Our Dear-Bought Liberty
An Alpheus T. Mason Lecture on Constitutional Law and Political Thought: The Quest for Freedom
Michael D. Breidenbach, Associate Professor of History at Ave Maria University
Our Dear-Bought Liberty is the history of 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? Michael Breidenbach shows how 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.
Michael D. Breidenbach is Associate Professor and Chair of History at Ave Maria University and Senior Affiliate for Legal Humanities at the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (Harvard University Press, 2021), and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press, 2020). He has also written for The Atlantic, Washington Post, and First Things. He has held research positions at Oxford, Cambridge, Villanova, and Penn. At Princeton, he was a Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Madison Program and a Lecturer in History. He received his Ph.D. at King’s College, Cambridge.