Remembering the Carrolls of Maryland

On the Fourth of July weekend, it’s only fitting in The Catholic Thing to remember America’s leading Catholic family during our Revolution: the Carrolls of Maryland.

Charles Carroll (1661-1720), Maryland’s first attorney general, founded the family, which acquired and developed tens of thousands of acres, and was the richest Catholic clan in the colonies. Courageous and clever, they often challenged and confounded the Protestant establishment. The first Carroll was described this way: “in spite of the tremendous odds against him, he usually managed to make fools, single-handed, of the entire House or the entire Governor’s Council. He was a magnificent fighter because he never knew when he was beaten.” His heirs continued the family tradition of resisting Anglican attempts to destroy their fortune and faith.

The Continental Congress turned to the third generation of Carrolls in 1775 for aid in a mission to negotiate an alliance with Canada: Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832) and his cousin Father John Carroll (1735-1815).  In deciding to send a Catholic priest, John Hancock, president of the Congress, followed the advice of his friend, Charles Lee:  “I should think that if some Jesuit or Religious of any other order (he must be a man of liberal sentiments, enlarged mind and a manifest friend of Civil Liberty) could be found out and sent to Canada, he would be worth battalions to us.”

Commenting on the delegation which also included Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase, John Adams wrote:  “We have empowered the Committee to take with them, another gentleman of Maryland, a Mr. John Carroll, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Jesuit, a gentleman of learning and ability.” Adams pronounced Charles Carroll, “A Roman Catholic but an ardent patriot.”

The Commission ultimately failed because the Canadians were content with British rule.  Father John Carroll had predicted exactly this outcome.  Before the delegation left, he wrote that the Canadians, “have not the same motives for taking up arms against England, which renders the resistance of the other colonies so justifiable.”

One happy consequence of the delegation’s journey to Canada was Benjamin Franklin’s growing fondness for the Carrolls.  When Franklin fell ill, Father John tended to his health. Franklin wrote of their time together:  “I find I grow daily more feeble, and I think I could hardly have got along so far, but for Mr. Carroll’s friendly assistance and tender care of me.” Father John recalled the time spent with Dr. Franklin as “one of the most fortunate and honourable events of my life.” Historians agree that, in later years, John Carroll was chosen as the first native-born Catholic bishop in America in part owing to Franklin’s influence in European circles. He would build the first American cathedral in Baltimore and found the first Catholic university in America, Georgetown.

Charles Carroll did great service in Canada.  He dealt effectively with the French and with the American forces there under the command of General Benedict Arnold. To aid the troops, Carroll and Samuel Chase took on numerous responsibilities, serving as “generals, commissaries, justices of the peace, in short to act in twenty different capacities.” Carroll’s dedication was noted and it increased his prestige within the Congress and his home assembly in Maryland.

As the sole Catholic member of the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll understood that the American Credo was rooted in the tradition of the natural law and the common good.  He was the only signer of the Declaration also to write down his address: “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” saying that if the British wanted to hang him, they would know exactly where to find him.

In 1776, Charles Carroll served on the Maryland legislative committee mandated to draft a state constitution.  A student of thinkers such as Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, and Montesquieu, Carroll argued for a mixed government based on the natural law and dedicated to the common good. He called for three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – “forever separate and distinct from each other.”

At the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers adopted parts of the Maryland Constitution. We owe the creation of the U.S. Senate and presidential selection by the Electoral College to Charles Carroll’s influence.  Alexander Hamilton, in number sixty-three of the Federalist Papers praised Carroll’s work:  “The Maryland Constitution is daily deriving, from the salutary operation of this part of it, a reputation in which it will probably not be rivaled by that of any State in the Union.”

Carroll was delighted when the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted the words of Lord Baltimore, founder of the Catholic colony of Maryland, which guaranteed Catholics equal footing within an impartial government structure: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Knowing that Catholics would now have the opportunity to freely and publicly profess their faith, Carroll happily admitted: “To obtain religious as well as civil liberty, I entered zealously into the revolution.”

Charles Carroll was the last signer of the Declaration to die. On his deathbed, he wrote, “I have come almost to the threshold of ninety-six years. . . . I have been blessed with great riches, prosperity, public esteem and more of the good things that the world usually concedes; but in looking back, the one thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction is that I practiced the duties of my religion.”

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.