Since Alexis de Tocqueville, observers of American society have noted the extent to which religion and politics are inextricably entwined in the United States, but the relationship between the nation’s religion and its wars has attracted comparatively little historical attention. John Pinheiro offers a useful corrective by arguing the centrality of anti-Catholic rhetoric to the Mexican–American War and the politics of Western expansion more generally. Throughout the 1830s, voluntary societies, pronouncements from the press and the pulpit, and popular anxieties concerning Irish Catholic immigration helped transform anti-Catholicism from a largely dormant cultural artefact into an increasingly vital public discourse touching Americans’ civil liberties and national identity. So deeply was anti-Catholic rhetoric entrenched in the American political lexicon that it became an integral aspect of the debates surrounding the annexation of Texas and the possibility of war with Mexico, serving politicians on both sides of these issues. Nor did the significance of anti-Catholicism wane with the commencement of hostilities. During the conflict, it continued to influence American perceptions of the war and shaped the interactions between American soldiers and Mexican civilians on the ground. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo sparked renewed evangelical fervour and energised Protestant missionary efforts in the territory acquired by the United States. Anti-Catholic propagandists envisioned the fortunes of Evangelical Protestantism rising alongside the seemingly inexorable expansion of the United States, but future events challenged their triumphalist narrative. The failed 1848 European Revolutions cast doubt on the future of republicanism abroad even as growing sectional discord jeopardised its future security at home. In tracing the development of anti-Catholicism as a cultural force, Pinheiro ascribes special significance to the writings of Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, who drew together previously disparate strands of American exceptionalism, nativism and several varieties of anti-Catholicism in his published sermons. Referring throughout to this fusion of anti-Catholic convictions and the sense of providential mission that would later find expression as Manifest Destiny and as the ‘Beecherite Synthesis’, the book at times attributes a greater degree of originality and influence to Beecher than the historical record immediately supports. It is difficult to assess how many of the men who volunteered to fight in Mexico would have been familiar with Beecher’s writings, for instance, much less ascertain the extent to which their anti-Catholic prejudices and conceptions of American exceptionalism were drawn from his work. The very ubiquity of anti-Catholicism that Pinheiro cites as a testament of its growing power as a cultural and political discourse complicates his efforts to establish its intellectual pedigree in this manner. These quibbles aside, the term functions as convenient shorthand and does not otherwise detract from a cogent and compelling argument. While furthering our understanding of anti-Catholicism as a force in American domestic and foreign policy, Pinheiro also highlights the interplay between race and religion in western expansion. As he demonstrates, the definition of race proved particularly malleable during the Texas controversy, encompassing religion and political institutions as well as genetic inheritance. His book emphasises the interactions between these categories, but there are moments when the analysis becomes ensnared in the very skeins of racialised Anglo-Saxonism which the author is attempting to unravel. This is particularly evident in the author’s assertion that, in the minds of white Americans, blacks constituted a lesser threat than the influx of foreign Catholics to the future of the Republic because they were largely restricted to southern plantations. In this instance, privileging Protestantism over whiteness as a defining characteristic of American national identity, as well as a signifier of those beyond its remit, gives short shrift to the contemporary fears surrounding racial amalgamation and the threat many Americans assumed the continued presence of blacks, free or enslaved, would pose to the Republic. In contrast, the author’s discussion of the arguments for and against American territorial acquisition following the war demonstrates the potential of an approach that balances the biological and cultural aspects of race. In its coverage of the debates surrounding annexation, the book conveys the evangelical fervour with which anti-Catholic views were promulgated in Congress while suggesting the possible uses such rhetoric may have held beyond a celebration of normative Protestantism. One potential explanation for the proliferation of anti-Catholic discourses north and south of the Mason–Dixon Line was the convenient proxy they afforded for more contentious debates about race and the extension of slavery. Regarding the arguments against the wholesale annexation of Mexico, Pinheiro notes that ‘arguments appealing to anti-Catholic sentiment were more effective and less divisive than purely sectional or racial ones’ (p. 155). These insights into the instrumentality of anti-Catholic rhetoric in the slavery debate remain relatively under-developed in this book, but it is to be hoped that future scholarship will further explore the links between anti-Catholicism and the evangelical critique of slavery that Pinheiro has laid out. Overall, his book represents a welcome addition to the historical literature surrounding the Mexican–American War and will encourage scholars to consider religion alongside race as a driving force of American westward expansion. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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