January 3, 1864: Death of Dagger John

Archbishop John Hughes



“Bury me in the sunshine”, were the last words of the Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, as he departed this Vale of Tears on January 3, 1864.  Universally known to friend and foe as Dagger John, Hughes was looked upon by his contemporaries as a force of nature rather than a man.  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”!

At the beginning of the Civil War he had thrown himself wholeheartedly behind the preservation of the Union, rallying New York’s Irish to support the cause and going to Europe at the instigation of the Lincoln administration to garner support for the Union.  Small wonder that after his death Lincoln wrote,

“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.”

His finest moment probably was when, visibly dying, he rose from his death bed to make a speech on July 16, 1863 which helped quell the draft riots.  The speech is extremely interesting.  It contains a fair amount of humor, Hughes recognizing that the Irish always loved a message if it was leavened with laughter, and the Archbishop’s message was an appeal to the New York Irish based upon their love of Ireland and their innate sense of fairness.  It is a marvel to me that a dying man could do this, but Dagger John accomplished it.  Here is the text of the speech:


MEN OF NEW YORK:  They call you rioters and I cannot see a riotous face among you.  (Cheers)  I call you men of New York, not gentlemen, because gentlemen is so threadbare a term that it means nothing positive. (Applause.)  Give me men, and I know of my own knowledge, that if the City were invaded by a British or any other foreign Power, (laughter.) the delicate ladies of New York, with infants at their breasts, would look for their protection to men, rather than to gentlemen. (Applause.)  Of course, there is no reason why you should not be gentlemen, for there is no real difference between these terms.  (Applause.)  I address you of my own choice; and I would do so if I had to go on crutches.  No one has prompted me to do it.  My lungs are stronger than my limbs.  It gratifies me that you have met in peace and good order here at this time.  This, however, does not surprise me—it is what I expected.  I do not address you as the President. (laughter,)  or the Governor, or the Mayor, or a military officer.  I address you as your father.  (Cheers.)  VOICE—You are worth the whole of them.  And I am not going to go into the question, what has brought about this unhappy state of things.  It is not my business to do so but as far as I am concerned myself, you know that I am a minister of God, and a minister of peace, who in your troubles in years past, as you know, never deserted you.  (Cheers, and cries of “No, never.”)  With my tongue and my pen I have stood by you always, and so shall to the end of my life, so long as you are right, and I sincerely hope that you are not wrong.  (Cheers.)  I am not a runaway Bishop in times of danger.  (A Voice—”No, you’re not like BEECHER.”)  It has been perhaps a calamity, but I do not regret it. That I never was conscious of the sentiment of fear until the danger was over, and then sometimes I might perhaps get a little nervous.  (Cheers.)  I could not even in the best of cases, as you know, fight for you. 

The course of nature has denied me that privilege but I can still stand by you, I can still advise you, and, if necessary, I can die with you.  (Great cheering.)  As I said before, I will not enter into the question which has provoked all this excitement.  No doubt there are some real grievances, but still I think that there are many imaginary ones—because in this world everything is comparative in its nature.  There are no people in the world that have not some cause of grievance, and there are few that have not greater cause for complaint than we can complain of, after all.  (Cheers.) Everything is comparative, and a change is not always an improvement.

When I cast my thoughts back to the land of my forefathers, and when I think of it’s desolation, when I see the fertile west and south of Ireland depopulated and cattle browsing on the ruins of the cottages of the noble race that once lived there, I thank God that I was permitted to be among those who had an opportunity of coming to this country, where at least no such wretched tyranny is practiced (great cheering.)  If you are Irishmen, and the papers say the rioters are all Irishmen, then I also am an Irishman, (tremendous applause) but not a rioter, for I am a man of peace.  If you are Catholics, as they have said, probably to wound my feelings, then I also am a Catholic (cheers.) (more…)

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