Between Two Extremes: The Boston Pilot on Slavery and the Civil War

Patrick A. Donahoe, owner and editor of The Pilot of Boston, Massachusetts (Image from Daniel P. Toomey, Massachusetts of Today: A Memorial of the State (Boston: Columbia Publishing Company, 1892), 242.)

Informally known as “the Irishman’s Bible,” The Boston Pilot was the leading Catholic journal in the United States during the 19th century. Although not the official organ of the Diocese of Boston during much of this period, the paper was read widely across Catholic and Irish communities throughout the U.S. Eventually it reached a circulation of over 100,000 in the early 1870s. Under the direction of its owner and editor, Patrick A. Donahoe (1811-1901), the Pilot was an indefatigable champion of Irish and Catholic interests at home and in Europe.[1]

Just prior to and during the American Civil War, Donahoe tried to steer the Pilot between pro-slavery or anti-war extremists on the one hand while condemning abolitionist fanatics on the other. It was a difficult balancing act that never completely satisfied either side, but the paper’s views did represent the conservative majority of Catholics who wanted to save the Union without fighting a war to end slavery.[2]

During the late antebellum period, Donahoe tried to position himself as a moderate on slavery by criticizing both the institution and its abolitionist critics.  “The Catholic church sets her face against slavery… and abolished it in all countries where her voice was respected,” Donahoe claimed, “but she anathematizes the Protestant and freesoil principle that the end justifies the means.” In 1855, Donahoe blasted Ralph Waldo Emerson and other abolitionists for prescribing “false remedies” for the problem. “Slavery is an evil,” he declared, “but the remedy for it does not fall within their premises.” In short, Donahoe argued that northern abolitionists should mind their own business and stop threatening the continued union of the North and South with their unwelcome attacks on slavery.[3]

Donahoe and many other Catholics also hated abolitionism because they believed that abolitionists were sympathetic to the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist political movement that criticized both immigrants and Catholicism. More than once the Pilot argued that “large numbers of anti-slavery and free soil men were joining the order of Know Nothings.” Donahoe campaigned vigorously on behalf of the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois during the 1860 presidential campaign. He reminded his readers that to vote for the Republican Party and its former Know-Nothing members was to endorse the two years’ amendment, a recently passed law that made naturalized immigrants wait an additional two years before being eligible to vote. “A naturalized citizen who would vote for a party who proscribes his race,” he continued, “does not deserve the rights of citizenship.” Rather Catholics and immigrants should remain loyal to the Democrats, their true political friends.[4]

Donahoe’s choice for president in 1860, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (U.S. National Archives).

The secession crisis following the Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 only confirmed for Donahoe that abolitionists were to blame for social unrest, sectionalism, and now the breaking up of the old Union. After Lincoln’s election, Donahoe had gloomily predicted that “northern aggression on the principle interest of the South” would lead to secession. Once the war broke out, however, he and his paper championed the war to restore the Union, condemned the Confederates as traitors, all the while taking particular pride in examples of Catholic patriotism at home or on the battlefield. “Catholicity is the best incentive to valor,” Donahoe argued, boasting that it was “now universally acknowledged that the terrific heroism of the 69th at Manassas had Catholicity shining brilliantly before it.” Irish Catholic citizens had remained “true, to a man, to the Constitution,” in sharp contrast to the abolitionists who were “the real sources of all our troubles.” Donahoe sincerely hoped that the many examples of his community’s patriotism during the war would once and for all defeat widely-held prejudices against immigrants and Catholics.[5]

Although the Catholic press generally tried to avoid arguments over slavery before and during the war, there were several occasions when anti-slavery and anti-abolition Catholics butted heads. One such case occurred in the first half of 1863 subsequent to President Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation. The anti-slavery Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the anti-abolitionist New York Freeman’s Journal engaged in a heated public debate over whether the Catholic Church condemned slavery and if Catholics should support emancipating the slaves during the Civil War.[6]

Ever mindful of his role as the leading Catholic journalist and as a moderate conservative, Donahoe reproved both sides. He hoped that “for the sake of decency and patriotism let them desist!” While calling “abolitionism far more than half the cause” of the rebellion, he pleaded with the editor of the Freeman’s Journal to be “aware that the second cause of the rebellion is that same pro-slaveryism which he himself advocates every week.” Later he criticized the Telegraph’s editor as a “confirmed negrophilist” who cared little for white laborers whose livelihoods would be imperiled if freed slaves moved North. “Slavery is an evil,” Donahoe admitted, “but the Greeleyizing of our priests would be a greater evil.”[7] Donahoe’s stubborn refusal to support emancipation deeply angered abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, whose Liberator, also published in Boston, often denounced its adversary as a “vile and rabidly pro-slavery sheet.”[8]

New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley, frequent opponent of both slavery and Catholicism (Library of Congress).

Donahoe continued to support the Union as it was (that is without emancipation) and the Democratic Party throughout the war. Only after receiving the good news of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, an event which effectively ended the war, did he acquiesce in slavery’s demise. “The end of chattel slavery must be taken as an accomplished fact,” he advised his readers. “It is no use to struggle against the decrees of fate, and to attempt to galvanize the lifeless body of this ‘peculiar institution.’” Thus Donahoe, who had tirelessly opposed abolitionism like so many other northern Catholics, meekly acknowledged the reality of the end of southern slavery. Although Donahoe had hoped the Civil War would prove Irish Catholic loyalty once and for all, in fact Catholics’ refusal to support emancipation called into question their patriotism once again in the minds of Republicans and northerners such as prominent newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Donahoe’s fight for greater acceptance and toleration of his fellow immigrants and Catholics would continue long after Appomattox.[9]


[1] Sr. Mary Alphonsine Frawley, “Patrick Donahoe” (PhD Diss., Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America press, 1946), vii-x.

[2] For a fuller treatment of the Pilot’s coverage of the war beyond this blog post’s focus on slavery, please see Francis R. Walsh, “The Boston Pilot Reports the Civil War,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 9 (June 1981): 5-16.

[3] Pilot, July 22, 1854, February 3, 1855.

[4] Pilot, November 11, 1854, November 3, 1860.

[5] Pilot, December 1, 1860, July 6, September 7, 1861.

[6] Catholic Telegraph, March 25, April 8, 22, 1863; New York Freeman’s Journal, April 4, 1863.

[7] The term “Greelyizing” here refers to the radical anti-slavery editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, who frequently criticized both slavery and the Catholic Church.

[8] Pilot, July 25, August 1, 1863; Liberator, April 11, 1862, April 24, September 25, 1863.

[9] Pilot, April 15, 1865; New York Tribune, November 10, 19, December 20, 1864.