Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864) of New York, was a titan within the Catholic Church in America in the nineteenth century. Overseeing with skill the explosive growth of the Church in New York, and helping lead generations of Catholic immigrants out of poverty, he also found time to take part in the public affairs of his day, and was probably the best known Catholic churchman of his time. He was also a very tough and fearless man. After the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844 he called on the mayor of New York, an anti-Catholic bigot, and informed him that if a single Catholic church were touched in New York, New York would be a second Moscow. (The reference was to the burning of Moscow in 1812 during Napoleon’s occupation of the city.) Not a Catholic church was touched. On another occasion when a threat was made to burn Saint Patrick’s cathedral the Archbishop had it guarded within hours by 4,000 armed Catholics. No wonder his enemies and friends nicknamed him “Dagger John”!
Although not an abolitionist, the Archbishop was a patriot to his marrow and very much a Union man. When approached by Lincoln to serve as a semi-official envoy for the Union in 1861 and 1862, he accepted on the sole condition that his friend Thurlow Weed, a Republican political operative from New York, accompany him. The administration realized that Hughes was well known in Europe and had many contacts throughout the continent.
In Europe Hughes arranged personal meetings with Emperor Napoleon and Empress Eugenie. He stressed to Eugenie, a Spanish princess by birth, that an independent Confederacy would probably seize Cuba from Spain. Although the Emperor remained noncomittal, the Archbishop left the imperial court friendlier to the Union than upon his arrival.
On to Rome. Archbishop Hughes was a favorite of Pio Nono and he met with a warm reception. Speaking to high ecclesiastics, and pilgrims, from every Catholic nation in Europe, Hughes was a tireless advocate for the Union cause. In Ireland, Hughes laid the cornerstone for a new Catholic university in Dublin, partially paid for with funds raised in America, and made speeches on behalf of the Union to receptive crowds. For eight months the Archbishop crisscrossed Europe at a crucial stage of the war, and wherever he went he left behind him friends of the Union.
Upon his return to New York, Archbishop Hughes preached a memorable sermon on behalf of the Union war efforts on August 17, 1862.
The Archbishop’s work for the Union exposed him to attack within the Church, and Lincoln wrote to the Vatican expressing his great appreciation for the good works of Archbishop Hughes and that he “would feel particular gratification in any honor which the Pope might have it in his power to confer upon him.” No response was made by the Vatican, but the successor of Hughes did obtain a cardinal’s hat.
The Archbishop’s finest moment in regard to earthly matters perhaps was during the New York draft riots of July 1863. Crippled by rheumatism and in rapidly failing health, he rallied his strength to make a mass appeal for the ending of the riots.
“Men! I am not able, owing to the rheumatism in my limbs to visit you, but that is not a reason why you should not pay me a visit in your whole strength. Come, then, tomorrow, Friday at 2 o’clock to my residence, northwest corner of Madison Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street. There is abundant space for the meeting, around my house. I can address you from the corner balcony. If I should not be able to stand during its delivery, you will permit me to address you sitting; my voice is much stronger than my limbs. I take upon myself the responsibility of assuring you, that in paying me this visit or in retiring from it, you shall not be disturbed by any exhibition of municipal or military presence. You who are Catholics, or as many of you as are, having a right to visit your bishop without molestation.” After his address to 5,000 people, the last public appearance of his life, the riots were quelled, no doubt mainly due to military force, but also because the Archbishop convinced the rioters that their behavior was un-Catholic and self-destructive. No small achievement for a dying man.
The Archbishop died on January 3, 1864. President Lincoln, on January 13, 1864, paid tribute to Hughes in a letter to William Starr, administrator of the Diocese of New York:
“having formed the Archbishop’s acquaintance in the earliest days of our country’s present troubles, his counsel and advice were gladly sought and continually received by the Government on those points which his position enabled him better than others to consider. At a conjuncture of deep interest to the country, the Archbishop, associated with others, went abroad, and did the nation a service there with all the loyalty, fidelity and practical wisdom which on so many other occasions illustrated his great ability for administration.”
A salute to the memory of “Dagger John”, a true American and a true Catholic!