Religion & Liberty Online

Dagger John in the History of Liberty

Today at Ethika Politika, I take issue with Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a term inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.

The basic idea is that, due to the Enlightenment, we have lost the social conditions — in particular a shared moral and religious narrative — that make virtuous living an intelligible and shared social standard. Thus, MacIntyre claimed, “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” He concludes, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Dreher has done much to popularize this “Benedict Option,” which he defines as “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us.”

There is at least one major problem with this, however. I respond,

Yet as Owen Chadwick noted, it was not until the early ninth century, and that due to strong papal support, that the Rule of St. Benedict became the standard rule in the Frankish Empire. Until that time, the dominant rules were often Celtic, especially the Rule of St. Columbanus, as well as a strong influence from St. John Cassian, St. Basil the Great, and the fathers of the Egyptian desert.

And the Celts, importantly, were not retreating from the world but rather from Ireland in feats of what they termed “green martyrdom,” missionary exile as ascetic discipline. If Thomas Cahill is even half-right, the Irish played just as much a part in saving civilization as the Benedictines, if not far more so. Far from a retreat, their approach was quite confrontational (as was St. Benedict’s, as Goerke points out).


Thankfully, we need not wait for a “new and very different” Irish people as the Irish are still with us. Indeed, the equal respect accorded to Roman Catholics in the United States today is the result (in large part, at least) of a hard-won, confrontational battle of Irish immigrants to carve out an equal place in American society for their children and their cultural and religious heritage (see, e.g. Dagger John). Perhaps traditional Christians looking to preserve a moral culture today have more to learn from them.

It might have been better had I written “see, especially, Dagger John,” since his story is one of remarkable social action and spiritual reform, defending the cause of religious liberty and equal rights for Irish Roman Catholic immigrants in the 19th century and emphasizing the vital role of personal responsibility.

“Dagger John” is the nickname of John Joseph Hughes, given to him for his vigilance against anyone who would cross him, as well as the way he as a bishop signed his name, the first Roman Catholic archbishop of New York. In a wonderful article in the Spring 1997 issue of City Journal, William J. Stern outlines the stark conditions facing Irish immigrants in the United States during Hughes’ time:

Between 1820 and 1830, immigration had swelled the U.S. Catholic population 60 percent to 600,000, with no end in sight. The new immigrants were mostly Irish — impoverished, ignorant, unskilled country folk, with nothing in their experience to prepare them for success in the urban environs to which they were flocking. Hughes believed that the relentless barrage of anti-Catholic prejudice that greeted them in their new land was demoralizing the already disadvantaged immigrants and holding back their progress.


Hughes was outraged. He didn’t want Catholics to be second-class citizens in America as they had been in Ireland, and he thought he had a duty not to repeat the mistakes of the clergy in Ireland, who in his view had been remiss in not speaking out more forcefully against English oppression. Resistance was imperative. He began a letter-writing campaign to the newspapers, decrying what he saw as a tendency toward chauvinistic nationalism in his new country. In 1829, for instance, outraged by an editorial in a Protestant religious newspaper about “traitorous popery,” he fired off a missive to its editorial board of Protestant ministers, calling them “the clerical scum of the Country.” During the 1834 cholera epidemic in Philadelphia, which nativists blamed on Irish immigrants, Hughes worked tirelessly among the sick and dying, while many Protestant ministers fled the city to escape infection. After the disease subsided, Hughes wrote the U.S. Gazette that Protestant ministers were “remarkable for their pastoral solicitude, so long as the flock is healthy, the pastures pleasant, and the fleece lubricant, abandoning their post when disease begins to spread dissolution in the fold.” He pointed to the work of the Catholic Sisters of Charity, who had cared for cholera victims without regard for their own safety, and wondered where all the people who spoke about perversion in the convents had gone during the epidemic.

The next year he became a national celebrity when a prominent and well-born Protestant clergyman from New York named John Breckenridge challenged him to a debate. The American aristocrat and the articulate, combative priest, who had developed a large following among Philadelphia’s Irish immigrants, did not disappoint their fans. Breckenridge luridly conjured up the Catholic Church’s Inquisition in Spain, tyranny in Italy, and repression of liberty in France. Americans, he said, wanted no popery, no loss of individual liberty. Hughes countered by describing Protestant tyranny over Catholic Ireland. He related what had happened at his sister’s grave [where the priest was not allowed into the graveyard and could only bless a handful of dirt and hand it to Hughes to sprinkle on top of her resting place]. “I am an American by choice, not by chance,” he said. “I was born under the scourge of Protestant persecution, of which my fathers in common with our Catholic countrymen have been the victim for ages. I know the value of that civil and religious liberty, which our happy government secures for all.” Regardless of what had happened in Europe, he said, he was committed to American tolerance.

The Irish at that time were scourged by every social ill imaginable, religious persecution, racism, crushing poverty, illiteracy, crime, disease, broken homes — the streets of New York were haunted by armies of Irish gangs, Irish prostitutes, and orphaned and homeless Irish children.

Due to the tireless work of Dagger John (there was no day off for this John Hughes), however, all that changed in a generation. Stern writes,

Though just 30 or 40 years before, New Yorkers had viewed the Irish as their criminal class, by the 1880s and 1890s the Irish proportion of arrests for violent crime had dropped from 60 percent to less than 10 percent. The Irish were the pillars of the criminal justice system. Three-quarters of the police force was Irish. The Irish were the prosecutors, the judges, and the jailers.

Alcoholism and drug addiction withered away. By the 1880s an estimated 60 percent of Irish women, and almost a third of the men, totally abstained from alcohol. Many Irish sections in the city became known for their peacefulness, order, and cleanliness — a far cry from the filth, violence, and disease of the Five Points and Sweeney’s Shambles of mid-century. Gone, too, was the notorious Irish promiscuity of those years; New York’s Irish became known by the latter part of the nineteenth century as a churched people, often chided by the press for their “puritanical” attitudes. Irish prostitutes virtually disappeared in the city, as did the army of Irish youths wandering the streets without adult supervision. Irish family life, formerly so frayed and chaotic, became strong and nourishing. Irish children entered the priesthood or the convent, the professions, politics, professional sports, show business, and commerce. In 1890 some 30 percent of New York City’s teachers were Irish women, and the Irish literacy rate exceeded 90 percent. In 1871 reformer “Honest” John Kelly became the leader of Tam-many Hall, and with the election in 1880 of shipping magnate William Grace as mayor, the Irish assumed control of city politics.

The impact of his work cannot be underestimated, as Stern concludes,

How important a figure was John Hughes in American history? Suppose the mass immigration from Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century had turned into a disaster for the country. How likely is it that the open immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have been permitted? Nativism would have won, and America would be an unrecognizably different country today — and an immeasurably poorer one.

To me, rather than a nebulous Benedict Option with dubious connection to historical fact, the Irish experience in America, exemplified by the life and work of Hughes, offers a far better paradigm for cultural engagement for traditional Christians. Call it the “Columbanus Option,” perhaps, or the “Dagger John Option,” if you’re feeling especially vigilant.

In any case, Dagger John’s successful efforts to appropriate the American promises of liberty to Irish immigrants in the 19th century earn him a well deserved place in the history of liberty, so far as I’m concerned.

It’s a long read, but I encourage anyone looking for a great introduction to Dagger John to read Stern’s article here.

And my own essay at Ethika Politika today can be found here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.