The Eliot School Rebellion, Boston, 1859: Education, Slavery and the Nineteenth Century Catholic Revival

John McGreevy
University of Notre Dame

Date: April 29, 2003

Event Recap

On April 29th, John T. McGreevy, professor of history from the University of Notre Dame, visited the Boisi Center on a book tour to promote his latest work, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (Norton, 2003). McGreevy argues that Catholic history has largely been characterized in terms of its ethnicity, regionalism and immigrant status in American culture, to the neglect of the contributions it has made to the political and intellectual life of the United States and American thought. Citing the deeply held liberal belief “that Protestantism advanced human progress and freedom while Catholicism retarded it” that characterized Protestant thinking in the 19th century, and can still be found today, McGreevy builds the case for a distinctively Catholic intellectual tradition in 19th and 20th century America. This tradition, which has emphasized the communal over the individual, protections for workers and the poor from the dangers of market freedoms, and faith in eternal truths over pragmatic compromise have provided an intellectual alternative to, and thus a target for, liberalism.

Starting with an analysis of the Eliot School Rebellion in Boston in 1859, and moving onto many of the major issues that have shaped American society including slavery, public education, economic reform, contraception and abortion, McGreevy discusses the clashes between a distinctive Catholic intellectual tradition shaped by events in Europe and Latin America, and an American liberalism that was often virulently anti-Catholic. Using the debates over slavery as an example, McGreevy explained that while Catholic thinking condemned the slave trade, acknowledged the moral equality of black people, and spoke against the segregation of churches, it did not condemn slavery as an institution and had difficulty arguing against the hierarchy and tradition represented by slavery. Abolitionists in turn saw this as further evidence that Catholicism presented an obstacle to free thought and moral autonomy, and many were as severe in their condemnation of  Catholics as they were of slave owners. The book, which has received generous praise from experts in the field, breaks new ground in both its outline of a Catholic intellectual tradition, and in the way it offers a critique of liberal assumptions that have shaped American life.