Honest Abe and Dagger John


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!

14 Responses to Honest Abe and Dagger John

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    Strong bishops, that is what we lack in many parts of the country today. He certainly was needed during his time as well as today.

  2. Gerard E. says:

    Don- thank you thank you 997 times thank you for this tribute to My Number One Americano Catlick Hero. Yes more than Blessed Fulton or our dear Bishops Chaput and Martino. Dagger John was a bad cat, in the complimentary sense. You did not mess with him. Not to mention the prelate who persuaded the New York immigrant Irish, still living with pigs in their streets, to turn over their hard-earned pennies and nickels to build a fitting house unto the Lord. The fruits of his efforts still dominate the landscape around 50th St. and 5th Avenue. St. Patrick’s Cathedral shines to this day- long after its principal sponsor has gone to his rest. A few more Dagger Johns and abortion on demand would scatter like sand in a windstorm. Dear heroic Archbishop- maybe a little too hard-edged for an Official Halo but we still dig him- intercede for us.

  3. I have always appreciated “Dagger John” also Gerard. He had his flaws: nepotism, a blindess towards the evil of slavery, etc, but take him all in all, he was a very good man who fought with everything he had for the Church, his flock and America. May God send us many such bishops in our hour of need.

  4. […] via Honest Abe and Dagger John « The American Catholic. […]

  5. Ian Ransom says:

    Yes, Hughes was a powerhouse. His influence is still felt in Catholic NYC, make no mistake. People forget that the bishops had real moxie in those days, protecting their flocks. Men of valor and aggressive faith. Feisty, fighting men! Equally exciting was the vigor of Catholic bishops in the Southeastern US, around the same time. Those men had it rough, but they were in the trenches with their persecuted flocks, and it was said that southern Catholics had nothing to fear “so long as they were within one hundred miles of a bishop’s altar.”

    (sigh). The episcopate is decidedly due for a comeback.

  6. Tom says:

    Not sure I’d want a bishop who thought it was OK to do the bidding of a sitting president by going over to Europe to convince Napoleon not to take sides in the War Between the States; or one who would actually try to persuade poor Irish young men to come fight for the Union Army (where they were often used as cannon fodder by their WASP officers); nor would I want a bishop who, Wolsey-like, sought to dissuade the Holy See itself from being more sympathic to the Confederate cause than Rome already clearly was.

    Fortunately, we’ve come to realize that bishops should not allow themselves to be used as tools of politicians for purely secular political ends.

  7. Ian Ransom says:

    All good and valid points, Tom. I wouldn’t say that men like Dagger John were necessarily steeped in heroic virtue…and I daresay that modern bishops have all sorts of new & exciting ways of letting themselves be manipulated and maneuvered by contemporary powers, just as they themselves manipulate and maneuver. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, after all.

    I think Mr. McClarey was making the point that these “Dagger John” kinds of American bishops knew how to take care of “their own” in some powerful and unambiguous ways–ways that could be viewed as very admirable in their intensity; ways that some of us would like to see applied today.

    Though, without the more unsavory flaws-o-the-day, of course.

  8. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “or one who would actually try to persuade poor Irish young men to come fight for the Union Army (where they were often used as cannon fodder by their WASP officers); ”

    Oh give it a rest Tom. Have you ever heard of the Irish brigade? Yeah, there were a lost of WASP officers in that outfit! Not to mention the fact that WASPS were also dying in huge numbers to preserve the Union and that the most dangerous job in the war was to be a junior officer in an infantry or cavalry regiment.

    We get it Tom. You wish the Confederacy had won the war. “Dagger John” and “Honest Abe” and a whole lot of other Union men made that impossible. I do not take exception to your right to hold that belief. The country was divided during the Civil War and it still is in historical memory. However, I do not think it is fair to attack Hughes simply because he supported the side that you wish had lost in the Civil War, no more than I would think it fair to attack Southern Catholic ecclesiastics, some of whom will be featured by me in future posts, simply because they supported the Confederacy. Comparing Hughes to Wolsey is simply a pejorative since Lincoln was no Henry VIII attacking the Church or seeking a reversal of some past papal action, and the iron-spirited Hughes was no slavish servant of secular power, but rather a man who supported the Union cause because he thought it right.

  9. Elaine says:

    Hi, I just discovered this blog and it looks interesting. I live in Springfield, Illinois, just a few blocks from Lincoln’s home and I am a geek for all things historic, political and Catholic so this blog is right up my alley!

    The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception here in Springfield (built in the 1920s and currently under renovation) has a stained-glass window that shows Lincoln sending Hughes off to France to talk Napoleon III out of recognizing the Confederacy. You can see it at this link:

    Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Springfield, Illinois, USA - window 2.jpg

    It’s one of several windows depicting great moments in American Catholic history. They are staying in place during the renovation and are being restored to look better than ever.

    It might seem odd to some that a Catholic church would depict a non-Catholic figure of American secular history but I suppose the point is that God accomplishes His purposes through the workings of both Church and State, just as was the case in the time of Christ and long before that.

  10. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you for the interesting information about the Cathedral Elaine! My family and I live in Dwight, Illinois. Each year in July we go down to Springfield to see the Lincoln Museum, and what a superb place that is, and to say prayers at the Lincoln tomb for the repose of the souls of Mr. Lincoln and his family. The next time we are down we will stop in at the Cathedral, assuming the renovation is comlete, and look at the windows. The type of windows you describe reminds me of a stained glass window showing a WWI American doughboy kneeling at the foot of the cross which is at the Saint John’s chapel at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

  11. Elaine says:

    Thanks for the quick reply Donald! Be forewarned that the Cathedral renovation is likely to take the rest of this year, so you may have to wait until next year to see this.

    There is another window on that side of the Cathedral that shows soldiers massed in front of the Illinois Capitol, being blessed by a chaplain before they march off to World War I (it would still have been referred to as “The Great War” at the time the window was made).

    I have also visited St. John’s Chapel in Champaign and THAT is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. It was built in 1926, two years before the Springfield Cathedral.

  12. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thanks for the tip as to the renovation Elaine. One of the high points for me during my seven years at the U of I was worshiping at Saint John’s. I especially loved the regular midnight mass on Saturdays which was usually packed.

  13. […] To remedy that, Polk had a quiet private meeting with Archbishop John Hughes of New York.  While Dagger John suspected Polk’s political motivations, he agreed to recommend two priests to serve as […]

  14. […] To remedy that, Polk had a quiet private meeting with Archbishop John Hughes of New York.  While Dagger John suspected Polk’s political motivations, he agreed to recommend two priests to serve as […]

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