Selected General George Cadwalader Correspondence, May 10-11, 1844
Although the US Constitution pronounced that church and state should be separate in 1787, Pennsylvanians freely placed religion in government institutions throughout the 1800s. Protestants believed that Bible reading and prayer were vital to the moral growth of their children and the propagation of a free republic. As the majority religion in Pennsylvania, Protestants had no trouble introducing their religious practices to public schools.
The demographics of Pennsylvania, and especially Philadelphia, were changing in 1844, however. An enormous influx of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1800s, driven by poverty and the potato famine in Ireland. Many of these immigrants were Roman Catholic and quickly established concentrated communities and churches in the Philadelphia districts of Kensington and Southwark. As they began enrolling their children in public schools, they realized that their youth were being exposed to Protestant Bibles and services. Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick appealed to the city's school board on behalf of the Catholic community of Philadelphia, asking that Catholic children be allowed to use their own Bibles in school and be excused from Protestant prayer.
The school board agreed to these requests, adding the stipulation that the Bibles brought by Catholic children could not include commentary. This decision angered Catholics and Protestants alike. Many Catholics used the Douay-Rheims Bible, which was inseparable from its commentary. Protestant resentment of Irish immigrants, on the other hand, had been boiling for years. Many Protestant Americans, frustrated by the economic depression of 1837-1844, blamed Irish Catholics for bringing down wages and undermining their religious principles. The school board decision incited a wave of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant propaganda distributed by nativists, a group of Americans who felt threatened by immigration and rival religions. This propaganda circulated throughout Philadelphia, wildly accusing Catholics of attempting to remove Bibles from public schools and planning a bloody uprising to take control of the city.
On May 3, 1844, a group of 300 nativists gathered in the Irish Catholic district of Kensington to hold a rally protesting immigration and Catholic influence in schools. The group was quickly driven out of the neighborhood. On May 6, 1844, the nativists returned with 3,000 people to assert their right to assemble. Irish Catholics tried to push them out again, and the conflict escalated into a riot. By the end of the day, people on both sides had been shot, beaten, and crushed with bricks. Further incensed by anti-Catholic propaganda, nativists began roaming the neighborhood and burning down houses and churches. The fighting finally stopped on May 8 when federal soldiers led by General Cadwalader secured the city and guarded the remaining Catholic churches. The note from McFleason to Cadwalader exhibits the fear that violence could re-erupt at any moment.
In fact, bishop Kenrick was so worried about more bloodshed that he ordered all Catholic schools and churches of Philadelphia to be closed on the following Sunday, May 12, to avoid further agitation. Despite the assurances of safety from Major General Patterson in "General Order No. 10," Kenrick remained resolute. Sunday came and went without more fighting.
On July 4, 1844, Americans celebrated their nation's independence. Unfortunately, the patriotic energy re-invigorated nativist fervor, and on July 6 the Catholic Church of St. Philip Neri in the Southwark district of Philadelphia was attacked. It took federal troops three days to stop the rioting. Between the May and July riots, more than 20 people were killed and 100 were injured.
The Bible Riots of 1844 resulted from a combustible mixture of sentiments regarding the separation of church and state, freedom of assembly, immigration, and freedom to practice religion. These documents from the Cadwalader collection offer a fascinating look into the tumultuous events as they occurred on the streets of Philadelphia. Irish Catholics eventually gained acceptance into American culture after their participation in the Civil War, but debates about the issues that incited the riots remain unresolved today.
Bruce Dorsey, "Freedom of Religion: Bibles, Public Schools, and Philadelphia's Bloody Riots of 1844," Defining Civil Liberties in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Legacies 8 no. 1 (2008): 12-17.
A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: J. B. Perry, 1848).
Elizabeth M. Geffen, "Violence in Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s," Pennsylvania History 36 (1969): 381-410.
Vincent P. Lannie and Bernard C. Diethorn, "For the Honor and Glory of God: The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1840," History of Education Quarterly 8 (1968): 44-106.
David Montgomery, "The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844," Journal of Social History 5 (1972): 411-446.