Charles Carroll, Catholic Founder

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Happy Fourth of July! I know I have a good few readers from other places, but here in the United States, the Fourth of July is our Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, only one was a Roman Catholic: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, of the colony of Maryland.

Maryland was founded in 1634 by the Lords Baltimore as a safe haven for Catholics during the time of the European wars of religion. Maryland was a leading early proponent of religious toleration, passing the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649, which mandated freedom of worship and prohibited hate speech toward any Christian, the first document in the world to do so — though it only applied to orthodox, Trinitarian Christians, and prosecuted denials of the Christian faith. Religious strife soon spread even to Maryland, though, when only a year later in 1650, Puritans, having overthrown and executed King Charles I in the English Civil War, seized the colony of Maryland, repealed the act, and established a new government prohibiting both Catholicism and Anglicanism (you’ve gotta love the Calvinists). Lord Baltimore regained control of the colony in 1658, and reenacted the Toleration Act.

Thirty years later, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, in which the Catholic king of England, James II, was deposed by the Protestant William and Mary, was not so glorious for Catholics in Maryland. Puritans, by then a majority in the colony, again seized the opportunity to overcome the Catholic government, in what became known as the “Protestant Revolution” of Maryland. They again revoked the Toleration Act and barred Catholics from worshipping publicly. Over the next decades, the new government gradually stripped Catholics of their civil rights, including the rights to hold public office, vote, or inherit property.

This is the culture in which Charles Carroll (1737–1832) was born and raised. Descending from an old Irish Catholic family, Carroll was known, and signed his name, as “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” to distinguish himself from his father and grandfather of the same name. Carroll was born illegitimate, as at the time of his birth, his parents were not legally married, in an effort to protect the family estates from the Protestant government’s restrictions on inheritance (they married twenty years later). Carroll was educated in Jesuit schools, first at a secret school in Maryland and then in France. At the behest of his father, he remained in Europe, where he had far greater opportunities as a Catholic, until he was twenty-eight in 1765. He received a thorough classical education, and returned one of the most educated men in America. Carroll’s father granted to him Carrollton, a vast, 17,000-acre estate in Frederick County, Maryland. He became one of the wealthiest planters in Maryland, if not in all the colonies.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull.

Though barred from actively participating in politics, Carroll became increasingly concerned as tensions with Britain mounted in the 1770s. In 1772 he engaged in an anonymous debate against Loyalist Daniel Dulany in the Maryland Gazette, over rising taxes and fees to state officials and Protestant clergy. After his identity became known, Carroll became more and more involved in opposition to British rule. In 1774 he was elected to Maryland’s committee of correspondence, and from then on represented Maryland on both the colonial level and to the other colonies. In 1776 he was elected to the Continental Congress, and though he did not arrive in time for the debate on the Declaration of Independence, he did sign the official document.

Following independence from Britain and the formation of the United States, Carroll served as Maryland’s first United States senator, from 1789 to 1792, when he resigned, preferring to remain in the Maryland State Senate, in which he served until 1800. He was the longest-lived and last living Signer of the Declaration of Independence, passing away in 1832 at the age of 95. His funeral was at the Baltimore Cathedral, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or the Baltimore Basilica).

Catholics have a long history of getting the short end of the stick as far as religious liberty is concerned. As a Catholic, Charles Carroll was a leading proponent for liberty and toleration for all. Maryland’s Toleration Act marked an important precedent upon which the religious provisions of the First Amendment were founded. I am thankful today for the sacrifices and labors of our Founding Fathers, especially men like Charles Carroll, who saw religious freedom to be a universal human right.

Our bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, observed for the past two weeks, has recalled our religious freedoms to my mind ever more vividly, especially as we Catholics again face encroachment upon our freedom to practice our religion. In Father Joe’s homily on Sunday, he pointed out an important distinction that many non-religious people fail to realize: Our freedom to worship, to conduct our liturgy in our private space, is only one part of religious liberty. Our freedom to practice our religion — our freedom to live our lives according to the precepts of our faith — is another matter, every bit as valuable and every bit as essential. It is this freedom that the government is now seeking to abridge.

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