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This Day in History: George Washington squashes anti-Catholic demonstrations

On this day in 1775, Washington issues a stern rebuke to his soldiers. They were planning to celebrate an anti-Catholic holiday known as Guy Fawkes Night.


It’s a celebration that most Americans don’t know too much about! Perhaps Washington can take the credit for that? After all, Guy Fawkes Night is STILL celebrated in Great Britain.

Etching of Guy Fawkes Night in England, outside Windsor Castle. The etching was published in 1776.

Today, the English are celebrating the anniversary of the failed Gunpowder Plot (1605). On that day, a group of Catholic activists planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing the Protestant King so he could be replaced with his Catholic daughter. The plot was foiled, and celebratory bonfires were lit all over town. Thereafter, each anniversary of the foiled plot has been celebrated with bonfires or fireworks. Early celebrations tended to be a bit anti-Catholic in nature.


As the American Revolution began, Guy Fawkes was still celebrated in America, too (although the colonists usually called it Pope’s Day). Or, at least, it was celebrated until George Washington intervened in 1775.


On November 5, Washington’s general orders blasted “that ridiculous and childish Custom of burning the Effigy of the pope” and expressed “his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers, in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture.” He ordered them to stop: “At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered, or excused,” he concluded.


True, some of Washington’s motivations were purely pragmatic. Americans then wanted the help of (largely Catholic) Canada in its effort against the British. Impugning them now, as a practical matter, was ridiculously shortsighted. On the other hand, Washington was also a man who respected the variety of religions in his army. He consistently worked, for instance, to have many different types of chaplains available for his soldiers.


In other words, while he may have had practical reasons for putting an end to the anti-Catholic demonstrations, it is reasonable to believe that he also simply respected varying personal beliefs.


Washington’s attitude was one of the primary factors that helped to end the anti-Catholic celebration in the colonies. As historian Paul Boller notes, there were no Pope’s Day celebrations in America after 1775. “Washington was the first to put an end to anti-Catholic demonstrations of this kind,” Boller concludes, “and the example he set undoubtedly carried great weight.”


George Washington is often recognized for his leadership during the American Revolution. But did you know that he was such a leader when it comes to issues of church and state as well?


Naturally, more information is available in my book with Joseph C. Smith, Jr.: www.GeorgeWashingtonBook.com


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