Joseph George Jr.


reprinted from

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
February 1976
vol. 69, pp. 17-25


Joseph George, Jr., at the time of the original publication of this article, was chairman of the history department at Villanova University. He received his doctorate in 1959 and is the author of several published articles on Lincoln and the Civil War.

Dr. George is presently retired. He continues to be involved with research and writing on historical topics.



In 1891 John G. Nicolay, Lincoln's former secretary, received a note from Benedict Guldner, a Jesuit priest in New York, asking for information about a "libellous pamphlet" printed in Germany. The pamphlet, according to Guldner, was a translation of a work "originally written in this country ... in which the author maintains that the assassination of President Lincoln was the work of Jesuits." Nicolay and John Hay, another former secretary to the President, had not mentioned the allegation in their biography of Lincoln, and Guldner wished to know if they had heard the charge and if they considered it false. [1] Nicolay consulted Hay, and then replied:

To [y]our first question whether in our studies on the life of Lincoln we came upon the charge that "the assasination of President Lincoln was the work of Jesuits", we answer that we have read such a charge in a lengthy newspaper publication.
To your second question, viz: "If you did come across it, did the accusation seem to you to be entirely groundless?", we answer Yes.
It seemed to us so entirely groundless as not to merit any attention on our part.

Perhaps the decision of Nicolay and Hay to ignore the charge of a Jesuit conspiracy against Lincoln was unwise. A prompt and firm denial might have prevented further publication of the story. [3]

The originator of the conspiracy theory was Charles P.T. Chiniquy, a former Catholic priest who claimed to be a close friend and confidant of Abraham Lincoln's. According to Chiniquy, "emissaries of the Pope" were plotting to murder Lincoln for his defense of Chiniquy in an 1856 trial. Chiniquy's autobiography, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, published in 1885, attributes remarks to the President on a variety of subjects, particularly religion. [4] Most of Chinquy's stories are so foreign to what is known about the Sixteenth President that scholars have ignored them. Nevertheless, many of the less sensational portions of Chiniquy's reminiscences have been used by serious students of Lincoln's life, and the most sensational passages have been widely quoted and disseminated by writers engaged in anti-Catholic polemics.

Charles Paschal Telesphore Chiniquy was born on July 30, 1809, in Kamouraska, Quebec. As a young man he was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic church, and his labors to stamp out drunkenness caused him to be known throughout Quebec as "The Apostle of Temperance". [5] In 1851 he moved to Kankakee County, Illinois, to serve a colony of French-Canadians who had migrated there. Chiniquy got into difficulty with his bishop, resigned his position in the church in 1860, and with some of his former parishioners established a new church. In time Chiniquy became a Presbyterian minister and published many books and pamphlets with an anti-Catholic theme. He also lectured extensively throughout the United States, Europe and Australia on the evils of Roman Catholicism. He died in Montreal on January 16, 1899. [6]

It was while he lived in Illinois in the 1850s that Chiniquy met Abraham Lincoln. According to Chiniquy's Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, he hired Lincoln to defend him against a charge of personal immorality; the charge, Chiniquy said, had been brought by his enemies in the Catholic Church. Chiniquy won the case, thereby incurring the wrath of the Jesuits. By Chiniquy's account, when the verdict came in, Lincoln said; "I know that Jesuits never forgive nor forsake. But man must not care how or where he dies, provided he dies at the post of honor and duty." [7]

Chiniquy claimed that he later met with Lincoln on three different occasions in Washington. The first interview, he said, took place at the White House "at the end of August" in 1861. Chiniquy had learned from another former priest of an assassination plot against President Lincoln, and considered it his duty to warn him. Chiniquy reported that Lincoln received him cordially and then made the following lengthy statement:

Your friends, the Jesuits, have not yet killed me. But they would have surely done it, when I passed through their most devoted city, Baltimore, had I not defeated their plans, by passing incognito, a few hours before they expected me. We have the proof that the company which had been selected and organized to murder me, was led by a rabid Roman Catholic, called Byrne; it was almost entirely composed of Roman Catholics ... A few days ago, I saw Mr. [Samuel F.B.] Morse, the learned inventor of electric telegraphy; he told me that, when he was in Rome ... he found out the proofs of a formidable conspiracy against this country and all its institutions. It is evident that it is to the intrigues and emissaries of the pope, that we owe, in great part, the horrible civil war which is threatening to cover the country with blood and ruins. [8]

Also at that interview, according to Chiniquy, he was offered a position as a secretary at the American legation in Paris, a post from which he could not only investigate the evil designs of Napoleon III but also travel occasionally to Rome and check on the Pope and Jesuits there. Chiniquy declined the appointment; he offered as his reason the need to continue his work in America. [9]

Chiniquy reported that the President was so pleased with that meeting that he invited his visitor to return the next day. On that occasion, Lincoln expressed his concern about a report in Democratic newspapers that he had been born a Catholic and baptized by a priest. "I have never been a Roman Catholic", Lincoln assured his guest. "No priest of Rome has ever laid his hand on my head." Lincoln asked Chiniquy if he could explain the meaning of the reports. Chiniquy replied that the charges represented Lincoln's death sentence by the Catholic church. Lincoln then concluded the interview by stating that he was fighting the Civil War against the Pope and his Jesuits as well as against the Rebels of the South. [10]

Chiniquy's second reported visit to Lincoln in Washington, according to Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, took place at the "beginning of June, 1862", but at that time Chiniquy could only shake hands with his friend. The President was too busy for intimate conversation. [11]

The third and last visit was alleged to have occurred on June 9, 1864, the day Lincoln received official word that he was renominated for the Presidency. The following day, June 10, the two old friends, according to Chiniquy, visited the wounded soldiers in Washington hospitals. The President then invited Chiniquy to the White House for a long discussion to Catholicism. Lincoln assured his guest that the Pope and his Jesuits were responsible for the French invasion of Mexico, the New York draft riots, and other outrages. Lincoln also quoted appropriate passages from the Bible and indicated that he was prepared to die for the cause of liberty. [12] Chiniquy then took his leave, never to see LIncoln again.

It is unlikely that any of these meetings took place. As this paper will show, Chiniquy's autobiography contains numerous misrepresentations about his life and association with Abraham Lincoln.

Three years after the appearance of Chiniquy's account, Justin D. Fulton, a Baptist minister, published Washington in the Lap of Rome. The book was dedicated "to Americans Who Will Aid in Throttling Jesuitism, in Uncoiling the Serpent Encircling the Capitol of the United States, and in taking Washington Out of the Lap of Rome; That a Free Church and a Free School in a Free State May Make the Great Republic the Glory of the World." [13] Fulton, a prolific writer, published a variety of books and newspapers with a religious theme. Strongly antislavery in pre-Civil War times, he shifted his attacks to the Catholic church after the war. One historian judged his writings "reckless of fact and effect." [14]

Chiniquy's and Fulton's writings were the basis for several anti-Catholic tracts published in the 1890s. During that decade as the number of Catholics in America rose in proportion to the increasing immigration rate, many non-Catholics became alarmed at what they considered a danger to the United States. By 1893 the American Protective Association -- a nativist group founded in 1887 by H.F. Bowers, an attorney from Clinton, Iowa -- had seventy thousand members in twenty states. APA members took an oath to vote for and hire only Protestants. [15]

Other anti-Catholic authors also borrowed from Chiniquy. In 1893, for example, W.H. Burr wrote The Murder of Abraham Lincoln: Planned and Executed by Jesuit Priests. [16] Thomas M. Harris' pamphlet Rome's Responsibility for the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln denounced Catholic schools as breeding grounds by which to "secure loyalty to the [Catholic] Hierarchy, and to prepare the minds of its children for disloyalty to any other power." Harris cited Chiniquy's story to demonstrate "conclusively the hand of Rome in this stab at our nation's life." [17]

The Chiniquy claims were repeated in 1924 by Burke McCarty in Suppressed Truth about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which was "Affectionately Dedicated" to the author's "Patriotic Mother Who Also Left Rome." McCarty credited the Jesuits with the murders of Presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James A. Garfield and William McKinley, as well as Abraham Lincoln. McCarty also accused Catholics of an attempt on the life of President-elect James Buchanan, whom the Jesuits were alleged to have poisoned in February 1857. [18] In discussing Lincoln's assassination, McCarty quoted extensively from Chiniquy and added some embellishments of his own. McCarty, for example, stated that Chiniquy visited Lincoln in Washington "once each year." Chiniquy had claimed he was in Washington but three times. [19]

By the time McCarty published what he called the "suppressed truth," there was a new audience in America for anti-Catholic literature. The resurrected Ku Klux Klan opposed American Catholics as well as Jews, immigrants, and Negroes.

In 1921 the Rail Splitter Press of Milan, Illinois, which called itself the "oldest, most resourceful, and most reliable Anti-Papal publishing house in America," printed Chiniquy's charges in pamphlet form. The press also advertised a special envelope with a drawing of Lincoln's face and a quotation from the Chiniquy book regarding Lincoln's fear of Catholics and Jesuits. The publisher estimated that at least five people read each envelope; readers, he said, should use the Lincoln envelopes to "save America" and perform "great missionary work." [20]

In 1922 John B. Kennedy, the editor of Columbia, a Catholic magazine, requested information from Robert Todd Lincoln about Chiniquy's report. The reply was emphatic: "I do not know of any literature in which my father is quoted as attacking Catholics and the Catholic Church. Of course, in the years his name has been a peg on which to hang many things." [21]

But even the denial by Lincoln's son could not stop the circulation of Chiniquy's story. In 1924 the distinguished historian Carl Russell Fish found it necessary to use the pages of the American Historical Review to denounce an account titled "An American Protestant Protest against the Defilement of True Art by Roman Catholicism." According to Fish, the publication, which repeated the claims of Chiniquy's Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, had "circulated by the million." Fish argued that "the spirit of the [remarks attributed to Lincoln] ... is contrary to the whole character of Lincoln's thought and expression." Fish concluded that Chiniquy's fabrication demonstrated the need for a definitive edition of Lincoln's writings and sayings -- a project that would be completed almost thirty years later. [22]

In 1928, when Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, won the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, the Chiniquy charges were again reprinted. The Rail Splitter Press brought out a pamphlet titled Abraham Lincoln's Vow Against the Catholic Church. [23] This pamphlet, like the earlier one from the same press, was based on Chiniquy's charges.

The Abraham Lincoln Association published Lincoln's collected writings in 1953. The nine-volume edition contained no reference to Chiniquy or his claims regarding Lincoln's comments about the Pope, Jesuits, and the Catholic church. [24] Yet in 1960 when the Catholic John F. Kennedy received the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, the Chiniquy story about Lincoln again surfaced. One publication contained the statement that Chiniquy's interviews with Lincoln should serve as a "warning to all Americans who see no danger in having a Roman Catholic in the White House." That widely distributed pamphlet was printed by the Osterhus Publishing House of Minneapolis. The Osterhus pamphlet retold the most sensational portions of Chiniquy's account, taken second-hand from Fulton's Washington in the Lap of Rome. The publisher assured readers that the words were Lincoln's, even though "self-styled Lincoln experts may tell you the contents ... are not among his writings." [25]

In 1963 another former priest, Emmett McLoughlin, published a study of Lincoln's assassination; he concluded that the Pope and his Jesuits were responsible for Booth's crime. McLoughlin, too, acknowledged his debt to Fifty Years in the Church of Rome. The author was particularly impressed by Chiniquy's enduring friendship with Lincoln, during which "the ex-priest visited Lincoln in the White House and frequently warned him of the Church's antagonism and of its threats to the very life of the President." [26]

Clearly, neither the denials by Nicolay and Robert Todd Lincoln nor the publication of the Collected Works would stop the reappearance of Chiniquy's charges. Fifty Years in the Church of Rome was translated into many languages and distributed, among other places, in French Canada, South Africa, Norway, France, New Zealand, Haiti, and Formosa." [27]

Because Chiniquy's autobiography contains several supposedly first-hand observations of Lincoln's religious beliefs, it has been used, albeit cautiously, even by reputable Lincoln biographers. William E. Barton, for example, accepted many of the less sensational portions of Chiniquy's account, particularly the anecdotes describing Lincoln at prayer or quoting long passages from the Bible.

Barton believed that Lincoln "trusted and believed in" Chiniquy. Barton did not believe that Lincoln made harsh statements about the Pope, Jesuits and Catholics, but did accept Chiniquy's version of his 1856 trial. Barton wrote:

Lincoln believed thoroughly in the justice of his cause, and of the bad motives of those engaged in the prosecution ... I think there is good reason to believe that in this trial Lincoln spoke with some severity of the ecclesiastical machinery that could be made available for the crushing of a man who had incurred the ill will of priests. But his words were not recorded at the time, and those who remembered them afterward probably colored them greatly. Father Chiniquy's account of this affair is within easy reach of anyone who wishes to read it, and I think it is essentially truthful, though I do not accept any such account, made from memory years afterward, as reliable in its detail. [29]

Barton also accepted Chiniquy's recollections of visits to Lincoln in the White House. Barton suspected that the incidents were "colored by the imagination" of the former priest but that the account contained "a basis of fact in accord with what we might have expected Lincoln to say." Barton warned, however, that the conversations sounded "much more like Chiniquy than Lincoln." "It is not safe," Barton concluded, "to put Abraham Lincoln on record except in words that he is known to have written or uttered. And to say this is not to impugn Father Chiniquy, who, I think, intended to be truthful." [29]

Influenced by Barton's views, Lloyd Lewis unwittingly helped perpetuate Chiniquy's claims. In Myths After Lincoln, Lewis agreed that the disclosures were based on actual incidents but "were far more Chiniquy than Lincoln." Lewis advanced the view that Chiniquy's "unbalanced imagination" prompted him "to expand some simple remarks of the President into a metaphysical monologue which, though it retained, in all likelihood, some of Lincoln's words, misrepresented him wholly. [30] Emanuel Hertz followed in the Barton tradition and frequently cited Fifty Years in the Church of Rome as a source for Lincoln's religious views. [31]


Article is copyright 1976 by the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

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