What an Italian Jesuit (and Georgetown’s ‘second founder’) thought about democracy and religious freedom in America
In 1818, Giovanni Grassi, S.J., published the first of three Italian-language editions of a pamphlet of his observations of the United States. Georgetown’s Second Founder presents the first English translation of his insights based on his seven years of residence in Washington. This college administrator shared with Italian readers his observations and assessments of the young republic to explain various novel concepts, such as democratic self-government and freedom of religion. Father Grassi believed the Stati Uniti provided abundant opportunities for enterprising immigrants from the Italian peninsula to achieve financial success. He included a range of statistics and commercial facts, along with piquant comments about the American character, themes that later European visitors developed at greater length.
This slim volume rescues from obscurity one immigrant’s views published almost two decades before the better-known classic by Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
Father Grassi (1775-1849) was born in Schilpario, northeast of Milan, entered the diocesan seminary at Bergamo, and at age 24 joined the slowly reviving Society of Jesus, which had been suppressed in 1773. His Jesuit superiors sent him to Paris for extensive training in mathematics and the sciences. Originally slated for assignment to China, Father Grassi was instead dispatched to be the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Maryland in 1810 through a circuitous process by the superior general. One year later, he was named president of the struggling Georgetown College.
Father Grassi’s tenure as leader of the small school on the Potomac possibly inspired the book’s publisher to concoct the odd title for this wide-ranging translation. While he included passing mention of the humble academy he guided, Father Grassi focused his observations more broadly on three major topics. He began with “News on the Present Condition of the Republic,” continued with comments on “the Various Sects that Exist in the United States” and concluded with his insights on the “Present Condition of the Catholic Religion” in the young nation. Also inserted was a two-page table of “All the Remarkable Things to be Found in the Geography of the United States in North America.” He listed, among other topics, each state’s size, products, minerals, population, major cities, universities and colleges, and the total number in its Congressional delegation.
New Englanders were the most money-conscious, Father Grassi wrote, and were “regarded as the most cunning and clever, capable of ingenious deceptions.”
Father Grassi opened his volume with “experiences that an Italian would find noteworthy.” He reviewed the nation’s climate and soil, products and commerce, population, character and customs, literature, and government. This first section abounds in facts that befit an almanac. The breadth of the nation amazed him when he compared its population density with European nations, citing census figures that revealed 3,884,605 inhabitants in 1790 and 7,239,903 in 1803. Because of immigration and a thriving economy, he predicted the nation’s population would double every 20 years throughout the 19th century. (It did not.)
Another matter that fascinated Father Grassi was the national government’s plan to distribute land broadly to “industrious settlers.” Land was priced cheaply and was readily obtainable by those who would clear the forests, sell the timber, plant crops and pay off loans for purchasing self-supporting acreage. As he explained, “This is one of the principal reasons why the U.S. population grows at such an excessive rate.”
Surveying the people of the nation, Father Grassi recognized “a republican deportment,” which appeared as a spirit of independence, drive and a strong resistance to be subject to another. Even more notable, he observed, was the “avidity for profit” among Americans; it existed on a par with their industriousness. New Englanders were the most money-conscious, he wrote, and were “regarded as the most cunning and clever, capable of ingenious deceptions.”
Father Grassi also lamented the prevalence of duels, the large number of sects, the “Negroes kept in slavery” and the prevalence of unrestrained freedoms. He found it highly ironic that Americans exuberantly praised liberty but at the same time bought and sold human beings. Adding to this anomaly, the very school he led was holding women and men in bondage, a fact now widely known. Georgetown University and the Jesuits today are seeking avenues to make reparations for their slaveholding. Father Grassi, however, appeared little bothered by this situation.
Freedom of religion startled Father Grassi and elicited numerous observations. While the government did not involve itself in religious affairs, the Constitution also protected every religion and creed. Government impartiality extended so far as to protect even Catholics, so long despised in England. He cited a case in New York in 1813 in which defense lawyers argued that to force a priest to violate the seal of confession was to deny him the free exercise of his religion. While noting that many ministers preached anti-Catholic prejudice, Father Grassi praised the restraint shown by better-educated Protestants. What appalled this Jesuit, however, was the way sects divided and multiplied “every day” so that there existed “a chaos of every type of heresy.” He included a compendium of generalizations about 10 principal churches, from Congregationalists and Anglicans to Quakers, Dunkers (Church of the Brethren) and Unitarians.
Father Grassi marveled at the phenomenon of circuit-riding priests traversing great distances to minister to scattered parishioners.
Father Grassi completed his volume with a review of the situation of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. His role as superior of all Jesuits in the country brought him into contact with priests, women religious and bishops, particularly Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore. He marveled at the phenomenon of circuit-riding priests traversing great distances to minister to scattered parishioners. Such incessant travel, along with the scarcity of clergy, however, left many priests lonely. Father Grassi counseled that these clerics could best dispel stereotypes of Catholics and anti-papist bigotry through explanations that were delivered “in a gentlemanly manner, with patient and kind hearted charity.” American Protestants, he commented, proved more receptive of Catholic dogma when they received explanations in such a manner.
Roberto Severino, professor emeritus of Italian at Georgetown University, translated and edited the volume. His introduction and Robert Emmett Curran’s foreword provide valuable context about Father Grassi, including information about the priest’s later life in the Papal States.
This gem of a book warrants a wide readership for its insights into the role of Catholicism in the early republic. Father Grassi’s excitement of discovery permeates the volume. Most significant is this kind Jesuit’s recommendation that Catholic beliefs be explained with a gentle charity, as that was the more effective means to dispel rancor and win an audience. In our own day, his advice points toward a better way to achieving civic and social harmony instead of the polemics of the renewed culture wars.
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