others touted as one that helped cure various diseases, garnered a good deal of attention within the medical community, which at the time was very interested in the use of electricity and magnetism for medical treatment.

Pamphlet with information on how to use Coad's galvanic battery during surgical procedures, 1844

Broadside publicizing Coad's lectures, undated

The collection includes some of Coad’s correspondence, his lecture notes and medical remedies, testimonials noting the capabilities of his galvanic battery, as well as related ephemera. Ephemeral materials include newspaper clippings, pamphlets and broadsides publicizing his invention, lectures, as well as the school that Coad opened for boys and girls. Also included in the collection is correspondence, ephemera, some estate items, and a scrapbook relating to Patrick Coad’s family, including his son Joseph R. Coad (1829-1868), a prominent Philadelphia physician who served as president of the city’s Board of Health.

Dr. Joseph R. Coad, circa 1860

Thus far, I have found that manuscript collections, particularly collections of family papers, often have some interesting miscellaneous items that seemingly have nothing to do with the family that is being documented. This collection is no exception. The following are two items that I felt warranted some attention:

1. A document listing the number of those in the city who died during the Yellow Fever epidemic in (possibly?) August and September 1798. The deaths are broken down by religion, church, and section of the city. (These obviously are in need of conservation!)

Yellow fever deaths, September 1798

Yellow fever deaths, Summer 1798

2. The other item of interest is another list, this one a list of food items requested by military personnel and civilians who were stationed at St. Paul’s Church during the first phase of the Nativist riots in May 1844. After violence had spread from Irish Kensington to the city of Philadelphia itself, authorities and citizens finally took action. On Thursday, May 9, Philadelphia County was placed under martial law. Several thousand of the city’s elite formed into divisions of “Peace Police” and assisted the militia in guarding the Catholic churches of the city for the next several days.

It appears as if these soldiers and citizens were not going to defend their city without proper nourishment, which included ham, veal, poultry, eggs, 10 pounds of sugar, and 2,000 stewed and 600 fried oysters. Oh yes, and don’t forget the segars.

Food ordered by military personnel and citizens guarding St. Paul's Catholic Church, May 1844

Thomas Nast Anti-Irish Cartoons

Among the recently digitized images added to our online collection are a number of drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1846 at the age of six, Nast immigrated with his mother to the United States and by age 15 he had begun drawing for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News.[1] He joined Harper’s Weekly in 1862 and at his height of fame was earning close to $20,000 a year (roughly $500,000 in today’s dollars) drawing for the paper.[2] Studying these cartoons can help us better understand the culture of the United States during the 1870s. Examining cartoons is an important tool because, as historian Thomas Milton Kemnitz asserted, the cartoons’ value rests in what they can “reveal about the societies that produced them.” [3] Once a cartoon is understood within its historical context, it can highlight public opinions that could not be revealed in more traditional written records.[4] Thus, in many ways cartoons are not only an artifact of popular culture but also help to shape and reflect public sentiment.


The Thomas Nast cartoons in our collection tell a story of the ingrained anti-Irish and anti-Catholic attitude during the 1870s. Before discussing the content of the cartoons it is important to establish the context of their period. Dating back to the founding of America, there has been fear that immigrants, because of their supposed ignorance, will “fatally depreciate, degrade, and demoralize” the government and culture.[5] Nativism in the United States often took the form of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings as seen in the Nativist Riots in Philadelphia in 1844, which resulted in dozens killed and over a hundred wounded, along with two churches and a convent burned to the ground.[6] These anti-Catholic feelings stemmed from the allegiance of the Irish Catholics, who were seen by many Americans as loyal to the pope over the United States. Indeed, many believed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy and that it threatened the established Protestant culture in the country.[7]

“Something that will not "blow over."

“Something that will not “blow over.”

Nast’s anti-Irish cartoons focus on the Irish as a destructive and lying group, who endangered American society. In the immediate aftermath of the Orange Riot of July 12, 1871 in New York City, in which Irish Catholics clashed with the National Guard protecting an Irish Protestant parade, Nast drew a number of anti-Irish cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. One cartoon illustrated the Draft Riots of July 1863, where Irish Catholics attacked African-Americans throughout New York City. At the top of the drawing Nast wrote that the Irish Catholic is bound to respect “no caste, no sect, no nation, any rights,” highlighting the believed lack of respect the Irish immigrants had for American society. Furthermore, the contrast between the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons in this cartoon clearly shows the Irish in negative light. While the Anglo-Saxons are drawn as regular looking people, the Irish are drawn with ape-like faces illustrating their inferiority as well as the lack of intelligence. Such depictions of Irish were not limited to Nast, with other papers such as Puck and Judge also using caricatures of Irish as primitive and violent.[8]

The other drawing that Nast published on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1871 shows an Irish man with an ape-like face attacking Columbia, a common representation of America. However, Columbia was able to stop the attack and defiantly clutches the Irishman by the neck as he drops his shillelagh. The contrast between the two is clear, the Irishman in his ripped and tattered clothes, with a loose suspender looking not unlike a tail, represented his inhumanity as well as his threat to American society, which was represented by Columbia dressed in pure white and holding a whip labeled “law.”[9] Thus for Nast, the riots that the Irish Catholics were regularly involved in demonstrated clear evidence of their inferiority and justified his concern that they would be a threat to democracy.

Chorus of Rising Patriots (?). "We can not tell a lie! We did not do it!

“Chorus of Rising Patriots (?). ‘We can not tell a lie! We did not do it!'”

Another cartoon a few years later also illustrates anti-Irish sentiment but in a different way. In this cartoon, a group of children representing Irish Catholic Democrats have cut down the tree of truth and have put up a sign for a new school with the slogan, “our rule, mob rule.” The cartoon further shows them supporting Boss Tweed, the Democrat whose political machine ran New York. Thus by depicting them as children, Nast was questioning their ability to think on their own and their ability to partake in democracy. Another important aspect of this cartoon is Columbia, who this time is dressed as a Greek goddess. Here she holds a bundle of sticks with the phrase “in union there is strength, patriotism, honor, and unity” and is clearly defending the spirit of the Revolution by standing in front of the “school of the old 1776.” Thus, this cartoon along with the other two demonstrate how Nast believed that the ideals that the United States were founded on were in danger because of the treachery of the Irish.

Examining Nast’s anti-Irish cartoons has revealed the deep-seated anti-immigrant feelings that were held by many in the United States. Such beliefs were developed in the wake of riots and other violent episodes that many saw as a sign that the Irish were incompatible with the ideals of the nation. Indeed, nativism arose due to the fear that the Irish and other ethnic groups would corrupt the fabric of America. This fear of the Irish was compounded because of their Catholic faith, which faced its own opposition in the United States as expressed by Nast in his cartoons.


Next blog will explore part two: Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoons.

  • [1] Fiona Deans Halloran, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 2-3.
  • [2] Vinson, J. Chal. “Thomas Nast and the American Political Scene.” American Quarterly 9, no. 3 (1957): 338 & 340.
  • [3] Thomas Milton Kemnitz, “The Cartoon as a Historical Source.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4, no. 1 (1973), 82.
  • [4] Ibid., 92-93.
  • [5] Bill Ong Hing, To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation, (New York: NYU Press, 1997), 14.
  • [6] Karla Irwin, “Chaos in the Streets: The Philadelphia Riots of 1844,” Villanova University Falvey Memorial Library, (2011),
  • [7] Allison O’Mahen Malcom, “Loyal Orangemen and Republican Nativists: Anti-Catholicism and Historical Memory in Canada and the United States, 1837-67,” in The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era, eds. Jerry Bannister, Liam Riordan, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2012), 218.
  • [8] Benjamin Justice, “Thomas Nast and the Public School of the 1870s,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Summer, 2005), 177.
  • [9] Michele Walfred, “‘Bravo, Bravo’: Thomas Nast Cover- 29 July, 1871.” Illustrating Chinese Exclusion,