Our Back Pages: Bicentennial was met with hoopla

July 04, 2016

By George P. Matysek Jr.

gmatysek@CatholicReview.org

The bicentennial of the founding of the United States was celebrated with much fanfare in Maryland 40 years ago this month.

Citizens and visitors enjoyed colorful parades, massive fireworks shows and a spectacular Inner Harbor parade of 13 tall ships from around the globe.

The bicentennial year actually kicked off in 1975 when Cardinal Lawrence Shehan joined President Gerald Ford at an early-morning, televised July 4 interfaith event at Fort McHenry.

For Catholics, the extended hoopla was especially fitting.


Students from St. Joseph School in Fullerton mark the Bicentennial by performing skits and wearing period garb during a 1976 assembly. (CR File)

“To no other group did the Declaration of Independence hold out a brighter hope than to the Catholics of Maryland,” Cardinal Lawrence Shehan wrote in a 12-page special section of the July 2, 1976, issue of the Catholic Review, “for none had suffered as did they from the oppression of British colonial rule.”

Early Christian colonists enjoyed religious freedom in Maryland with the passage of the Act of Toleration in 1649, which, the cardinal pointed out, was the first attempt to express the principle of religious liberty in civil law since the Edict of Milan of Constantine and Licinius in 313.

Yet it wasn’t long before religious freedom was stamped out, the public practice of the Catholic faith was forbidden in Maryland and Catholic education was “most strictly prohibited.”

It took five years of bitter warfare and 10 more years of “patient labor and negotiations,” the cardinal wrote, before that “bright promise” was to reach permanent fulfillment in civil law with the passage of the First Amendment in 1791.

In giving the keynote address at the 1975 launch of the bicentennial celebration, Cardinal Shehan used a national stage to observe that it’s not enough to be proud of past accomplishments. Ever concerned with issues of social justice, he asked his countrymen to band together to save modern American cities beset by strife and neglect.

At a time when the U.S. was helping to rebuild European cities through the Marshall Plan after World War II, the cardinal asserted, “we seemed blind to what was happening to our own cities.” A new domestic Marshall Plan was needed, he insisted, to renew cities.

Unless Americans find a way to “break the cycle of urban deterioration or to heal the chasm of our national disunity,” the cardinal explained, “all our past achievement may well have been in vain.”

According to a July 11, 1975, report in the Catholic Review about the cardinal’s address, more than 45,000 people attended the “Dawn’s Early Light” ceremony on the site that played a key role in inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner.

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