Dagger John takes on the nativists: John Hughes, defender of New York Irish Catholics

John Hughes, archbishop of New York from 1834 to 1864, was one of the most important American religious figures of the 19th century, reshaping Catholicism for a new nation and unifying worshipers in an era of great divide. And he didn’t stop there.

Hughes was also a power broker. The Irish-born faith leader took his inspiration from American politicians, wielding the church he governed over as a voting bloc, amassing influence in local and eventually federal government by sheer force of cunning. He spoke for both the church and its most embattled parishioners — the thousands of Irish Catholic refugees who escaped to New York in the 1840s.

Conservative Catholics thought him guilty of abuse and sacrilege. He was hated by nativists and anti-Catholics; many Protestants and most politicians were jealous of his power. For his unflinching stabs at power and his fierce, uncompromising personality — John Hughes did not often turn the other cheek — he earned the nickname Dagger John.

Dagger John
Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America
By John Loughery
Cornell University Press

In this superb biography by Loughery (also the author of an excellent book on painter John Sloan), Hughes takes his place among the movers and shakers of 19th century New York City. Along the way, Loughery recounts the origin stories of many of this city’s most cherished institutions — Fordham University, St. Vincent’s Hospital, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

While it was undoubtedly Hughes’ personal style that catapulted him to public prominence, Loughery vividly illustrates that the circumstances of the 1840s too played a significant role. Before Hughes, the Catholic church in America was disorganized, its scattered parishes riddled with debt. It was also led by a Frenchman (the beleaguered John Dubois) just as New York was about to be forever changed by a crisis in Ireland.

New York Public Library

Thousands of poor Irish immigrants — most of them Catholic — flooded the United States in the 1840s. Destitute and unskilled for urban occupations, the Irish refugees crammed into neighborhoods like Five Points, transforming the political and social landscape of New York almost overnight. Their arrival was greeted with hatred and violence as nativists (at the height of anti-Catholic fervor) treated them as subhuman and demonized their faith.

Hughes, a former Philadelphia priest who had been born in Ireland, was prepared for battle. He led the fight against the city’s schools who freely used the King James Bible in classes. “Public-school teachers were overwhelmingly native Protestants,” writes Loughery.  “Their view of their immigrant charges was often anything but enlightened. Their view of Irish Catholic immigrant children in particular could be especially dismissive or disdainful and widely recognized as a factor in declining attendance among school-age immigrant Catholic children.”

Below: Old St. Patrick’s on Mott Street, Hughes’ base of operations


Early in his career, Hughes made a series of shrewd alliances with politicians, most notably Thurlow Weed and the governor of New York William Seward who once said, “Why should an American hate foreigners? It is to hate such as his forefathers were. Why should a foreigner be taught to hate Americans?”

Hughes would serve as the voice of the Irish Catholic — would make that voice heard, would eventually make it American — and brandish his influence with great effectiveness. Loughery writes, “America was the land of the ballot box, and through the ballot box they would be heard.”

He hardly an upright exemplar of Christian values. (He was no fan of Protestants, and his views on race were troubling, even in his day.) And age, indecision and illness prevented him from effectively acting when he was perhaps needed the most — during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863. “For perhaps the first time in his life, John Hughes felt soundly defeated, crushed by a circumstance he could not hope to control.”

Yet his legacy, as “the ditchdigger from County Tyrone who walked with presidents and popes, who protected the city’s churches from harm and never backed down from a fight” — this legacy endures to this day. “It was an image John Hughes knew, now, he had been right to cultivate.”

At top: An anti-Catholic illustration, circa 1855, courtesy Library of Congress

For more information on the plight of New York’s Irish Catholic immigrants, check out our podcast called The Arrival of the Irish: An Immigrant Story