A British Tradition Comes to the New World

In the mid-1700s, many British colonists in North America celebrated the 5th of November. Festivities were recorded at least as far north as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and at least as far south as Savannah, Georgia. But it became especially popular in New England’s seaports.

The royal government mandated a 5th of November holiday in the late 1600s, but it took a while for the tradition to catch on in New England. Those colonies had been founded by Puritans, who were not only virulently anti-Catholic but distrusted the Church of England and the Stuart kings as well.

From 1689 through 1763, Britain’s colonies were involved in several intermittent wars with Catholic New France to the north. Each set of colonies raided the other, and encouraged Native American allies to do the same. These nearly constant conflicts increased New Englanders’ fear and resentment of Catholics.

In that atmosphere, the young men and boys in New England’s seaports took to celebrating the 5th of November with particular energy in the mid-1700s. Their celebration did not focus on Guy Fawkes and his comrades’ attack on the first Stuart king. Rather, they targeted people they thought were threats to the current, Protestant king. The effigies New Englanders burned were:

  • The Pretender, the Stuart family claimant to the British throne
  • The Pope, who supported the Stuarts
  • The Devil, who supposedly advised the Pope
  • Political enemies of the day
In fact, when Boston’s apprentice printers created a broadside about Pope Night in the early 1760s, they mentioned “the Attempt, made by the Papishes, to blow up KING and PARLIAMENT, A.D. 1588.” That was actually the year of the Spanish Armada; the Gunpowder Plot had occurred in 1605, but these youths did not remember that. They lumped all supposed Catholic threats together in one big pile.

There were undoubtedly some Catholics in Boston before the American Revolution, particularly Irish sailors, soldiers, and immigrants. However, they had no Catholic church or priest to go to, and most locals were suspicious of their faith. They had limited rights in the empire already. There is no record of a complaint, public or private, from Catholics about how Bostonians celebrated the 5th of November.

Quotation source: Broadside headlined “Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night,” An American Time Capsule, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress.

Image sources: Ship from Minuteman Printshop clip art collection, Walden Font Company. Headline from “Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night,” An American Time Capsule, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress.

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