Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America


Dr. Michael Breidenbach, Associate Professor and Chair of History at Ave Maria University, discusses how early American Catholics justified secularism and overcame suspicions of disloyalty, transforming ideas of religious liberty in the process.

In colonial America, Catholics were presumed dangerous until proven loyal. Yet Catholics went on to sign the Declaration of Independence and helped to finalize the First Amendment to the Constitution. What explains this remarkable transformation? Catholic leaders emphasized their church’s own traditions—rather than Enlightenment liberalism—to secure the religious liberty that enabled their incorporation in American life.

Catholics responded to charges of disloyalty by denying papal infallibility and the pope’s authority to intervene in civil affairs. Rome staunchly rejected such dissent, but reform-minded Catholics justified their stance by looking to conciliarism, an intellectual tradition rooted in medieval Catholic thought yet compatible with a republican view of temporal independence and church-state separation. Drawing on new archival material, Breidenbach finds that early American Catholic leaders, including Maryland founder Cecil Calvert and members of the prominent Carroll family, relied on the conciliarist tradition to help institute religious toleration, including the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649.

The critical role of Catholics in establishing American church–state separation enjoins us to revise not only our sense of who the American founders were, but also our understanding of the sources of secularism. Church–state separation in America, generally understood as the product of a Protestant-driven Enlightenment, was in key respects derived from Catholic thinking. Our Dear-Bought Liberty therefore offers a dramatic departure from received wisdom, suggesting that religious liberty in America was not bestowed by liberal consensus but partly defined through the ingenuity of a persecuted minority.

Dr. Michael Breidenbach is Associate Professor and Chair of History at Ave Maria University. His research interests concern the history of political, legal, and religious thought, especially in early America and the Atlantic World. He has particular interests in religious liberty, church and state, and the relationship between religion and politics.

His first book, Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2021), is a history of religious liberty and church-state relations in early America and the Atlantic World. He is also co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and his recent work has been published in William and Mary Quarterly, Perspectives on Political Science, The Things that Matter: Essays Inspired by the Later Work of Jacques Maritain, and Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. His second book is a history of naming in early America. His other research interests include constitutional law and interpretation, human rights, secularization, immigration, republicanism, liberalism, medieval political thought, Catholic Enlightenment, the papacy, and Vatican II.

Professor Breidenbach has held research positions at Princeton University, St. John’s College, Oxford, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford, Wolfson College, Cambridge, Villanova University, McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Collegium Institute. He has presented his research at Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, Penn, Penn Law, London, Trinity College Dublin, Notre Dame, George Washington, Villanova, Villanova Law, and Arizona State. He has also written for The Atlantic, Washington Post, First Things, Philanthropy, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has taught at Cambridge, Princeton, Ave Maria, and Villanova.

He obtained his Ph.D. in History from King’s College, Cambridge, where he was a Cambridge Overseas Trust Scholar. He was a visiting graduate student in History at the Sorbonne in Paris and earned a master’s degree with distinction in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Cambridge. He graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and with departmental honors from Northwestern University with a B.A. in History and American Studies.

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