Archbishop Hughes on Education, New York, 1840

The encounter of Catholics and Jews with the power of America’s Protestant majority became visible in the response of Catholics and Jews to American public schools, where they found a clear Protestant bias. Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864) of New York writes forcefully of the prejudicial image of Catholics presented in the public schools, with their distinctly Protestant cast. He suggests that since Catholics are obliged to pay taxes for such schools, they be allowed to support their own school system with these revenues. Eventually Catholics would develop a strong, privately supported parochial school system.

Besides the introduction of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment, with the prevailing theory that from these even children are to get their notions of religion, contrary to our principles, there were in the classbooks of those schools false (as we believe) historical statements respecting the men and things of past times, calculated to fill the minds of our children with errors of fact, and at the same time to excite in them prejudice against the religion of their parents and guardians. These passages were not considered as sectarian, inasmuch as they had been selected as mere reading lessons, and were not in favor of any particular sect, but merely against  the Catholics. We feel it is unjust that such passages should be taught at all in schools, to the support of which we are contributors as well as others. But that such books should be put into the hands of our own  children, and that in part at our own expense, was in our opinion unjust, unnatural, and at all events to us intolerable.

Accordingly, through very great additional sacrifices, we have been obliged to provide schools, under our churches and elsewhere, in which to educate our children as our conscientious duty required. This we have done to the number of some thousands for several years past, during all of which time we have been obliged to pay taxes; and we feel it unjust and oppressive that while we educate our children, as well we contend as they would be at the public schools, we are denied our portion of the school fund, simply because we at the same time endeavor to train them up in principles of virtue and religion. This we feel to be unjust and unequal. For we pay taxes in proportion to our timbers, as other citizens. We are supposed to be from one hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand in the State. And although most of us are poor, still the poorest man among us is obliged to pay taxes, from the sweat of his brow, in the rent of his room or little tenement. Is it not, then, hard and unjust that such a man cannot have the benefit of education for his child without sacrificing the rights of his religion and conscience? He sends his child to a school under the protection of his Church, in which these rights will be secure. But he has to support this school also. In Ireland he was compelled to support a church hostile to his religion, and here he is compelled to support schools in which his religion fares but little better, and to support his own school besides.

Is this state of things, fellowcitizens, and especially Americans, is this state of things worthy of you, worthy of our country, worthy of our just and glorious constitution? Put yourself in the poor man’s place, and say whether you would not despise him if he did not labor by every lawful means to emancipate himself from this bondage. He has to pay double taxation for the education of his child, one to the misinterpreted law of the land, and another to his conscience. He sees his child going to school with perhaps only the fragment of a wornout book, thinly clad, and its bare feet on the frozen pavement; whereas, if he had his rights he could improve the clothing, he could get better books, and have his child better taught than it is possible in actual circumstances.

Nothing can be more false than some statements of our motives which have been put forth against us.

It has been asserted that we seek our share of the school funds for the support and advance of our religion.

We beg to assure you with respect, that we would scorn to support or advance our religion at any other than our own expense. But we are unwilling to pay taxes for the purpose of destroying our religion in the minds of our children. This points out the sole difference between what we seek and what some narrowminded or misinformed journals have accused us of seeking.

If the public schools could have been constituted on a principle which would have secured a perfect NEUTRALITY of influence on the subject of religion, then we should have no reason to complain. But this has not been done, and we respectfully submit that it is impossible. The cold indifference with which it is required that all religion shall be treated in those schools–the Scriptures without note or comment; the selection of passages, as reading lessons, from Protestants and prejudiced authors, on points in which our creed is supposed to be involved; the comments of the teacher, of which the commissioners cannot be cognizant; the school libraries, stuffed with sectarian works against us–form against our religion a combination of influences prejudicial to our religion, and to whose action it would be criminal in us to expose our children at such an age.

[From John G. Hassard, Life of the Most Reverend John Hughes (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1866), 230-32.]