Charles Carroll of Carrollton: The Southern Irish Catholic Planter

charles carroll of carrollton

A slightly different version of this essay is Chapter Eleven in Brion McClanahan, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009).  This essay is offered as a Southern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton has one of the more interesting stories of the Founding generation. He was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies in the eighteenth century, and like other members of the Southern gentry, he lived the life of a European aristocrat. But Carroll was Catholic, and while well respected by his fellow Marylanders, he could not vote or hold office before the War for Independence. Carroll is the founder of the conservative American Catholic tradition. He was a staunch patriot and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and he pledged his fortune to the cause of independence. He served in the Maryland legislature and was the first United States Senator from Maryland, but like many of the Virginians among the Founding Fathers, he spent a good portion of his life “retired” at his plantation committed to the further expansion of his lands. He was the last living signer of the Declaration.

The Carroll family had ties to the Irish nobility. The first Charles Carroll arrived in America in 1688 at the insistence of his father, Daniel O’Carroll, and the proprietor of the Maryland colony, Charles Calvert, 3rd Lord Baltimore. The Carrolls, as Catholics, faced persecution in England under the reforms of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Maryland was founded under the idea of religious toleration and was “owned” by a Catholic, making it a natural destination. Charles Carroll the settler rapidly expanded his land holdings, and his son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, became a respected and wealthy man, despite the restrictions Protestants in Maryland ultimately placed on their Catholic neighbors.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton was born a “bastard” son of Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke in 1737. His father refused to marry his mother for many years because of reasons relating to the inheritance of his estate. But marry they eventually did and Charles Carroll of Carrollton became the singular heir to his father’s considerable fortune, which included landholdings totaling in the thousands of acres, a large contingent of slaves, and the family plantation named Doughoregan Manor. But this inheritance was not unconditional. His father was a stern patriarch who insisted that his son perform at a high level in his educational and societal pursuits. A poor showing could change his fortunes.

Carroll of Carrollton was educated at a secret Jesuit school called Bohemia Manor on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and then sent to St. Omers in Flanders to continue his studies. He received a fine classical education, and was well versed in the Catholic rebuttal of the Protestant Reformation. He finished near the top of his class and was sent to Paris to finish his education and then on to London to study law. Carroll did not return to Maryland until 1765. He took residence at Doughoregan Manor in that year and worked to “improve my own estate to ye utmost, and to remain content with ye profits a grateful soil and laborious industry will supply.” Politics did not interest him initially, and Maryland law precluded Catholics from voting, but as the conflict with Great Britain intensified, Carroll, like many young men of his generation, was drawn into the debate.

He wrote several stinging letters to friends in England critical of the Stamp Act and its infringements on American liberty. Carroll advised one friend to sell his estate in England and move to America “where liberty will maintain her empire, till a dissoluteness of morals, luxury and venality shall have prepared the degenerate sons of some future age to secure their own” profit. Once the English constitution was dissolved, and Carroll believed it was rapidly moving in that direction, America would be the only place in the world to enjoy the freedoms Englishmen enjoyed. The Stamp Act broke the law, and as Carroll described it, “there are certain known fundamental laws essential to and interwoven with ye English constitution which even a Parliament itself cannot abrogate….” These included “privilege from birth of Englishmen of being taxed with their own consent: the definition of freedom is the being governed by laws to which we have given our consent, as the definition of slavery is the very reverse.” Though he could not legally participate in colonial politics, Carroll had made his position clear: taxation without consent was illegal and violated the rights of Englishmen. The Stamp Act would bring, in his estimation, “political death…poverty and slavery.”

How could a man who was barred from voting have such a vested interest in the “rights of Englishmen”? Simple. Carroll was the master of a ten thousand acre plantation and quite possibly the wealthiest man in the colonies. He was descended from the nobility and his grandfather had been active in English politics for years before the Maryland government, hostile to his attachment to Lord Baltimore, revoked his right to vote. England was, after all, a Catholic country for much of its history. The barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Charta in 1215 were Catholic; every monarch in the early modern era until Henry VIII separated from the Church was Catholic. There was a strong Catholic tradition in England, and the Carroll family was a prominent part of it. And though Irish by blood, he was an Englishman because he lived and prospered under the English constitution. His hostility to the Stamp Act stemmed from a thorough understanding of the ancient rights of Englishmen—or what Patrick Henry called the “ancient constitutions.” Like any other leader of the War for Independence, he ultimately believed that independence was the only way to ensure those rights. As early as 1764 he said the colonies “must and will be independent.”

Signer

Carroll remained attentive to his role as a planter for the next five years. He continued to question the legality of Parliamentary infringements on the English constitution in private letters, but his life was relatively quiet. He was married in 1768 to a cousin, Mary Darnall, and the two had seven children before Mary died in 1782. It was not until 1773, and a proclamation of new fees demanded by the Royal Governor of Maryland that Carroll took his protests public. The Maryland House of Delegates had labeled the new fees “robbery” and Carroll said in a private letter that, “War is now declared between Government and the People, or rather between a few placemen, the real enemies of Government, and all the inhabitants of this province.” The rub was over the ability of an appointed royal official, in this case the governor, to issue fees by decree.

Shortly thereafter, a letter to the Maryland Gazette from “Antillon” grabbed Carroll’s attention. “Antillon” proved to be the Maryland Attorney General, Daniel Dulany, a royalist, the most powerful man in Maryland politics, and member of a family who had long opposed the Carrolls. He was disdainful of the persistent attacks on the crown and Parliament and sought to defend royal authority. His letter set up a straw man, “First Citizen,” which represented the irrational “people,” against “Second Citizen,” the rational and conservative adherent to government authority. Of course, many of the “people” were the very conservative and wealthy planters and merchants of Maryland, including Carroll. After the letter from Antillon appeared, Carroll struck back under the name “First Citizen” in the same paper. He was critical of “career politicians” like Dulany whose status was determined by their role in government. “Men under the basis of self-interest, and under personal obligations to Government, cannot act with a freedom and independency becoming a representative of the people.” Disinterested statesmen like Carroll were the best safeguards against tyrannical authority.

Of course, no one knew, initially, that Carroll authored the response, but when word spread that it was a grudge match between the two most powerful families in the colony, the gloves came off. The two men exchanged written blows in the Gazette for months and when the smoke cleared, Carroll had emerged as a leader in Maryland politics, and Dulany was shamed by his reckless personal attacks. Carroll, in true statesmanlike fashion, wrote during one of the exchanges that when his opponent engaged in “virulent invective and illiberal abuse, we may fairly presume, that arguments are either wanting, or that ignorance and incapacity know not how to apply them.” With his new fame, Carroll became involved in most of the activities leading to war with Great Britain. He went to the First Continental Congress as an observer and strongly supported the Continental Association of non-importation. He served on the Maryland Committee of Correspondence and was responsible for the enforcement of Maryland’s boycott of British tea and other manufactured goods. It was Carroll who brokered the deal that led to the destruction of the Peggy Stewart, the ship that was burned during the height of the colonial tea protests. Carroll did not countenance mob action, but thought burning the ship was the best solution to avoid threats on both the captain’s life—the captain had been an outspoken advocate of the Tea Act—and the lives of the fifty-three indentured servants in his cargo. The tea and his human cargo were unloaded before the ship was burned to the waterline.

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed Carroll to serve on a three man diplomatic team to Canada. The objective was to win Canadian support for independence and possibly form an alliance. Carroll was a natural choice for the mission. He was fluent in French and as a Catholic would be agreeable to the Catholic French Canadian population. The mission proved a failure, but Carroll had become both a star in his home state and in the Continental Congress. John Adams called him an “ardent patriot.”

Carroll returned to Maryland more dedicated to the cause of independence after his disastrous effort in Canada. He wrote during the excursion that “My abilities are not above the common level, but I have integrity, a sincere love for my country, a detestation of tyranny, I have perseverance, and the habit of business, and I therefore hope to be of some service” to the cause. Carroll underestimated his role. He drafted the Declaration of the Delegates of Maryland in support of independence and voted to separate from the crown on 28 June 1776. Carroll’s Declaration emphasized “Slaves, savages, and foreign mercenaries have been meanly hired to rob a People of their property, liberty & lives, guilty of no other crime than deeming the last of no estimation without the secure enjoyment of the two former.” He was sent to the Second Continental Congress on 4 July 1776, and though he was too late to vote for separation in that body, he signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on 2 August 1776.

He again returned to Maryland and helped craft the Maryland Constitution and Declaration of Rights. The Maryland Constitution was a model of conservative government complete with separate powers and restrictions on popular sovereignty. Carroll devised the Electoral College system in the process, the same system that was adopted by the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. He based his support for the new government on his knowledge of history and “insight into the passions of the human heart….” Maryland extended a declaration of religious liberty to all Christians and required all office holders to be Christian. Catholics could now fully participate in Maryland politics, and because of Carroll’s leadership, Maryland Catholics were one of the most passionate groups in support of independence during the war. They had a voice thanks in large part to the conservative revolutionary from Doughoregan Manor.

Carroll served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1778 and on the Board of War during the darkest years of the struggle. He was a resolute defender of George Washington, and the two men became close friends. When Washington resigned his military commission in 1783, Carroll had a place of honor beside the American Cincinnatus. The two men shared a conservative heritage and the disinterested ideals of the Southern planter. Carroll also opposed the confiscation of Tory land (land held by those who had remained loyal to the crown) and the enlistment of slaves into the American army without adequate compensation to slaveholders, and vigorously fought to maintain the conservative principles of the Maryland constitution while in the state Senate. He served in that body from 1777 to 1801.

Mild Federalist

When several individuals began calling for a stronger central government in 1787, Carroll jumped on board. He was elected as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, but refused to attend because he wanted to keep an eye on the government in Maryland and ensure that the more democratic faction did not hijack the state legislature. Though not elected to the state ratification convention, Carroll supported the Constitution because he believed it was the perfect mix of “the energy of monarchy, the wisdom of aristocracy with the integrity, common interest, & spirit of a democracy.” Carroll, however, recognized that the government, even under the Constitution, was a “confederated Republic” and he remained in his Maryland Senate seat long after he retired from the federal government. Maryland was more his country than the United States. After the adoption of the Constitution, Carroll was sent to the first United States Senate by the Maryland legislature.

Though Carroll was the wealthiest man in the Union when he took his seat in the Senate, and was of aristocratic lineage himself, he opposed titles of nobility. He also opposed congressional salary increases and secret voting. He believed an elected seat was a duty rather than a station and feared the effect excessive compensation might have on the future of the government. If men could enrich themselves as public officials, what would stop the possibility of corruption? Carroll eventually supported efforts to centralize the banking and finance system and served on the Senate committee charged with hammering out the Bill of Rights. His activities in the Senate can be characterized as mildly Federalist. Carroll resigned his seat in 1792 in order to return to his business and plantation affairs. Interestingly, Alexander Hamilton considered him a leading candidate for president if Washington had chosen to retire in 1792. Carroll was unaware of Hamilton’s design but his conservatism and statesmanship were well admired traits among his compeers.

Carroll was defeated for re-election to his state Senate seat in 1801, a casualty of the Jefferson Revolution. He resolved never again to enter political life. His family had become a wreck during his continued absences. His wife was addicted to opium before her death and his son, Charles Carroll of Homewood, soon became a miserable alcoholic. Carroll tried to intervene to save his family, but more often than not, his efforts were futile. He invested in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and sustained a healthy, though conservative, return on his investments. As a prototypical planter, most of his capital was tied up in land and slaves. He usually owned 300 to 400 slaves at any given time.

His record as a slave owner and early abolitionist is a testament to his faith. He sold slaves, but avoided breaking up families, and he offered weekly religious instruction. He once presented a bill in the Maryland Senate for the gradual abolition of slavery which required all slave girls to be educated and then freed at twenty-eight so they could in turn educate their husbands and children. When several proposals for abolition failed, he joined the American Colonization Society and in 1830 was elected president of that organization. Three older slaves kneeled at his bedside the night of his death, practicing the Catholic faith his religious instruction provided them.

Alexis de Tocqueville called Carroll a “European gentleman,” and he was eulogized as the “last of the Romans” following his death in 1832. At 95, Carroll was the last remaining signer of the Declaration of Independence. He detested democracy, calling it nothing more than a “mob,” and hoped that the spirit of civil and religious liberty fostered by the War for Independence would continue long after the passing of the Founding generation. Carroll personified the pious, conservative, agrarian, American tradition. He thought the government should be left in the hands of disinterested statesmen, men who accepted duty and did not seek power or the emoluments and patronage that office provided. His vision was good limited government free from corruption and civil or religious persecution. Carroll was a Catholic Southern planter, the type of man de Tocqueville said “provided America with her greatest spirits.”

About Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author or co-author of five books, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History (Pelican, 2012), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes, (Regnery, 2012). He received a B.A. in History from Salisbury University in 1997 and an M.A. in History from the University of South Carolina in 1999. He finished his Ph.D. in History at the University of South Carolina in 2006, and had the privilege of being Clyde Wilson’s last doctoral student. He lives in Alabama with his wife and three daughters. More from Brion McClanahan

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