George Washington Expresses Surprise

In the fall of 1775, Gen. George Washington was commanding the Continental Army as it besieged the British military in Boston, and also planning an invasion of Canada. He hoped that Catholic French Canadians would join the American forces in throwing out their British governors. When he learned of how the New Englanders who made up most of his troops planned to observe the 5th of November, Washington issued these orders:

“As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America:

“At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”
That invasion turned out to be a failure. Bostonians went back to celebrating Pope Night in 1776. Even though the 5th of November celebrated the preservation of king and Parliament, two British institutions that Massachusetts had broken away from that July, the appeal of the holiday was too strong to ignore.

However, the next year brought news that France, a Catholic country, would send troops and ships to support the new U.S. of A. Once again, having a raucous anti-Catholic procession became politically awkward, and town leaders insisted that the young men forgo their festivity.

That was not quite the end of Pope Night in America, however. Some of its rituals survived in new forms.

Quotation source: General orders for 5 Nov 1775, George Washington Papers, American Memory Project of the Library of Congress.

Image source: Washington portrait from the collections of The Bostonian Society/Old State Museum.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.