The life and times of the only Catholic signer.
Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
Photo Credit: Getty
The Life of Charles Carroll
Most Americans are unaware of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832). Born to an extremely wealthy family in Annapolis, he was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the last survivor of the 56 patriot-signers.
Carroll’s grandfather Charles “The Settler” (1660-1720) was an Irish Catholic who found himself dispossessed of his land in County Offaly. Fortunately, this lawyer had friends at the Stuart court of James II and in 1688, through the patronage of Lord Baltimore, got himself named attorney general to the colony of Maryland. Unfortunately for him, in the fall of that same year, the Protestant William of Orange deposed the Catholic James II and a coup in Maryland toppled the new attorney general. But Carroll married a wealthy widow, inherited lands, and, over time, built a fortune by way of being an astute planter, lawyer, banker, and merchant.
Though rich, Carroll was always in a precarious position as a Roman Catholic amidst Maryland’s ascendant Protestants. In London, William and Mary instigated new penal laws against Catholics, and Maryland’s general assembly passed similar legislation barring Catholics from voting, holding public office, or performing military service, restricting Catholic education, and forcing Catholics to pay a higher tax rate. The Settler’s son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis (1702-1782), found these laws so oppressive that he considered founding a Catholic colony in the Arkansas territory.
Like other members of the Irish Catholic aristocracy, Carroll of Annapolis sent his son (the future Charles of Carrollton) to France to be educated; he was likely the best formally educated among the Founders. In 1749, at age 11, he left America for St. Omers, a Jesuit college in France where he began a European educational itinerary lasting 16 years. He spoke French like a native, read and wrote Latin and Greek, received an M.A. in philosophy, and studied law in London.
Had the Carroll clan forsaken their faith they might have attained tremendous political and social power in colonial Maryland. But they wouldn’t submit. Proudly Irish and Catholic, they considered themselves a new hybrid—“Marylando-Hibernus”—and Carroll of Annapolis encouraged his son never to forget that “we derive our descent from princes . . . notwithstanding our sufferings under Elizabeth and Cromwell we were in affluent circumstances and respected and we intermarried with the best families in the Kingdom of Ireland.”
Carroll of Carrollton rose to prominence as a political essayist in Maryland in the early 1770s, and the faction of his supporters would guide the colony during the struggle for independence. By embracing the patriot cause the Carrolls had gambled their fortune, but the revolution’s success settled these disenfranchised Irish Catholic rebels in the new American republic. As Carrolton said, “When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all sects, professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all great rights.”
American Cicero is an excellent short biography, focusing mostly on Carroll’s “liberal and religious education.” At one point the author notes that Carroll “rejected the philosophy of John Locke . . . for reasons lost to history,” but it would have been interesting to have speculated why. As a devout, educated Catholic/classicist, Carroll no doubt believed that Locke lowered the sights of mankind by demoting both the pagan pursuit of virtue and the Christian ideal of charity for a comfortable bourgeois life of self-preservation. Cicero had lived and died for manly virtue; the ancient philosophers held that the purpose of life was to seek the highest good, which is God. Locke and his fellow social contract theorists wanted a better life on earth and thought the “highest good” too difficult for man to attain.
As a political theorist, Charles Carroll understood the responsibilities inherent in freedom: He strove to build a commonwealth at risk to his own personal wealth, defining the conservatism of his day as more than the unfettered right of individuals to pursue success. His understanding of the Declaration and the Constitution was that with rights came responsibilities to the community. Freedom is our modern ideal; but Carroll argued that freedom is more than the license to do what we want. He agreed with Aristotle, who observed that among the barbarians there is freedom, but no civilization.
Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Quincy, Massachusetts.
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