Founding Fathers Friday: Charles Carroll

by Derrick G. Jeter

When you live as long as Charles Carroll, you see and experience more of life than most. But even among the long-lifers, few have seen or experienced as much history as did Carroll. In ninety-five years he bore witness to the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777–1787), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), the Bill of Rights (1791), the War for American Independence (1775–1783), Shay’s Rebellion (1786–1787), the Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794), the French Revolution (1789–1799), and the War of 1812—just to name a few milestones. He saw the original 13 colonies form into the 13 United States and almost double into 24 states, with the addition of Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), Alabama 91819), Maine (1820), and Missouri (1821). He witnessed the doubling of U.S. landholdings in North America with the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803, read about the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonapart (1804–1814), and was still around at the inauguration of the first westerner to become president: Andrew Jackson in 1829.
That’s a lot of history for one lifetime! But Charles Carroll wasn’t merely a bystander watching the parade pass in review, he took his part.
Carroll wasn’t a reluctant patriot, though he was a reluctant participant. Carroll was a Catholic—and Catholics during the time were not looked on with favor. The predominate religious affiliation in the colonies at the time of the founding was Protestantism. And aside from the obvious theological and historical differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, many non-Catholics feared that Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than they were to their country. (This fear continued well into the twentieth-century when John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960.) Yet despite the wary eye cast on Catholics regarding politics, business was business and Carroll did quite well financially.
Carroll grew up in a well-to-do family. At the beginning and the ending of the war for independence, Carroll was probably the riches man in America. He was born in Carroll Mansion in Annapolis, Maryland; the son of a wealthy tobacco planter. For schooling Carroll was sent to France, to study with the Jesuits, and for the next twenty years he lived, studied, and worked in Paris and London. When Carroll returned to Maryland, in 1765, at the age of 28, he was a cultured, well-bred gentleman.
Upon his return to his estates in Maryland, he found his colony ill at ease, bristling under the recent passages of the Stamp Act. Within a few years, Carroll would anonymously take the patriot’s part in a duel of pens, played out in Maryland papers. In early 1772, the royal governor of Maryland decided that government officials, including himself, need a pay raise. The monies for such an increase would come through direct taxation of the people. This caused more than just a little disturbance in the colony, but at least one Marylander was in favor of the new tax—Daniel Dulany. Dulany wrote a mock debate between “First Citizen,” who argued against the tax and “Second Citizen,” defending the government’s position, which was published in the Maryland Gazette. About a month after publication, Carroll wrote a response to Dulany’s essay, taking up the name “First Citizen.” Over the next few months a series of essays appeared in Maryland papers, with Carroll (“First Citizen”) arguing against the government’s right to tax its citizens to enrich itself, while the secretary of the colony (Dulany) defending the government’s position. In the eyes of the people, “First Citizen” won the duel. So grateful were the people to “First Citizen,” who so ably defended their rights, that they instructed the colonial legislature to “return their hearty thanks to the unknown writer, through the public prints. This was done by William Paca, and Matthew Hammond. When it became known that Mr. Carroll was the writer, large numbers of people went to him and expressed their thanks personally, and he at once stood among the highest in popular confidence and favor.”
Carroll’s “Fist Citizen” essays won him not only the goodwill of the people, they won him a seat at Maryland’s first revolutionary convention, placed him on the committees of correspondence and safety for the colony, and got him elected to the first Continental Congress. Though Carroll declined his seat in Congress, he did accompany Samuel Chase, William Paca, and Thomas Stone to Philadelphia as an unofficial delegate from Maryland.
In 1776, still an unofficial delegate, Congress recognized his talents (and his background) and appointed Carroll, along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase as Congress’s representatives to negotiate with French-speaking, Catholic Canada. John Adams summed it up best: “He speaks their language as easily as ours; and what is perhaps of more Consequence than all the rest. He was educated in the Roman Catholic Religion. . . . In the Cause of American Liberty his . . . Fortitude and Perseverance have been so conspicuous that he is said to be marked out for peculiar Vengeance by the Friends of the Administration; but he continues to hazard his all, his immense Fortune, the largest in America, and his life.” This is high praise from the stuffy New England protestant! The purpose of the delegation was to persuade Canada to lend support to the colonies in their war of independence. As history tells, the mission failed.
The Canadian mission may have failed but Carroll’s next mission met with ringing success. Around the time the Canadian excursion was drawing to a close, Congress decided to postpone the official vote for independence until July 2. Maryland hadn’t as yet released her delegates to vote in the affirmative, so Carroll and Samuel Chase traveled to Annapolis to persuade the convention to release their delegates. They were successful and Maryland voted yea.
Carroll wasn’t in Philadelphia on July 2—his vote wouldn’t have counted anyway, he didn’t become an elected member of Congress until July 4, the day the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted. Carroll made it back to Philadelphia to take up his seat on July 18, in plenty of time to become the only Catholic signer of the engrossed document on August 2; and the only one to sign with a title—the place of his residency, Carrollton. Why the addendum to his name? An early biography explains it this way:
It is said that when he wrote his name, a delegate near him suggested, that as he had a cousin of the name of Charles Carroll, in Maryland, the latter might be taken for him, and he (the signer) escape attainder, or any other punishment that might fall upon the heads of the patriots. Mr. Carroll immediately seized the pen, and wrote “of Carrollton” at the end of his name, exclaiming “They cannot mistake me now!”
Charles Carroll of Carrollton carried on a very active political life after signing the Declaration. He helped draft a new constitution for the state of Maryland, served on the board of war and attended to the army’s needs at Valley Forge, and helped break up the Conway Cabal, the plot to get rid of George Washington as commander of the armies. In 1778, Carroll was asked to serve as president of Congress—a post he declined. After the war he was elected to, though did not serve in, the Constitutional Convention. He did, however, support ratification in Maryland. And from 1789 to 1792, he served as one of Maryland’s first two United States senators.
For the remainder of his life—all forty years of it—Carroll became a private citizen and stayed close to home. He maintained his 70,000 acres of productive lands in Maryland, invested monies in canal systems, and became a board member of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Fifty years after the signing of the Declaration, in 1826, only three of the fifty-six signers were alive: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll. On July 4 of that year, in a stroke of historic irony, both Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other. Carroll would live an additional six years—“the last vestige that remained upon earth of that holy brotherhood, who stood sponsor at the baptism in blood of our infant Republic. The good and the great made pilgrimages to his dwelling, to behold, with their own eyes, the venerable political patriarch of America, as from the rich storehouse of his intellect, his freely contributed to the deficiencies of others.”
When Carroll died on November 14, 1832, that greatest of great generations were no more.