Independence Day is once more upon us, and with it, all that we love about the Fourth. While the wondrous fireworks that private citizens used to let loose with to express their freedom are a thing of the past in most places (although one remembers with civic pride Los Angeles’ unsafe and insane display during the Lockdown Summer of 2020), most people have access to beautiful displays at various parks. Cities across America from Washington to Pacific Palisades will host parades and backyards shall see barbecues. There will be reenactments of various kinds at National, State, and local historic sites, and as happens every year there shall be a general mood of self-congratulation. As in my youth, the Boy Scouts, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Elks, Knights of Columbus, Daughters of the American Revolution, and sundry other Veterans’, Fraternal, Youth, and Hereditary organisations will put on programmes marking the great day.
But while the forms remain the same, much has changed. If American Exceptionalism had its historical lacunae and its Lost Cause of the Confederacy schism (which roused annoyance among many), its heresy of Wokery has a slight foundation of truth overlaid with lies. That the Indians were mistreated and African Slaves imported, no one can deny. That the country is merely “founded on genocide and built on slavery” is an arrant lie – there was much else. Similarly, the Catholic might look at the denunciation of the Quebec Act and various other moves by the Founding Fathers as proof of an inherent anti-Catholicism occasionally revived by such as the Know Nothings. Masonic origins aside, the rise of the Americanist heresy as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in the 19th century would be problematic enough; its importation via Fr. John Courtenay Murray, S.J. into Vatican II was disastrous. For those of a neo-Loyalist and revisionist bent, the imposition of a new and usurping government by a minority upon a majority (according to John Adams, anyway) would seem to give the lie to what we were always told about 1776.
The problem, of course, is that the received wisdom in my day often had it that America was not a country at all, but an ideal. This ideal being the pursuit of an abstract “freedom,” said assertion was the foundation for the patriotism of a great many in my day. “Americanism” – in the generic, non-Catholic sense – was a secular faith that everyone could belong to, if they shared its tenets. In 1918, Congress even gave this faith a creed:
I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed, a democracy in a republic, a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.
I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.
The problem, of course, is that adherence to the second paragraph for many became dependent on the veracity of the first. In recent years, as the faith of the above-mentioned groups and others in the first clause has weakened, the second has as well, as a natural consequence. Since the Fourth of July celebrates the creation of that government and its breaking with King and Mother Country, the temptation to disregard it on the part of those not convinced of that government’s Divine nature becomes great; far worse is the temptation to equate the country with it, and so lose all patriotism.
As a Catholic, an historian, and a Monarchist myself, however, I think it far wiser to re-root our patriotism in reality. The first thing we must remember is the supremacy of Divine Providence. The vast majority of Americans reading these lines descend from people who came to the United States, before or after Independence, or else came themselves. God knew this from all eternity and gave us this amazing country – its mountains and forest, fields and swamps, cities and towns. Against this astonishing background of natural wonders, mineral wealth, and agricultural fertility, our often-spotty history has been worked out. That history begins not with 1776, but with Columbus’ arrival in 1492. Our true founding fathers and mothers were Ferdinand and Isabel, Charles V, and Philip II of Spain; Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV of France; and James I and VI, Charles I, Charles II, and James II and VII of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Under their aegis, the roots of our nation were laid.
Our State and local governments bear the marks of their Monarchical origins: the whole panoply of Governors, Secretaries of State, legislatures, courts, sheriffs, coroners, notaries, and all the rest originated in the “good old colony days, when we lived under the King.” Spanish land law continues to hold in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, while the use of Parishes rather than Counties and La loi civile in Louisiana displays the French origins. Our oldest Guard and State Militia units were raised under the King in 1636, and quite a number were founded before 1776. Our oldest Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Orthodox churches were founded with Royal Charters. Those whom we call the Founding Fathers were the greatest generation statesmen we have ever produced – and the vast majority had held some military or civil office under the Crown. When they created our Constitution, they created an Electoral College to elect the president in imitation of that which chose the Holy Roman Emperor.
The masses of immigrants who arrived after independence still received a certain amount of care and encouragement from the Monarchs they left behind. Through the Leopoldine Society, the Habsburgs and their subjects funnelled 25 million dollars into the Catholic Church in the United States, as did the King of Bavaria with his Ludwigsverein. The Kings of France, Spain, and Naples sent gifts to such churches as St. Louis Basilica in the city of the same name in Missouri and the Protocathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky. The German Kaiser and the Kings of Scandinavia and the Netherlands did the same for many Lutheran and Reformed churches across the country. Even the Emperor of China had a temple built in Oroville, California, for his subjects there. Together with the native-born, the Indians, and the Blacks, those immigrants built the nation we have to-day.
And what a nation it is! Each of the fifty States, five territories and commonwealths, and of course, the District of Columbia are filled with natural and man-made wonders; in the last named, the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, and National Archives act as a sort of national monument to American achievements. Despite our problems and divisions, this land of ours is a wonder. There may be argument over our Second Civil War and its rights and wrongs until Doomsday. But what is even more amazing is the relatively swift reconciliations between the two halves, despite the oceans of blood shed between them. Fifty years after Pickett’s Charge, aged veterans were reunited in tight embraces – a half century after trying to slaughter each other. The racial issue may have been enflamed by Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but for the most part this speedy reconciliation is a unique thing in the annals of history – and something we may take pride in.
Indeed, there is much more. American enterprise and industry produced and produces a technology that befits the world – not least in medicine. But let’s not forget the country’s contributions to literature. Our trinity of early American novelists – Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe – were flanked by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and composer Stephen Foster.
Foster reminds us that America may not have produced the highest of classical music, but she has produced the Great American Songbook, Vaudeville, the Broadway Musical, and the Golden Ages of Hollywood, Radio, and Television. Nor have we lacked talented artists, from the Hudson River School to the Golden Age of American Illustration to California Plein Air. The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, the Colonial Revival, Neo-Gothicism, the City Beautiful Movement, and such architects as Frederick Law Olmstead and Ralph Adams Cram created beautiful structures from one coast to the other – and are still worth seeing to-day. However much injustice may have been and indeed is – if murdered infants are any index – done in our country, we do not need her to be perfect to love her.
But we Catholic Americans have an obligation to the land of our birth and our fellow citizens that arise from our Faith – the obligation, out of love, to convert them to the true Faith. We should remember not just that Maryland was founded as a Catholic refuge in 1632 but that there were Catholics at Jamestown in 1607. We have been here even before the English settlements, coming to Florida in 1567. Converts like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Orestes Brownson, foreign missionaries such as Mother Cabrini and St. John Neumann, and cradle Catholics like Ven. Fr. McGivney and Flannery O’Connor all played their part in the proud but sad drama of American Catholicism: proud because of the stately churches reared in the country (often paid for not just by foreign Kings but by immigrant pennies); sad, because we traded evangelism for respectability, in the end receiving either.
Nonetheless, as Catholic members of a country settled by the restless, pushy, and enterprising from across Europe and the World, we often surprise our European co-religionists with our willingness to do things. In the 1975 film, The Wind and The Lion, Theodore Roosevelt, played by Brian Keith, meditates on the resemblance between the American and the Grizzly Bear:
The American grizzly bear is a symbol of the American character. Strength. Intelligence. Ferocity…A little blind and reckless at times… but courageous beyond all doubt. And one other trait that goes with all previous. Loneliness. A bear lives out his life alone… indomitable, unconquered, but always alone. He has no real allies, only enemies, but none of them are as great as he… The world will never love us. It may respect us… they may even grow to fear us, but they will never love us. For we have too much audacity… and we’re a bit blind and reckless at times too.
In many ways, these qualities remain. When properly employed, they can do very good things, indeed. But, alas, it can also lead us, Catholic and non-Catholic Americans alike, to acts of hubris – as when Wilson and FDR attempted to remake the world after the World Wars I and II, respectively.
Nevertheless, on this Fourth of July, let us not spoil the celebration by dwelling on our national failings, nor by worrying overmuch about the legitimacy of our origins. Rather, let us enjoy the fireworks, parades, concerts, and all the other elements borrowed from the colonial celebration of the King’s Birthday, and celebrate all that is best in our nation on this day.
But do not let us leave it there. Let the love we exhibit for our country, our true patriotism, shine forth in our words and deeds. Obviously, this means supporting our parish and other Church agencies working to evangelise our countrymen. But we must also remember that we ourselves can bring the faith to places where no priest ever goes – such as our workplace. To the degree that we can, we should support local causes to improve our communities, and not be afraid to say, when asked, that it is the Faith that motivates all of our efforts. As said earlier, we must look at working for our country’s conversion as a patriotic duty. In this, we must seek the prayers of the many Saints associated with our country, and especially our patroness, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, after whom the National Shrine is named. Certainly, the Fourth of July is worth celebrating; but for Catholics, our great feast shall always be December 8.
 Editor’s note: for a Catholic perspective on both of America’s civil wars (the so-called “Revolutionary” and “Civil War”) read the author’s book Puritan’s Empire: a Catholic Perspective on American History.