Please join us on Wednesday 22nd May at 5pm at the Rothermere Institute to discuss Michael Breidenbach’s paper on the Quebec Act of 1774, tensions between civil authority and religious liberty, and dialogue among revolutionary Americans and with their neighbors in Canada.
Abstract: During the Revolutionary era, American patriots argued that Parliament’s claim to sovereignty over the American colonies constituted imperium in imperio, a state within a state. While historians have recognized that sovereignty was the main issue over which the American Revolution was fought, previous focus on the debates about Parliament and colonial sovereignty has neglected the original instance of imperium in imperio: the conflict between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. This conflict pervaded revolutionary discourse, especially against Catholics after the Quebec Act of 1774. At the crux of anti-Catholicism was the widely shared fear of ecclesiastical tyranny over civil liberties and against temporal sovereignty—what Samuel Adams called Catholicism’s imperium in imperio. Although many Americans acknowledged religious liberty as a natural right, they held a prior assumption that those who enjoyed the protection of such liberty must owe allegiance to one temporal sovereign only. This paper argues that Catholics were able to answer these challenges and obtain religious liberty using conciliarist assumptions about the juridical separation of papal and temporal power. Their denial of the pope’s temporal power was not only about ecclesiastical governance, but also about state sovereignty: a country should be independent of any foreign power, be it the pope or another civil ruler. This paper illustrates how Catholics made these arguments in their congressional commission to obtain Canadian support for the revolutionary cause and their signing of the Declaration of Independence, and how American founders in turn justified Catholic citizenship with the first immigration laws in the United States.
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Michael Breidenbach is a Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Assistant Professor of History at Ave Maria University. His research interests concern the history of political, legal, and religious thought in the Atlantic World. His book manuscript, The Pope’s Republic: Liberties and Loyalties in Early America, is a history of religious liberty and church-state relations in early America. His recent work has been published in the William and Mary Quarterly, and he is co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty. He received his Ph.D. from King’s College, Cambridge, and was previously a visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford.