The Roots of a Reformer

John Ryan grew up as the second generation son of an Irish Catholic immigrant Minnesota farmer when Ireland was boiling over with agitations against English landlords and Minnesota was aflame with the agrarian discontent that would lead to the rise of Populism.

Those trends explain much of John Ryan's passion for reform. His parents, for example, were very conscious of their Irish heritage and the continuing struggle of Irish Catholic peasants against their usually Anglo-Protestant landlords and rulers. As he noted in the first page of his autobiography, Social Doctrine in Action, family legend had it that his ancestors on both sides had lost their farms due to English evictions. Irish Catholics had lost ownership of their land over the course of three hundred years from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth. Such evictions were not uncommon. During the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, over 200,000 Irish families were evicted from their farms because they could not pay their rents.  Even before this the Famine evictions were common as landlords cleared the increasingly inefficient small renters to create larger modern farms. In the 1870s and 1880s, Irish peasants and their Irish American supporters helped organize a movement to win Ireland some degree of independence, "Home Rule." Many of these reformers, led by Patrick Ford, editor of the Irish World, demanded not only "Home Rule" but returning ownership of the land to the peasants. Ford had become radicalized in the Great Depression of the 1870s and committed his paper not only to radical land reform in Ireland, but labor radicalism and the Greenback Party in the United States. Perhaps a stronger, certainly a more immediate, influence on Ryan was the agrarian protest movements that culminated in Populism. One of its great leaders was Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly, an Irish Catholic, had switched from the Democrats to the Republicans over the issue of slavery in the 1860s and served six years in Congress. he spent most of his career, however, as an agitator for the cause of the farmers. He also wrote a great deal including books on the lost continent of Atlantis and an early science fiction space novel.

Donnelly's book, Caesar's Column, was widely read both within and without the Populist movement (within a year of its publication it was selling almost 1,000 copies a week) and was one of a number "utopian" novels written in that time (Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is perhaps the most well-known of this genre). The most enduring influence on Ryan's thought and career, however, was probably Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. Issued in 1891 Leo's encyclical built on the work of earlier European Catholic thinkers, such as Bishop Ketteler of Mainz in Germany. This encyclical was the first time that a pope addressed the problems of industrialization and became the foundation for Catholic social reform for the next seventy years. Leo, however, also strongly repudiated socialism and affirmed private property in his encyclical; nearly as many Catholic conservatives would draw on it to oppose radical change as reformers seeking new legislation.

Questions: Roots of His Thought

  • What important questions about Ryan's origins do these documents answer? What do they tell you about him that is important?
  • What don't they answer?
  • Based on your reading of the documents, name 3 great influences on Ryan's thought.
  • Do the documents suggest that there is one evil above all others?
  • Are these documents optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
  • Based on your reading of his journal entries, do you think Ryan was optimistic or pessimistic? why?
  • Why did America or, for that matter the world, get into such a mess?
  • According to Donnelly?
  • According to Leo XIII?
  • What did they think about the government as a solution to these ills?