American history is bound up with the Old World
What was “Washington’s Birthday” is quickly approaching us: now often redubbed “Presidents’ Day”, the repackaging allows us to forget “Lincoln’s Birthday” earlier in the month – which is now celebrated on the Monday closest to February 22, the actual day.
In any case, thinking of George Washington, “the Father of His Country” and our first president, should lead us to contemplate the country’s origins. We should especially remember the entire band of Founding Fathers, who created the political apparatus under which we live. But there are two other figures, both connected with the last days of January, to whom we should also show some gratitude and even deference, as they are at least as responsible for our national existence as Washington and any or all of his revolutionary colleagues.
January 21 marked the anniversary of the judicial murder of the French King Louis XVI. His claim to being a Founding Father is one that those men to whom we ordinarily give that name acknowledged themselves. His predecessors, Louis XIV and XV, had been responsible for settling the Mississippi valley and the Great Lakes; but these had been lost a decade before he came to the throne. Even so, his picture and that of Queen Marie Antoinette flanked the Speaker’s desk in the first Congress room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall – only to be removed after their murders.
Louisvilles in Georgia and Kentucky (the latter boasting a fine statue of Louis) were named after the French king. The reasons for this gratitude are easy to see: without French intervention, the revolt could never have succeeded militarily. After the French alliance in 1778, arms and men flowed into the continental armies from France. But above all, it was the French fleet breaking the power of the British Royal Navy that allowed Washington’s men to prevail. Thus it was that what could have been a fairly brilliant strategic withdrawal at Yorktown – or perhaps even a qualified success for the Crown’s forces – turned into their conclusive defeat. Once the war was over, Louis even financed the rebuilding of Virginia’s William and Mary College.
The other founding father died on January 30, in a manner so eerily like that of Louis’s that the night before his own martyrdom the French king asked for a prayer book and a biography of this American progenitor – he being Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In truth, Charles’s father James I (and VI of Scotland, best known as the Bible man) at least equally merits the “Father of America” title, because under him Virginia and Massachusetts were first settled.
But it was under Charles that the other New England colonies were settled, Maryland established as a Catholic refuge, and Carolina granted to a group of noblemen, who named the land in his honour. Roxbury Latin School near Boston was given the charter under which it operates, and the first units of what would become the National Guard was mustered in 1636 and swore allegiance to him.
Charles’s Queen was Catholic. He negotiated for a reunion with the Holy See and permitted the pope to offer a cardinal’s hat to the archbishop of Canterbury, which was unhappily twice refused by that prelate. Nevertheless, he allowed the priest-prisoners in London that he inherited from his father to minister by day to their flocks in the capital. Eventually he vowed to restore those Church lands still remaining in the hands of the Crown, including monasteries, to ecclesiastical hands.
These and other measures aroused the ire of extreme Protestants in each of his realms. Those in England were in great part of the class created by Henry VIII when he gave to their grandfathers the lands he stole from the monasteries, only a small amount of which had stayed with the Crown. So began the conflicts that in recent years have been rebranded with the appropriately Tolkienesque title of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”. Towards the end, the king was turned over by the Scots to Cromwell and subsequently murdered in what might have been the first modern show trial.
Our origins in this continent are far older than our political machinery. If we lose faith in the latter, we must not and do not forfeit our love of the former. Whether we like it or not, our history is bound up with that of the Old World. Much as we should love this corner of the world we live in, we should never forget it is part of a larger whole that also deserves our affection – something which Catholics as members of a worldwide Church should never forget.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles