GLEN COVE, NY — The golden age of the American
parochial school system (from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until
the end of World War I in 1918) was a period of true heroism by America’s
Prior to the War Between the States, the United States was a very
diverse country. There was virtually no federal interference in state
laws. Religious freedom was common, but not in Massachusetts, Connecticut,
or New Hampshire, where government discrimination against Catholics,
Quakers, and sometimes Episcopalians lasted for two generations after
The old South was one of the most religiously diverse parts of the
country. President Jefferson Davis was an Episcopalian who attended
a Catholic school. Judah P. Benjamin was a Jewish Secretary of State
of the Confederacy. Several of the best chaplains
in the Confederate Army were Catholics.
In contrast, New England was the most religiously intolerant area.
When the United States Army stopped rigging the elections in Louisiana
and South Carolina in 1877, the last military remnant of the War Between
the States emergency ended. The country emerged from the war, and Reconstruction
radically changed. Not only did the federal government become dominant
over the states, but a sense of national conformity largely replaced
the local sense of pride. The New England model of a nearly universal
public school system spread across the country.
New England’s attitude of religious intolerance infected the
Republican Party. In 1875, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected Governor
of Ohio on a platform that warned that the Pope was plotting to take
over the state. The following year, he was elected President in a disputed
election. In 1880, a speaker at the Republican Convention described
the Democratic Party as the Party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion.
A few Catholics, such as Archbishop Ireland of Saint Paul, sought
accommodation with the new America. Most, however, resisted heroically.
The greatest problem was with the school systems. Catholic education
had existed in America since Independence, but it was not as widespread
as the new public school systems.
The public schools were a threat to the faith of young people for
a number of reasons. The reasons most widely discussed were their practice
of ending the Lord’s Prayer with words not found in the earliest
manuscripts and their rejection of the Greek texts of the Old Testament.
The real dangers, however, were more serious. The public schools exaggerated
and emphasized every minor persecution of Protestants by a Catholic
king or queen while ignoring the truly bloody persecution of Catholics
The most serious dangers of the public school systems were their
denial of five of the seven sacraments, their denial that man’s
good works could assist in his salvation, their denial that man could
freely choose to be saved or damned, their denial of the authority
of the Church, and their insistence on a sort of civic religion.
The response of the American bishops was not, in any way, to seek
accommodation, but to create a Catholic school in almost every parish.
This was accomplished by great sacrifices on the part of the faithful
and by hundreds of thousands of teaching sisters who dedicated their
lives to teaching in these schools.
The response of the Church’s enemies was furious. Under the
leadership of James G. Blaine, Speaker of the House of Representatives,
senator, and unsuccessful candidate for President in 1880, amendments
to 39 state constitutions were passed prohibiting the use of government
money for religious education. Although it was arguably unjust to make
Catholics pay for two school systems, the policy was a blessing in
disguise. The parochial schools took nothing from the government, and
so they remained free to teach the whole truth without restraint from
The parochial schools did not turn away non-Catholic children. Many
Lutherans and Episcopalians who shared Catholic concerns about the
public schools set up their own schools or sent their children to the
The 1920s saw America change again. Oregon attempted to outlaw private
education. The Supreme Court overturned this attempt on the grounds
of economic freedom. The quality of American education began to deteriorate
under the influence of progressive educational theories.
Catholic schools were a few years behind the public schools in the
deterioration. They became more admired for quality than for orthodoxy.
As they became more involved in new things like school busing, school
lunches, and extracurricular activities, they began to lose their distinctive
character. Today, American Catholic education is a mere shadow of the
system that stood up defiantly and without compromise or accommodation
against the most anti-Catholic period in American history — and preserved
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2012
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
To sponsor the FGF E-Package, please send a tax-deductible donation
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or donate online.