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The Catholic Who Declared Independence

June 18, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By RAY CAVANAUGH

When the 13 American colonies announced their separation from the British Crown on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence they issued would become one of the most important documents in the English language. Some 56 patriots would risk their necks to sign this document. Only one, however, was a Catholic. His name was Charles Carroll.
He was born on September 19, 1737, in Annapolis, Md. “From his youth he was a singularly devout and scrupulously practical son of the Church,” according to The American Catholic Quarterly Review (volume XXIV, 1899), which added that the two foremost items in Carroll’s life were Catholicism and America.
Carroll’s earliest formal education took place at a secret Jesuit school in Maryland. But at around ten years of age, he was sent abroad to France. Making the journey along with him was his cousin, John Carroll, who later became the first Catholic bishop and archbishop of the colonial U.S. and the founder of Georgetown University.
At a series of Jesuit institutions in France, Charles Carroll received more than a decade of first-class education. From this period of tutelage, he emerged fluent in five languages. He additionally received training as a lawyer while in Europe, but was prohibited from practicing law upon his return to colonial Maryland because of his Catholic faith. In fact, due to his Catholicism he wasn’t even allowed to vote.
Despite these restrictions, his life was very privileged. For example, he inherited a fortune amounting to half a billion dollars in today’s currency. He also received an estate consisting of some 10,000 acres and — more controversially by today’s standards — hundreds of slaves.
Another item more controversial by today’s standards was that Carroll married his cousin Mary Darnall. They would proceed to have seven children, three of whom survived into adulthood. He would outlive his wife by 50 years.
Though he had abundant wealth to support his family, Carroll was growing agitated with the way Britain was governing America and the rising taxes imposed by the colonial master. He began associating with other like-minded American residents who were disgruntled with the status quo.
He also put his fine education to use: Using the pen name “First Citizen,” he contributed to the Maryland Gazette newspaper a series of widely read letters that criticized the existing Maryland political structure. Though he wrote under a pseudonym, Carroll’s true identity was eventually unmasked. As a result, he became a target of verbal attacks from the Maryland political establishment, but he also attained a regional celebrity and emerged as a major voice against British rule.
For all his erudition, genteel background, and aristocratic bearing, Carroll was worldly enough to realize that violence would be necessary for American independence. People would have to kill, die, and endanger their lives. Indeed, he placed his own life in extreme jeopardy when he put his name on the Declaration of Independence, which he signed as “Charles Carroll of Carrollton” in order to distinguish himself from other Charles Carrolls, such as his father, his Irish-born grandfather, and additional members of his extended family.
Aside from risking a trip to the gallows for treason against Britain, Carroll was risking the loss of his immense fortune. The Declaration’s sole Catholic signatory was also its wealthiest (and, at that time, he was very possibly the richest man in all 13 colonies). He also had the most formal education of anyone who signed the Declaration. This is a rather impressive detail considering what an elite peer group his fellow signatories composed. These were men who had a lot to lose but were willing to risk it for their belief in an independent nation.
Because America won its revolutionary struggle, Carroll not only avoided the hangman but was able to pursue a political career, serving as a Maryland state senator and representing his home state in the U.S. federal Senate.
When Maryland passed a law barring anyone from holding both state and federal Senate positions, he resigned from the federal Senate. He remained in the State Senate until 1801, at which point he retired from politics and began to lead a more reclusive lifestyle.
Though he remained largely out of the public view, he continued to manage his business interests and massive personal property, which amounted to about 80,000 acres spread over three states, according to the website of the National Park Service. He was also involved in launching the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, which was Baltimore’s attempt to compete with New York and the newly constructed Erie Canal.
After John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously died on the same day (July 4, 1826), Carroll was the only one of the 56 Declaration signatories still alive. He maintained this special status until November 14, 1832, when he died at age 95.
In his final hours, he expressed gratitude for a life of good health, great wealth, and public acclaim, before adding, “But what I now look back on with the greatest satisfaction to myself is that I have practiced the duties of my religion.”
Eighteenth-century America was often an inhospitable place for Catholics. The names of “papists” were not expected to appear alongside the names of Anglo immortals like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. The very fact that Charles Carroll was able to inscribe his name on such a momentous document shows the level of respect he commanded.

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