Celebrated by his countrymen as a leading member of America’s Founding Fathers, especially as his long life surpassed those of his contemporaries, Charles Carroll (1737-1832) is long overdue for an historical appreciation.
For, of the men who founded the United States, it is unfortunate that only a few still figure in the hearts and minds of those of their countrymen who still care about the past: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton. The rest of these gallant men—not all of them equally important but all equally brave, having risked their property, including their necks, as traitors to the Crown—inhabit an historical shadow land clapped shut between the covers of dusty books disintegrating on university library shelves. Judging by the execrable state of American public education, that vast cauldron of political correctness, the average text-messaging child would be hard pressed to name the patriots just mentioned, let alone explain their individual significance to America’s founding.
A thumbnail sketch of Carroll’s life proves that he is not a figure for either historian or thoughtful reader to thumb his nose at. A bastard son later legally recognized and made heir of colonial America’s wealthiest family, he was an aristocratic Catholic classically educated in France by Jesuits, from whom he learned an orthodox Christian defense of overthrowing one’s government. And from his youth to late middle-age, he was intimately engaged in the birthing and rearing of a young nation, though he often preferred working behind the scenes and within the newspapers as a propagandist in the best sense of the word: propagating the truth with clarity and conviction—two qualities abounding in this fine biography.
The only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, he also was the last surviving member of a brave group of men who risked their lives and fortunes to defend the freedoms they once enjoyed as Englishmen before George III, influenced by asinine advisors, began treating the colonials as second-class subjects. And he died a celebrated statesman and patriot, despite the stubborn, sometimes vitriolic anti-Catholicism of his times. Indeed, Charles Carroll was a deeply Catholic Christian, increasingly open about his faith as his lengthy years progressed. Yet his faith was expressed with a certain reserve that separated the tiny core of English Catholics in early America from their fellow faithful who came from countries spared the persecution of a Protestant majority.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), America’s premier purveyor of conservative thought in academia and public life, heroically works to correct historical ignorance. In its “Lives of the Founders” series, ISI Books, the publication wing of ISI, pays filial homage to Founding Fathers under-served by historians guilty either of scholarly neglect or abuse borne of ideological bias.
Charles Carroll, for example, has suffered from neglect more than abuse, though one could aver that the neglect stems from left-leaning historians uninterested in writing about Founding Fathers who lack radical chic, real or imagined. (A perennial favorite is Thomas Paine, the revolutionary pamphleteer who sealed his fame with “Common Sense” before falling out of vogue with his viciously anti-Christian tracts.) Were it not for the astute new appreciation of this “forgotten Founder” by Bradley Birzer, history professor at Hillsdale College, Carroll might remain best remembered for two things: being the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, and persevering into his tenth decade, the last signer to die.
None of his contemporaries would have considered him a mere side note, however, which is why the virtue of Birzer’s book rests not upon novelty, but truth. The prose is strong yet graceful, the historical scholarship thoroughly engaging (there is a veritable treasure trove of early Americana drawn from original documents), and the personal portraits are rendered with the same luminosity with which Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the portrait of a young Charles Carroll, featured on the cover of the handsomely-designed dust jacket.
Indeed, Professor Birzer paints a portrait of the man in full with a depth that, rather than drowning the reader in detail, invites him to inspect the subject further. This is a portrait of Charles Carroll as known by his deeds as well as his personal life and character.
As for his deeds, he was pivotal to his beloved native Maryland, signing the Declaration of Independence and later ratifying the U.S. Constitution. He also was pivotal in dislodging, through politicking and the press, laws as well as attitudes that prevented Catholics and other Christians from enjoying full religious and political liberty.
A conservative of the mind as well as the heart, his similarity to Edmund Burke, whom he knew during his London days studying the law, is profound. Both championed the timeless and true, as manifested within time and place, kith and kin. For them, a “citizen of the world” was a sorry specimen of deracinated humanity, attached to everything and, therefore, nothing. Both were wary of abstract rights, pure democracy, and utopian idealism — experiments which, from the French Revolution on, have been dragged back down to earth with bloody thuds, killing millions. Whereas Burke continues to influence conservative thought to this day, Carroll himself directly influenced an admiring houseguest, Alexis de Tocqueville. The young Frenchman’s magisterial Democracy in America spurns sugar-coating the dangers inherent in that form of government that was best expressed in ancient Athens—and that, not too well.
As for his personal life and character, Professor Birzer shows Carroll to be a man of strong, steadfast character who stuck to principle and showed himself smart and courageous in the political realm. In private, however, his aristocratic detachment must have made life less than charming for his family: at least for the son who died of alcoholism and the wife who, after bearing his children and dying young, seems to have died in a pain deeper and more hurtful than the pain dulled by the opium addiction she acquired during her illness.
Yet, Professor Birzer shows how Charles Carroll mellowed with age and deepened in personal understanding as decade passed into decade till he died in his tenth to great outpourings of national mourning. The reasons for such mourning deserve to be known once again—indeed, known even more deeply, this generation of Americans having no nostalgic connection to those among the first.
Matthew A. Rarey, a journalist living in Chicago, graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, where Charles Carroll spent much of his life. Any visitor to this most English of American cities will be imbued with the presence of Carroll, whose ancestral home is located next door to the Catholic church, steps up the street from the harbor.