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Maryland and the road to independence: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration

Maryland and the road to independence: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration
Portrait of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. (Courtesy of Howard County Historical Society)

Charles Carroll of Carrollton wasn't in Philadelphia when the Second Continental Congress voted to break from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, nor was he there on July 4 when Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was ratified. He wouldn't get there and add his name to the document's signers for some weeks, but when it came to the idea that the 13 colonies must free themselves from England, he got there long before many of his fellow Marylanders.

A colony famed for its "middle temperament," Maryland was among the last to come around to the cause of independence. As late as May 21, 1776, the provincial convention in Annapolis adopted a resolution affirming its belief that "a re-union with Great Britain on constitutional principles would most effectually secure the rights and liberties, and increase the strength and promote the happiness of the whole empire." The planter class in Maryland dominated politics, and its members were generally more reluctant to abandon the notion that they could secure an equitable place in the British Empire.

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But Carroll was an exception. Though he was immensely wealthy — he was reputed by fellow Declaration signers to be the richest among them, richer even than John Hancock — he was a Catholic, and that made all the difference.

Maryland's religious freedom

To this day, Maryland prides itself on having been founded in a tradition of religious toleration, and it was. The Calvert family (the Lords Baltimore) created the colony as a home for Catholics who faced persecution in England, but they also welcomed Protestant settlers. The Act Concerning Religion, adopted by the General Assembly in the then state capital of St. Mary's City in 1649, was one of the seminal laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the colonies. Known as the Toleration Act, it decreed that "no person or persons whatsoever within this province ... professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion, nor in the free exercise thereof."

But the line between that declaration and the system of free religion we would recognize today was far from straight. Laws and practices in Maryland were buffeted by political and religious currents in England, and periods of tolerance alternated with ones of legal discrimination. By Carroll's day, although Catholics could worship in their faith (if not altogether freely), conduct business and amass fortunes — indeed, Catholics were well represented amid the colony's wealthiest families — they were shut out of public life. They could not become lawyers, vote or serve in public office.

The precariousness of the position of Catholics even in the most Catholic of colonies had been ingrained in the Carroll family for generations. In his book "Prince of Ireland, Planters of Maryland," William and Mary historian Ronald Hoffman traces the family's history as wealthy landowners in the Old World whose holdings were systematically stripped by increasingly hostile English rulers. Charles Carroll of Carrollton's grandfather (also named Charles) was the first member of the family to settle in the New World, and Mr. Hoffman writes that he learned quickly that things would not necessarily be better here. He had been promised a position in Maryland as attorney general only to be stripped of it almost as soon as he arrived as the Glorious Revolution in England resulted in tighter royal control over the colony.

Immense wealth

The eldest Carroll set about building wealth, a trait he passed on to his son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, who in turn bequeathed it to Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Even during the most pivotal moments of the revolution and the lead-up to independence, correspondence between the latter two Carrolls dealt as much or more with business affairs than military of political ones. But for decades, the family labored under the fear that English authorities could at any time exercise laws that would strip them of everything. In the early 1760s, Carroll of Annapolis was so fearful that he began settling his affairs and liquidating assets in preparation for a move somewhere more hospitable.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton spent years in France and later England getting his education, not returning to Maryland until he was 27, but he nonetheless had a keen sense of his family's determination to overcome a precarious position. His father was so obsessed with the family's lineage that he did not marry Carroll's mother until the son was old enough to prove himself a suitable heir. The father's letters to the son included reminders that those who ruled were possessed of "malice that they would not only deprive us of our property but our lives."

As early as 1763, Carroll of Carrollton remarked in a letter to his father that "America is a growing country. In time it will & must be independent," but it would be some years before he would get involved in revolutionary politics in Maryland.

He returned to the New World as the controversy over the Stamp Act was coming into full bloom. That levy on assorted uses of paper, from playing cards to newspapers, drew ire throughout the colonies in a preview of the arguments about taxation without representation that would gain their full expression in the years ahead. In her 1942 biography "Charles Carroll of Carrollton," author Ellen Hart Smith found ample evidence that Carroll was able to articulate well the arguments against the Stamp Act and did so — but only in his private correspondence to friends and business associates in England. Publicly, he stayed out of Maryland political life, instead devoting his attentions to marrying and managing his father's massive estate (which included, it should be noted, some hundreds of slaves). He at least professed not to mind the exclusion, writing on various occasions that holding public positions would inevitably erode a man's virtue.

Instead, he became a noted host and fixture in the Annapolis social scene, earning a membership in the tony Homony Society, which had previously excluded Catholics and which boasted as members not only the new colonial governor, Robert Eden, but also two of Maryland's other eventual signers of the Declaration, William Paca and Samuel Chase.

First Citizen

Carroll's silence on matters of politics would change in 1773 when a feud between the Carrolls and Dulanys, a family of Protestants who held various government posts, would explode onto the pages of the Maryland Gazette. The issue was one that roils the public to this day: the salaries of public officials, which many in the public believed were too high. The old schedule of fees officials were allowed to charge for performing their duties expired in 1770, and the House of Delegates passed legislation lowering them, among other reforms. Governor Eden disagreed, and when the legislature was out of session, he unilaterally restored them to the higher levels.

Daniel Dulany, a member of the upper house of the legislature and a government functionary who benefited handsomely from the higher fees, took up the governor's cause in the Jan. 7, 1773, Gazette in the form of a supposedly overheard dialogue between First Citizen, an opponent of Eden, and Second Citizen, a supporter. It wasn't exactly a fair fight; Dulany set up First Citizen as a bit of a dupe who was overwhelmed by the force of his adversary's logic and conceded the debate.

A month later, a letter from First Citizen appeared in the Gazette — this time at the top of the front page — professing to correct the record of the person who had transcribed the dialogue with Second Citizen in a way that "mangled and disfigured" it. It was Carroll. The letter calls out Second Citizen (and, by implication, Dulany) for arguing "more from personal considerations than from a persuasion of the rectitude of our court measures," and goes on to attack government ministers (again, read: Dulany) who have "commonly perverted [government powers] to the selfish views of avarace and ambition."

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From there, things got really nasty. Dulany and Carroll fired back and forth in the pages of the Gazette in a series of letters spanning the next several months, blending high-minded arguments about natural vs. common law, the separation of powers, the difference between a fee and a tax (some things really never change) and classical allusions with personal and, in Dulany's case, religious put-downs. Though the letters were officially anonymous, the readers of Annapolis were well aware of who the antagonists were and reportedly delighted in each salvo.

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In the end, Carroll was the victor. The elections that spring returned a House of Delegates firmly committed against Eden's action, and Carroll himself was suddenly catapulted into the first ranks of revolutionary leaders in Maryland. Though he was not a member of the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774 in response to the Intolerable Acts passed in the wake of the Boston Tea Party the previous December, he did accompany the Maryland delegation as an informal adviser. Shortly thereafter, he gained his first inclusion in official political life, a seat in Maryland's Committee of Correspondence, a sort of unofficial revolutionary government that helped shape the state's role in determining the colonies' course. Assorted other offices would follow as his influence grew.

Independence

Indeed, had he been in attendance, it's fair to question whether the Maryland convention would have voted in May of 1776 to stick to its anti-independence stance. But Carroll — along with Samuel Chase and Benjamin Franklin — had been tapped that spring for a mission north to try to persuade Canada to join the 13 colonies in their revolt against England, a task for which his Catholicism, not to mention his fluency in French, were considered substantial assets. It didn't work, but his efforts were so well regarded that he was rewarded with a seat in the Second Continental Congress, which would in turn lead to his signing of the Declaration.

Though he was not yet in Philadelphia for the debate on independence, we can know with some certainty what he would have said. Before embarking for Canada, he published two letters in the new Baltimore newspaper, Dunlop's Maryland Gazette, under the name CX, strongly arguing for independence and suggesting the form of a new government. On March 26, 1776, he wrote, "Why then should we consider ourselves any longer dependent on Great Britain, unless we mean to prefer slavery to liberty, or unconditional submission to independence?"

Many years later, Carroll would assert that his signature on the Declaration advanced "not only our independence of England but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion and communicating to them all equal rights," though Mr. Hoffman finds no direct evidence that he actually thought that at the time. It is said, whether true or not, that when Hancock asked Carroll if he would sign the declaration, he replied, "Most willingly," prompting a bystander to remark, "There go a few millions."

Indeed, among that select few who would "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor," it was well regarded that Carroll had rather substantially more to lose than most. But his fellow revolutionaries would see him as much more. John Adams wrote to James Warren in February 1776, on the eve of the Canada mission, that Carroll "continues to hazard his all: his immense Fortune, the largest in America, and his Life. This Gentlemans Character, If I foresee aright, will hereafter make a greater Figure in America. His Abilities are very good, his Knowledge and Learning extensive, I have seen Writings of his which would convince you of this. You may perhaps hear before long more about them."

Much would be heard of Carroll. After the revolution, he was instrumental in developing Maryland's first constitution and the state's Declaration of Rights. He was elected president of the state Senate and would serve as one of Maryland's first two U.S. senators. He would eventually even lay the cornerstone for the B&O railroad. Considered frail as a boy and young man, he proved as remarkably robust in health as he was in his contributions to his state. Carroll would live to the age of 95, the last remaining signer of the Declaration of Independence.

—Andrew A. Green

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