This month marks the 285th birthday of Marylander, Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence (because he was the only Catholic delegate sent to the Continental Congress), and the man who out-lived all of his fellow signers.
In 1732, the year Charles Carroll was born, only one of the Thirteen Original Colonies — Pennsylvania — permitted Catholics to worship freely, recognized their right to build churches and chapels, and allowed Catholic priests to live in the colony and minister to congregations. Yes, Maryland had been chartered by King Charles I in 1632 as a refuge for persecuted Catholics from the British Isles, but after a few brief years in “their” colony, the Catholic Marylanders were ousted from government by a Protestant-led coup. Catholic churches were destroyed, freedom of worship was denied to Catholics, they were forbidden to vote or hold public office, and priests were outlawed.
What were so many Protestants doing in a Catholic colony? The answer is, Maryland was never exclusively Catholic. In fact, of the approximately 140 colonists who came ashore on St. Clement’s Island on March 25, 1634, only about 25 were Catholic. The settlers of Maryland were religiously diverse, literally from the very first day of settlement.
Furthermore, the Catholic leaders of the colony agreed among themselves to open Maryland to Christians of all denominations. Such a principle was virtually unheard of in Europe where, depending on who had the upper hand politically, Catholics and Protestants persecuted one another. Protestants even persecuted fellow Protestants — Anabaptists were particularly unpopular.
Perhaps out of a guilty conscience, the new Protestant powerbrokers of Maryland did not persecute Catholics aggressively. When the government seized the property of Catholic priests, well-to-do Catholics sheltered them in their homes, introducing them to non-Catholic guests as the children’s tutor, or the manager of the plantation. These priests-in-disguise celebrated Mass in private home chapels, and Protestant Marylanders turned a blind eye as crowds of Catholic colonists visited Catholic plantations on Sundays and holy days. Maryland’s ostensibly anti-Catholic government even overlooked the unmarried, slave-owning, gentlemen tobacco farmers who were in fact Jesuit priests passing incognito as confirmed bachelors.
What Maryland lacked was a school where young Catholics could receive a classical education and grow stronger in their faith. For that, Catholic parents had to send their children overseas.
Charles Carroll was eleven years old when his mother and father sent him to the Jesuit school at St. Omer in northern France. There, he studied the Greek and Roman classics — reading them in their original languages, together with the latest developments in the sciences, ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy, and of course, Catholic doctrine. When he completed his courses at St. Omer, he moved to Paris to study civil law, and then to London to study common law. After seventeen years of schooling in Europe, Carroll returned home to Maryland.
Some historians have said that John Hancock, Boston’s leading merchant-cum-smuggler, was the wealthiest man in America. He wasn’t. He stood in third place behind Charles Carroll, who was in second place, and Carroll’s father, who was truly the richest man in the country. Since Charles was an only child, when his father died he inherited everything. So, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, fortune, and sacred honor to the cause of American independence, if that cause went sour Carroll, more than any other man in the chamber, had an awful lot to lose. Yet, for all of his wealth, Charles Carroll still suffered under the disability of belonging to the wrong church.
In the years leading up to the Revolution, as the question of breaking away from the Mother Country heated up, Carroll faced a dilemma: remain loyal to the Crown, which had persecuted his family for 200 years, or join the rebels, who were persecuting him and his family right now. Ironically, it was his education in London that convinced him to take up the American cause. Under English common law, Carroll said, Englishmen enjoyed “the invaluable privilege… of being taxed by our own representatives.” The Stamp Act made a “cruel mockery” of this right, because the American colonies had no representatives in Parliament. Which led to the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”
In 1773, Carroll began publishing newspaper editorials that attacked the notion of taxation without representation and the English tradition of an established church. And he asserted that the best guarantee of liberty was “the limited power of the sovereign.” In his articles, Carroll showed off his European education just a little: as man with a sound classical education he drew upon Cicero and Horace; as a Catholic trained by Jesuits, he cited St. Robert Bellarmine, the 16th-century Jesuit theologian and political philosopher; as a man of the Enlightenment, he quoted Montesquieu, John Milton, David Hume, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope.
After Lexington and Concord, Carroll drew upon his fortune to bankroll the Continental Army. As a result, by the time the Revolution was winding down, Carroll found himself land rich, but cash poor. After the war, Carroll took up the cause of American Loyalists, arguing that they must be treated as full citizens of the new United States, and their property must not be plundered by either their neighbors nor the government. It was a magnanimous position to take, and may have been inspired by all those years he and his family had been on the receiving end of intolerance.
During George Washington’s administration, Carroll aligned himself with the Federalists. As the general’s second term was coming to end, there was talk among the mavens of the party of putting Carroll forward as the man to succeed Washington. Nothing came of it, of course, but what a turn around: a man who as a young adult could not even vote was being considered for the presidency of the United States.
Carroll’s most recent biographer, Bradley J. Birzer, tells us that although he enjoyed the company of Thomas Jefferson, he didn’t think much of the man as president. And in a letter to Alexander Hamilton, Carroll got a little snarky. Thomas Jefferson, he said, “might safely try his experiments, without much inconvenience, in the little Republic of San Marino, but his fantastic tricks would dissolve this Union.”
In 1801, Carroll withdrew from political life, but he kept himself busy even in his advanced old age. He was 90 years old when he joined the first board of directors of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 91 when the became president of the American Colonization Society which sought to resolve the problem of slavery in the U.S. by settling free black men, women, and children in Africa. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the only three signers still living were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll. In what must be the strangest coincidence in American history, Adams and Jefferson both died that day, so Carroll held the distinction of being the sole surviving signer. He was the last of the Founders, and he was aware of the fact throughout his final years. In 1828, he wrote to a group of working men, “That the republic created by the Declaration of Independence may continue to the end of time is my fervent prayer.”
The Last of the Signers, the Last of Founders, died in 1832 at age 95.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.