Papal Parody: A Humorous Take on Pius IX’s Peace Letter to Jefferson Davis

Pope Pius IX, ca. 1865 (courtesy Wikicommons).

It cannot be denied that many 19th century Americans looked unfavorably on the growth of Catholicism in their country. Large-scale Catholic immigration, especially to the North and Midwest, stoked fears of future papist meddling in America’s democracy and society. When Pope Pius IX wrote a friendly letter in December 1863 to Confederate President Jefferson Davis hoping for the speedy end of the Civil War many northerners balked at this unlooked for papal interference.

Upon reading the letter in English translation, and finding not a single reference to sacred goal of saving the Union or even the moral crusade against southern slavery, northerners such as Horace Greeley accused the pope of essentially recognizing the Confederate government. Both during and after the conflict, Catholics northerners were forced to deny that the Pope recognized or even sympathized with the Confederacy, arguing that the pope was being polite while seeking to stop the unending slaughter of the Civil War.

While both Jefferson Davis’s original letter to Pius as well as the pope’s response are available in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, at least one other version, a parody meant to expose the papal missive’s true meaning, circulated in the United States as well. Published on February 24, 1864 in a Massachusetts Republican paper, The Boston Daily Advertiser, this version of the letter was translated from an Italian paper published in Florence, The Gazetta del Popolo. While the Bostonian editors noted that “the version varies somewhat, (in form perhaps more than in spirit) from the received text of the communications between the noted correspondents,” they published it as follows:

“Beloved Brother—Your letter has given me much satisfaction. Who would have thought that I should at last have found my peer at the antipodes. This is indeed the visible hand of Divine Providence. Is it not evident to you, that no two people in this world, are so much alike as ourselves? You, my brother, desire the slavery of the blacks, and I the slavery of the whites; you have armed one half of the nation against the other, and though I cannot do so much, after the serious reverses of Castelfidardo, I find some comfort in arming brigands, and letting them loose against this cursed kingdom of Italy. Oh! if it were only possible, how much I would give to see the scimitars of the Turks drawn against the dogs of this country, who would like to devour my very bones! Yes! faith is extinguished, selfishness and indifference reign in Europe, and to crown my misfortunes, my Mars is blind of one eye.* Would you believe it possible? I have gone from Court to Court, I have asked the charity of only a little lead and steel, from catholic, apostolic, and most Christian Majesties, and I have obtained nothing but fair speeches. Now that you have sought me out, I feel isolated no longer; Diogenes may extinguish his lantern, for the man so long sought for is found. From this time we shall be two souls in one nutshell; you are fighting for the holy cause of treachery, of blows, and all the other means invented to keep under the cursed race of the sons of Ham; I, as long as I have the means, shall fight for the subjection of the whites—the child Mortara shall not be the last of them—for the Austrian sticks, and for certain other means, which have, in times past, given both souls and bodies of millions of Christians, bound into my hands. Receive an embrace across the Atlantic, for I have, as you know long arms. You are my friend as I am yours, and we shall see if we cannot between us set this distracted world to rights. Then will the names of Pius and Davis be stamped on stone as hard as our hearts, and we will divide the empire of the world between us, taking the equator for boundary line.

May Providence have you in its holy keeping.

PIO IX.

*Cardinal de Merode, the pope’s minister of war, lost an eye, in a duel fought on account of a married woman, before he became a priest.”

705px-President-Jefferson-Davis
Confederate President Jefferson Davis (courtesy Wikicommons).

This parody of Pius IX’s letter isn’t simply a good joke, but it’s also significant for understanding 19th century anti-Catholicism for several reasons. First, although the pro-Republican Boston Daily Advertiser was not usually as critical of Catholics as were the more radical Liberator or New York Daily Tribune, the fact that the paper’s editor argued it represented the “spirit” of Pius’s letter suggests that many Republicans interpreted Pius’s naïve attempts at playing peacemaker in the Civil War as really motivated by a desire to see the Union rent asunder. Second, while this parody was published originally for a liberal nationalist Italian audience, its linking of the physical slavery of chattel bondage with the alleged spiritual slavery of Catholicism echoed the concerns of anti-Catholic abolitionist northerners. Finally, by printing this parody the paper’s editors reflected the sympathy that many Republicans had for the cause of a United Italy. After 1865, both Italian and American liberal nationalists (not to mention those in Germany, France, and elsewhere) would see the pope, the Jesuits, and the international nature of the Catholic Church as a threat to their attempts to construct united, patriotic, and modern nation-states. Faced with such anti-clerical hostility, it is more understandable to us today why Pius and many leaders of the American Catholic Church held such a dim view of modernity, radicalism, and republican nationalism.