Virulent anti-Catholicism was a hallmark of New England society from the first Puritan settlements to the eve of the American Revolution and beyond. Thus America's tactical decision during the Revolution to form alliances with Catholics in Canada and France ignited an awkward debate. The paradox arising out of this partnership has been left virtually unexamined by previous historians of the Revolution.
In Necessary Virtue Charles P. Hanson explores the disruptive effects of the American Revolution on the religious culture of New England Protestantism. He examines the efforts of New Englanders to make sense of their own shifting ideas of Catholicism and anti-Catholicism and traces the "necessary virtue" of religious toleration to its origins in pragmatic cultural politics. To some patriots, abandoning traditional anti-Catholicism meant shedding an obsolete relic of the intolerant colonial past; others saw it as a temporary concession to be reversed as soon as possible. Their Tory opponents meanwhile assailed them all as hypocrites for making common cause with the "papists" they had so recently despised. What began as a Protestant crusade succeeded only with Catholic help and later culminated in the First Amendment's formal separation of church and state. The Catholic contribution to American independence was thus controversial from the start.
In this felicitously written and informative book, Hanson raises questions about difference, tolerance, and the role of religious belief in politics and government that help us see the American Revolution in a new light. Necessary Virtue is timely in pointing to the historical contingency and, perhaps, the fragility of the church-state separation that is very much a poltical and legal issue today.