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How the Church Has Changed the World: Forgotten Father

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

There's much to say about Charles Carroll's contributions to America as statesman and senator and much to admire about this man's amiable and noble character.


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idaCharles Carroll
1737-1832

It's a crisp morning in February, and the people have gathered for a joyous celebration.  Men with drums and fifes pass by, playing marches, while boys and girls are waving flags, and members of churches and clubs and societies, men and women, ride on horse-drawn stages draped with red, white, and blue.  They are passing by the home of the wealthiest man in Maryland, and possibly the most beloved.  He stands before them on the second story, smiling.

He's a slight, spare man, well into his nineties, but still possessed of a keen mind.  A shock of white hair falls over his temples.  His countenance is of an intelligent and benevolent man, an aristocrat in means and manners.  They had wanted him to speak at their celebration, but he had declined because of ill health.  Still, he praised their devotion.  "The event you are about to commemorate," he wrote, "must be felt by every individual who loves his country, and who can appreciate the blessings it enjoys.  To General Washington mainly belongs, under the protection of Providence, these blessings."  He promised to join them in prayer and gratitude to God for a man whose virtues were so needful in creating their beloved nation. 

It was the centennial of Washington's birthday, in 1832, and the old man was Charles Carroll of Carrolton, the last survivor of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Carroll was American by birth, Roman by temperament and education, and Catholic by the grace of God, a man who endured much for the faith, and who fought for the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing religious liberty and free religious exercise to all believers. 

A Patriot to the Core

Ungrateful man is hard put to remember the benefits his country has conferred upon him, but Charles Carroll fought for a state, Maryland, that had disenfranchised Catholics, and for a young country whose intellectual and political elites were often bitterly suspicious of Rome.  Indeed, one of the unbearable things that George III did, in the minds of severe New Englanders, was to pass the Quebec Act, allowing freedom of faith to French Catholics in the north. 

So we turn with some irony to another scene in Carroll's life, so crowded with events.  Picture Charles Carroll, in the spring of 1776, riding with that gregarious rake, Benjamin Franklin, from Philadelphia to Quebec, to try to persuade the Canadians to join the fight for independence.  Apparently the behavior of the soldiers from New England had been appalling, and Quebec was on the verge of falling back to the British. 

A strange couple that was!  Carroll the Catholic, a man most pure of heart, passionately devoted to the good of his family, educated in France and England for seventeen years, from boyhood to the prime of manhood, whose father had made himself one of the wealthiest men in America; and Benjamin Franklin, the self-made printer who arrived in Philadelphia with a couple of hot rolls in his pocket, sometimes a Christian of sorts, a ladies' man, a raconteur, of whom John Adams once said that there had to be a hell, because otherwise Doctor Franklin would have nowhere to go after he died.  They got along famously.  Carroll wrote that Franklin was "a most engaging and entertaining companion of a sweet, even, and lively temper, full of facetious stories and always applied with judgement."

The mission was a tactical failure, but it confirmed Carroll's reputation throughout the colonies.  He had written a series of learned essays in 1773, published under the Roman pseudonym "First Citizen," even though he had at the time no permission to vote, to recommend the principles of British common law and to argue against a fee imposed upon the citizens of Maryland by the upper house of their legislature, without the approval of the people's representatives in the lower house.  Such a fee, Carroll said, was really a tax, and to tax people at one's pleasure is to strike at the root of liberty itself.

His opponents could not help themselves.  Since Carroll spoke for the great majority of his fellow Marylanders, they had to attack the man more than the message.  Amidst a barrage of ridicule and calumny, Charles Carroll stood up and proclaimed forgiveness.  He and his fellow Catholics, he said, had forgotten their resentment of the treatment they had received from the Protestants.  For Maryland had been founded by a Catholic family, the Calverts, and had guaranteed freedom of religion for all Christians, until Protestant settlers took over and annulled the original charter.

John Adams, no friend to popes and not free in his praise, wrote glowingly of Carroll, noting his zeal and his bravery, and how much he was risking from the vengeance of the British administration: "But he continues to hazard his all: his immense fortune, the largest in America, and his life."  He was indefatigable.  He was a member of the War Department.  He spent time with Washington at Valley Forge.  He helped to fund the war.  Most important, without him, America might not have secured her alliance with Catholic France: no Count de Rochambeau and his fleet, no surrender of the British at Yorktown.

President Carroll?

Like Washington, the friend whom he admired so well, Charles Carroll was not an ambitious man.  He did not connive at political appointment.  He was elected to be president of the Second Continental Congress, but he turned down the honor.  He was nominated to the Constitutional Convention, but he declined.  As Washington's first term neared its end, many people thought that his logical successor should be Charles Carroll, deeply learned, unimpeachably honest, and devoted to the welfare of his country.

But though there never was a President Carroll, Americans owe their presidency in part to Carroll's ingenious compromise.  How should we elect our president?  Directly?  By the people, or by their representatives in state legislatures?  Might the president be the winner of a plurality only, or must he have a majority?  What method will respect the individuality of the states, the will of the people, and the sense of the nation as a whole?  For the president is not just the head of a party.

Carroll, it's said, thought about how the College of Cardinals select a pope — cardinals representing many nations and voting often by national blocs.  The trick is to gain a majority of those electors; and hence was born the Electoral College, that element in the Constitution that prevents American politics from degenerating into secret deals among the heads of seven or eight parties in a splintered populace.

True Catholic, True Man

There's much more to say about Charles Carroll's contributions to America as statesman and senator, but I prefer to contemplate the man in his amiable and noble character.  I see the eleven-year-old boy in France, writing home to his beloved father — never were father and son more heartfelt in their expressions of love.  I see him at Saint Omer's, run by the Jesuits, getting up in the dark of the early morning and kneeling long in prayer on the stone floor of the chapel.  I see him continuing those daily habits in his old age.

I see him returned to Maryland, grieving over the death of his bride-to-be, writing, "I am grown quite indifferent to everything in this world, even to life itself."  But he did marry, happily, and his home became a magnet of hospitality.  To that home came Lafayette, when he returned to America to much grateful love after so many years in France.  To that home, in the year before Carroll's death, came Tocqueville, the brilliant analyst of democracy and shrewd observer of American life.  What would we give to have heard their conversation!  Tocqueville recorded some of it, noting that the race of the founders was disappearing, and "with them the tradition of cultivated manners is lost."

After Jefferson and Adams died on July 4, 1826, the young Daniel Webster said, "Of the illustrious Signers of the Declaration of Independence there now remains only Charles Carroll.  He seems an aged oak, standing alone on the plain, which time spared a little longer after all its contemporaries have been leveled with the dust.  Venerable object!...  Sole survivor of an assembly of as great men as the world has witnessed...what thoughts, what interesting reflections must fill his elevated and devout soul!  If he dwell on the past, how happy, how joyous, how full of the fruition of that hope which his ardent patriotism indulged.... Let him know that while we honor the dead we do not forget the living, and that there is not a heart here which does not fervently pray that heaven may keep him yet back from the society of his companions."

Heaven would keep him back another six years.  He died on November 14, 1832, taking Viaticum quietly, refusing food and drink, saying that the Eucharist was sufficient.  People all over the country mourned his passing, "the last of the Romans," the last living tie to those men who staked everything they had and were, even their sacred honor, for freedom.

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Note: I am deeply indebted to Bradley Bizer's wonderful biography:
American Cicero.- The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI Press).

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Forgotten Father." Magnificat (July, 2015).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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