Friday, July 3, 2009

Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, also served as a diplomat to Canada, a U.S. senator and a Maryland state senator. He was the last of the signers of the Declaration to die. Bradley Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American history and director of American studies at Hillsdale College in Michigan. His book “American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll” is scheduled for release Feb. 15, and can be pre-ordered on

Q: What role did Charles Carroll’s faith play in his political life?

A: A huge role. Prior to 1774, as a Marylander and a Roman Catholic, he did not have any rights except for economic rights. So his faith had shaped everything in his life. His signing of the Declaration, at least as he saw it, was intimately related to his religious faith. He said in 1829, “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.”

Q: How exactly did Colonial Maryland persecute Catholics?

A: In November of 1689, the state’s 1649 law of tolerance was undone. Roman Catholics could practice privately after that, but they could not practice publicly. In 1704, they started closing all Catholic churches in Maryland. I think the craziest law passed in 1715. It said that children who were raised in Roman Catholic fashion could be taken from their parents and be given permanently to Protestants. But all those laws were undone in 1774.

Q: How did Charles Carroll rise to prominence in the midst of that persecution?

A: His family was the single wealthiest family in Maryland. Carroll had been abroad until 1765, being educated in Europe for 17 years. But around the time he returns, there’s a huge debate about whether or not the province of Maryland should have the Church of England as its official religion. Connected to that was whether or not the governor had the right to issue taxes or whether only an assembly had that right.

So Carroll starts writing anonymously. He takes the name First Citizen, which is ironic because he doesn’t even have his citizenship. He takes the side that only assemblies are allowed to tax. And during these debates, his reputation just explodes. And that’s what really changes public perception of Catholics - Carroll’s reputation. He becomes a critical figure. John Adams even goes so far to say that Carroll will always be remembered as one of the greats of the founding.

Q: Carroll was the last of the signers to die. What did he have to say about America at the end of his life?

A: He was so critical of what happened to the republic after the founding. He’s very critical of the democratic element in the American republic - he’s worried that self-interest and greed are replacing republican virtue. So from the late 1700s, Carroll starts being called “the hoary-headed aristocrat.” He starts to be seen as a relic of an older age. But after Carroll dies, there’s a resurgence of his reputation. All across the country, the headlines read, “The last of the Romans is dead.”

And he was one of Alexis de Tocqueville’s main informants. So there are moments in de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” when he is being critical of the democratic spirit, and it seems very clear to me that he is taking that from his interview with Carroll.

Q: What does history get wrong about Carroll?

A: I’m always amazed at how much our own history, especially [in] our textbooks, tends to portray the founders as merely enlightened figures. And there’s no doubt they were. But the vast majority were Christian - Franklin and Jefferson being the exceptions that so many focus on. And the American people were intensely religious, mostly Protestant, at the time of the founding. I think it’s dangerous that we secularize the founding so much. We need to know the context - we need to know what inspired them to fight for liberty.

Q: What lessons does Carroll’s life hold for American citizens today?

A: Probably the most important thing is his understanding of virtue and the necessity of education in the republic. I also think he’s a great example of someone who was raised in a pretty bad situation, at least in terms of culture, since he didn’t have legal and political rights. He turned from that and did not become bitter, but instead, I think he learned the lesson that this is wrong, and once it’s fixed for me it needs to be fixed for everyone.

Liz Essley attends Hillsdale College and was a student of Bradley Birzer’s.

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