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Charles Carroll of Carrollton: a ‘patriotic’ Catholic Founding Father

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. / Credit: New York Public Library/Public domain

CNA Staff, Jul 4, 2024 / 04:30 am (CNA).

Charles Carroll of Carrollton was a man of superlatives. 

Out of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Carroll was the wealthiest. He was also the longest-lived of all the signers, surviving to the ripe old age of 95. 

But perhaps most notably, Charles Carroll was the only signer of the Declaration who was Catholic — in a time and place when Catholics faced serious prejudice and marginalization. 

“It was really Carroll who broke through that glass ceiling and became the first prominent Catholic politician in American history,” Scott McDermott, an assistant professor of history at Albany State University in Georgia, told CNA in 2019.

Carroll was born on Sept. 19, 1737, as the only son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke. The young Carroll spent more than a decade and a half of his formative years in Europe, studying at prestigious Jesuit schools. He inherited a massive estate upon his return and he and his wife, Molly, married in 1768, stayed busy supporting and hosting figures such as George Washington at their home throughout the Revolutionary War.

McDermott, author of “Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary,” noted that Catholics “really were a very oppressed minority group” in the original 13 colonies.

“In the early days of the American colonies, Catholics faced some pretty serious persecution, including not being able to vote, not being able to hold public office, not being able to worship publicly,” he said.

The colony, and eventually state, of Maryland had been founded in 1688 by Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, originally as a haven for Catholics arriving in North America. But later on, Protestants largely took over the government and Catholics were not permitted to worship openly. Carroll emerged as an outspoken proponent of religious freedom, and his ideas shaped the founding of the United States. 

“Wealthy Catholics, like the Carrolls, were very important for the Catholic community because they were able to sponsor Masses in their homes. They had chaplains who were trying to keep the Catholic faith alive in America, but it was very difficult,” McDermott said. 

Although the Carroll family was wealthy, the prejudice they faced made life difficult in many ways. Catholics were seen by the Protestant majority as a danger to the state, and thus many colonies passed laws restricting their freedoms.

According to an online biography of Carroll, the educated Charles gained public acclaim after he wrote published letters embracing the principle that the people are the true foundation of government. He was appointed to an Annapolis committee and later was elected to the Second Maryland Convention in 1774, his first elected office and an effective shattering of the ban on Catholics serving in Maryland politics. 

He was elected as a Maryland representative two years later and in that role joined the other delegates in signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on Aug. 2, 1776.

Many members of the Carroll family became active in the political sphere of the 13 colonies, with Charles’ cousin Daniel Carroll helping to frame the Constitution. Another of Charles’ cousins, John Carroll, became the very first archbishop in the colonies when he became shepherd of the Diocese of Baltimore.

After signing the Declaration, Charles himself held a number of diverse political positions within the newly formed country. In 1789, he became one of Maryland’s first two U.S. Senators before retiring from politics in 1800. He died in 1832. 

“It was really the character and the personality of Carroll and his intellect — which was formed in the great Catholic tradition of political thought by the Jesuits — who was able, just at the right moment in the 1770s, to step forward and to make himself really indispensable to the revolutionary movement,” McDermott said. 

“This was something that surprised the other Founding Fathers, who couldn’t conceive of a Roman Catholic who was also a patriotic American.”

In 1822, a mission church, St. Mary’s, was erected and built on the Carroll property in Annapolis. St. Mary’s later became a parish in the 1850s when it was given to the Redemptorist order, which still runs the parish today. 

McDermott says Charles Carroll’s brand of patriotic Catholicism is one that we can learn from today.

“It’s easy for us, as Catholics, to get discouraged, and we may be tempted to just give up, to withdraw from public life,” McDermott said. 

“But again, with Carroll, we’re looking at someone who was under severe legal and personal disabilities, who didn’t give up, who persevered, and ultimately triumphed, and who made this country a better place, not just for Catholics, but for everyone.”

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