Peter Attwood, Revolutoary ideals and liberty

Father Peter Attwood and the American ideal

Back in high school you learned that the American colonists developed an independence of action given their distance from the mother country so that in fact they had developed a different way of acting and thinking long before declaring an end to their union with England.  When it came time to separate, the immediate cause was that the colonists realized that the English theory and practice of representative government was alien to our own experience and expectations.  The founding Fathers hardly had the sense of equality before the law we have today but they were sure they should not be taxed, except by their own representative whom they had elected.  This view of representation was very different from the English view and understood, only when complaints about the lack of representation went fell on deaf ears.

Fr. Peter Attwood served the Maryland Mission including St. Thomas Manor until his death in 1734.  Sometime probably between 1720 and 1730 when Catholics faced civil penalties, Fr. Attwood wrote a legal, political and philosophical defense of Catholic rights that anticipated some of the arguments from the Revolution. Americans came to believe that they had always been allowed to make laws for themselves except the most essential national laws, so that having Parliament legislate for us in the 1760s and 1770s seemed a dangerous innovation.

Fr. Attwood had argued:

I shall only observe that we can rationally desire no more than to bring with us the Laws of Privilege, the others being rather a burden on and hindrance to a new colony…and to have a power of making laws, for ourselves and consequently of re-reacting here such laws as either have been …or shall be made from time to time in England, which we shall judge agreeable to our constitution and for our advantage; whilst other that may be repugnant to or inconsistent therewith, are void and of no force.  Nor can we wonder if many such laws should pass in England, since the Parliament is neither knowing of nor interested in our affairs…

The argument that Parliament had no right to legislate for the colonies in local affairs gained traction in the many of the colonies after 1763. Prompted by the claim that English Penal laws which punished Catholic religious practice, applied in Maryland led Fr. Attwood to a similar agreement 30 to 40 years earlier.  He did not win the argument in his own time, but he understood more deeply than many of our neighbors, that Catholicism and liberty were not contradictory, but in fact complementary.


Fr. Attwood also argued that Maryland’s Act of Toleration was part of the fundamental unchangeable constitution of Maryland. Settlers had come to Maryland for such freedom and had a right to its continuance.  He also argued that such freedom had been good for the colony, and to remove it would be a betrayal of citizens’ rights and do nothing but cause division and economic decline.

First he noted that it was passed early in the colony showing it was central to their purpose. “That liberty of conscience was what out first adventurers had most at heart, will clearly appear to anyone that considers how strenuously they maintained the same, in the first Assembly of this Province by the above said law of Religion, which by its Preamble, appears to be the first Authentic Act of this infant Colony; when we have a convincing demonstration that, as they had transported themselves and their families upon the promise and expectation of this Liberty so were they firmly resolved to use their utmost endeavors to fix and perpetuate the same forever…by enacting a fundamental and stable law to confirm and secure this Liberty unto all Christians…”


He also offered six practical reason:

First; That the service of God and union, peace and concord among one another were what our Ancestors did so highly value and endeavor to settle, so are they what their descendant should have most at heart…

Secondly this was their first act and design(ed) to be their last, yet it was to be perpetual…

Thirdly To this it is to be attributed to be, that our province became so well peopled and flourishing so soon…

Fourthly: It would be not only a hardship, but an injustice to deprive those of the benefit of this law to enjoy which was the only motive that induced their forefathers to leave their native soil and settle here.

Fifthly; This Law as it was made to be perpetual, is an inherent birthright of each Marylandian.

Lastly; as this Law and the enjoyment thereof has people our Province and made the most happy and most flourishing of all the British Colonies, so the cessation or annulling thereof would be, not only injurious to our late Posterity, but would render us a divided and unhappy people and tend much to depopulate His Majesty’s so profitable colony.

A printed version appears in The United States Catholic Historical Magazine Attwood Liberty and Property pdf, New York,  1890

A manuscript copy of Liberty and Property attributed to Fr. Peter Attwood, resides in the Maryland Province Archives at Georgetown University.  ( Box 3 folder 10)