New Hampshire’s Constitution, adopted in 1784, was one of the strictest in the new United States in its restrictions on religious freedoms. It stated unequivocally that to be eligible to hold elected state office a man had to be “of the protestant religion.” Similarly, it authorized the government to raise money for the support of “protestant teachers.”
Though not part of the state’s first, interim constitution of 1776, this language was inserted into the 1784 revisions. Over time these provisions — known as the Catholic Test — developed into a thorny issue. To be fair, New Hampshire was hardly alone in banning Catholics from public office. New Jersey’s 1776 Constitution declared that only men “professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect” were eligible to hold office.
Other states were more tolerant of different beliefs. Massachusetts, for instance, required office holders to declare their allegiance to a Christian faith. But many states had some religious tests in their constitutions.
Three subsequent New Hampshire state constitutional conventions considered the issue, and each proposed removing the language referring to protestants from the constitution. But each time, 1792, 1851 and 1852, voters failed to pass changes, which required two-thirds support to win.
In the constitutional convention of 1850, Rep. Enoch Cass of Holderness led a spirited defense of the Catholic Test in a speech to the convention:
“Was it safe to elect a man governor who was sworn to the Pope of Rome and believed that all protestants were heretics and should be persecuted unto death? Was it ever known that Catholics gained the power over any people, and got the government into their own hands, that they did not persecute, even unto death, all that were opposed to them? . . . Were not nunneries and Catholic schools springing up all around us? And were they not teaching the children that we are all heretics?”
Levi Woodbury, U.S. Supreme Court justice and presidential candidate, led the push to revise the Constitution. As it stood, he said, it “offered the husk of religious freedom, but withheld the kernel.” The constitutional convention approved amending the constitution to remove the Catholic Test, but voters did not.
Franklin Pierce Controversy
The Catholic Test became an important issue in the 1852 election of Franklin Pierce to the presidency. Pierce was a weak candidate from the start. It had taken 49 ballots at the Democratic national convention to choose Pierce. He was a dark horse candidate who only appeared after the convention deadlocked, with a majority deathly opposed to James Buchanan, the most powerful of the nominees.
Almost immediately Pierce was criticized as anti-Catholic. He had been chair of the 1850 constitutional convention. His supporters produced and published a “speech” Pierce had given in support of removing the Catholic Test from the constitution. His opponents, meanwhile, scoured the record and found no such speech. The speech had been fabricated, they concluded, to con Catholic voters. However, they could also find no record of Pierce supporting the Catholic Test. He had stood silent on the issue, they charged.
As was typical of Pierce, he did his best to straddle the issue of religious freedom, seeking to avoid conflict. His stance on religious freedom did not prevent him from winning the presidency, but did create a blot on his character. After one term in office, voters replaced him with fellow Democrat Buchanan.
Catholic Test Repealed
New Hampshire was held up for ridicule for its religious test in the years following the Pierce presidency. Political leaders across the country would entreat the state to abandon the anti-Catholic relic.
Finally, a new constitutional convention came together and recommended removing the Catholic Test from the Constitution. In 1877, enough voters agreed to strip it out of the law.
Thanks to: The New Hampshire State Constitution, By Susan E. Marshall.
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