Enlightened Penal Reformers Despised Catholicism As Ignorant and Superstitious

face of a prisoner

Jonas Hanway held anti-Catholic views prevalent among the English elite in the Age of Enlightenment. Hanway was a leading late-eighteenth-century English philanthropist and prison reformer. Hanway was also the most influential early advocate of mass solitary imprisonment. Hanway’s anti-Catholicism fit within the peculiar public reason of his time.

Hanway suggested that Catholicism covered the Irish with “clouds of ignorance and thick darkness.”^ By Hanway’s time, Catholicism had long been a major marker of resistance to the English colonization of Ireland. Hanway’s view of the Irish and Catholicism represents a typical viewpoint among U.S. and English elites in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.^ ^ For example, in 1787 at Benjamin Franklin’s house, the Society for Promoting Political Enquiries met. At that meeting, Benjamin Rush, an influential Pennsylvania prison reformer, described punishments that he considered to be irrational and unchristian as “connected with the history of the rack and the stake, as marks of barbarity of ages and countries, and as melancholy proofs of the feeble operation of reason and religion upon the human mind.”^ That’s a conventionally coded reference to Catholicism. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, a highly popular book published in 1836, purportedly described vile acts of sex and violence that priests and nuns committed behind the walls of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal. It was a highly successful fabrication.

Monastic institutions didn’t have a positive cultural resonance in the early nineteenth-century U.S. Penal reformers would not have looked to them for intellectual inspiration for new ideas for promoting social welfare.

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