The Last of the Romans

By September 19, 2016June 22nd, 2021Review Posts

charles carroll of carrollton

This essay was originally published at The Imaginative Conservative and is published here in honor of Carroll’s birthday, September 19.

The last of the American signers of the Declaration of Independence to pass from this world, Charles Carroll of Carroll was also one of the most formally educated of the American founders. Living seventeen years in France and England, Carroll earned his B.A. in the traditional liberal arts and an M.A. in philosophy. He also studied civil law in France and common law in England. Irish immigrants to the English American colonies, the Carrolls suffered at the hands of anti-Catholic bigots in Maryland for three generations. When Charles Carroll of Carrollton came into the world, his parents remained unmarried because of the law, and they chose to send their only son to live in France. Had they educated him in Maryland, the authorities had the legal sanction to remove children—taught in a “Catholic fashion”—from the parents and place them permanently with English Protestants. Though America has inherited the title, “the land of the free,” its thirteen English colonies were anything but tolerant. More than any other colony, Maryland promoted religious toleration for nearly three decades of the seventeenth century, but a coup in the name of William and Mary in 1689 ended that for nearly a century. Maryland went from being one of the single most tolerant societies in the world to one of the least tolerant almost overnight.

In the summer of 1748, Charles Carroll of Carrollton sailed across the Atlantic and became a student at St. Omer. Founded in 1593 on the Aa River in the Pas de Calais, the school’s mission was engraved above its entrance and it revealed its intentions without trepidation: “Jesus, Jesus, convert England, may it be, may it be.” Known to English Catholics as the “the seminary of martyrs—the school of confessors,” the college offered the Jesuit version of the liberal arts, the “Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societas Jesu” (“Method and System of the Studies of the Society of Jesus,” or, in its abbreviated form, the “Ratio Studiorum”). Based on the Spiritual Institutes and the teachings of the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Ratio Studiorum reflected the martial, humane, and rigorous spirit of the Jesuits. Additionally influenced by the teachings of the Spanish Humanist, Luis Vives and the Strasburg educational theorist, John Sturm, the Ratio Studiorum combined scholastic and humanist methods, ideals, and goals. True to the Catholic teachings of such vital figures as St. Augustine, the Ratio Studiorum allowed for local options, as long as the local schools remained true to larger, universal principles. Therefore, what Charles Carroll learned at St. Omer reflected, to a great extent, the beliefs of the local Catholic community as well as those of the superior or rector of the school. In this way, personality expanded rather than diminished in the Jesuit promotion of the liberal arts, and the Jesuits avoided the latent mechanical tendencies of the martial aspects of their order. Over six years, a student, led by a (hopefully) devoted individual tutor, studied literature, philosophy, and science. The curriculum called for frequent recitations and intense repetitions—through compositions, discussions, debates, and contests—on the part of the student. The Ratio Studorium also promoted physical exercise, mild discipline in terms of punishments, and serious “moral training.” Students learned Greek and Latin throughout the six-year course, and the system encouraged the speaking of Latin even in casual conversation. Ultimately, though, the student was to aim for “the perfect mastery of Latin” and, especially “the acquisition of a Ciceronian style.” With the six-year course, the Jesuits helped to release and harmonize “the various powers of faculties of the soul—of memory, imagination, intellect, and will.”

By late November 1753, as Charles graduated, he received the highest praise of all. His master, Father John Jenison, claimed Charles to be “the finest young man, in every respect, that ever enter’d the House.” Hoping not to have his words considered as exaggeration, Father John summed up his views of Charles:

Tis very natural I should regret the loss of one who during the whole time he was under my care, never deserv’d, on any account, a single harsh word, and whose sweet temper rendered him equally agreeable both to equals and superiors, without ever making him degenerate into the mean character of a favorite which he always justly despis’d. His application to his Book and Devotions was constant and unchangeable…. This short character I owe to his deserts;—prejudice, I am convince’d, has no share in it.

Father John assured Charles’s father that the community of priests and students shared this view of the graduating Carroll.

While Carroll and John Dickinson (Pennsylvania) were probably the two most educated (formally) of the American founders, a liberal or classical education was the norm in the American colonies.

As Forrest and Ellen McDonald have argued: “When a student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek. He would need to read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character’” (Requiemby Forrest and Ellen McDonald).

“First Citizen”

When Carroll returned to Maryland in 1765, he remained aloof from politics because of his non-legal standing in the colony as a practicing Roman Catholic. As the American colonies moved toward independence from Britain, however, Carroll accepted the role of republican and conservative revolutionary. In 1773, two debates dominated political discourse: whether the governor (the executive branch) had the right to issue taxes; and whether or not the Church of England should enjoy a legal monopoly in the colony. Revealing his rather liberal education as understood by the French Jesuits, Carroll challenged both ideas, writing under the pseudonym, “First Citizen.”

Over four debates—carried on formally in the main Maryland newspaper and informally on the streets and in every pub in the colony—Carroll challenged the more pro-British ideas of Daniel Dulany, “Antilon.”

During the debates, Carroll drew upon a number of classical (Cicero and Tacitus especially) and medieval figures, and he drew upon recent thinkers as well. For example, Carroll began his fourth letter with arguments of Lord Bolingbroke, a “noble author,” peppered it with quotes from Coke, Hawkins, Blackstone, the 1765 Dulany, David Hume, Jonathan Swift, John Dickinson, Alexander Pope, and John Milton, and concluded with the words of Horace. This gives us an indication of his education and the influences upon him as studied at St. Omer.

His arguments are even more interesting. While continuing his claim that fees were taxes, Carroll posited much of the debate in terms of man’s will, sophistry, and ingenuity against eternal truths and natural law. Though distrustful at times of the “earthiness” of the common law as opposed to the “other worldliness” of the Natural Law, Carroll explained the role of inherited rights succinctly. “It required the wisdom of ages, and accumulated efforts of patriotism, to bring the constitution to its present point of perfection; a thorough reformation could not be effected at once.” And yet Carroll, like many of his contemporaries, found the notion of inherited rights and the common law to be somewhat haphazard and lacking. “Upon the whole,” the “fabrick is stately, and magnificent.” But, he continued, “a perfect symmetry, and correspondence of parts is wanting; in some places, the pile appears to be deficient in strength, in others the rude and unpolished taste of our Gothic ancestors is discoverable.”

In no way, though, should these flaws dismiss the necessity or importance of inherited rights or the common law, Carroll believed. The long, gradual process of discovery through trial and error, reveals the flawed state of man, his creations, and his political orders. “Inconsistencies in all governments are to be met with,” First Citizen recognized. Even in the English constitution, “the most perfect, which was ever established, some may be found.”

True civilization, then, must recognize the limitations of man in his fallen or flawed state. It recognizes the expansive nature of pride in men. Therefore, Carroll argued, taking his claim from Blackstone, proper liberty comes best from “the limited power of the sovereign.”

Only a vigilant, wise, and virtuous people can maintain a free society. “Not a single instance can be selected from our history of a law favourable to liberty obtained from government, but by the unanimous, steady, and spirited conduct of the people,” Carroll argued. “The great charter, the several confirmations of it, the petition of right, the bill of rights, were all the happy effects of force and necessity.”

The Anglo-Saxon culture and constitution best manifested this spirit of liberty, Carroll believed, but the Norman conquest of 1066 destroyed it. “The liberties which the English under their Saxon kings, were wrested from them by the Norman conqueror; that invader intirely [sic] changed the ancient by introducing a new system of government, new laws, a new language and new manners.”


Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence proudly on August 2, 1776, the official day for signing the document, even though it had been passed on July 4. During the Revolution, Carroll financially supported the Continental army under George Washington as well as European officers who came to fight for the burgeoning republic. Additionally, Carroll served in the Continental Congress, not only using his influence to support the army but also attempting to stamp out the ever-growing corruption in the body (as, sadly, all political bodies seem to tend toward). He also, reportedly, did what he could to recruit Irish immigration to the United States during the war.

When the war ended, Carroll supported the proposed federal Constitution as a means—as understood by Baron Montesquieu—to separate the three divisions of government: executive; legislative; and judicial. Throughout the war, he had worried intensely about the concentration of power in the various Committees of Safety in the colonies. They were necessary, he knew, as a transition from English government to permanent republican government, but they were unhealthy over the long run because they concentrated in the division of powers into one body, no matter how democratic it might be. And, importantly, as James Madison revealed in Federalist Paper 63, the U.S. Senate was modeled after the Maryland, itself a creation of Charles Carroll.

The protection of the lives, Liberty, & property of ye persons living under it. The Govt. which is best adapted to fulfill these three great objects must be the best; and the Govt. bids fairest to protect lives, Liberty, & property of its citizens, Inhabitants, or subjects, wh [which is] founded on the broad basis of a common interest, & of which the sovereignty, being lodged in the Representatives of the People at large, unites the vigor & dispatch of monarchy with the steadiness, secrecy, & wisdom of an aristocracy (Carroll, defending the ratification of the 1787 constitution).

Carroll considered his primary role, however, as a promoter of stability in Maryland, rather than in the United States.

He did, however, serve in the first U.S. Senate under the 1787 Constitution, and he gave away much of his property to allow the new country to establish its capitol in what would become Washington, D.C. He also fought for hard money (rather than paper), and he fervently defended the rights of Tories (those who remained loyal to Britain during the Revolution) to be treated as full Americans, in their personal and property rights.

Though he liked Thomas Jefferson very much on a personal level, he believed Jefferson too radical to be a proper president, and Carroll became one of Jefferson’s most important opponents in the early nineteenth century. “Mr. Jefferson is too theoretical and fanciful a statesman to direct with steadiness and prudence the affairs of this extensive and growing confederacy,” he wrote to Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson “might safely try his experiments, without much inconvenience, in the little Republick of San Marino, but his fantastic trickes would dissolve this Union.” Even worse, Jefferson as president would unleash all the latent French-style Jacobinism in the American republic. “I much fear that this country is doomed to great convulsions, changes, and calamities,” Charles again lamented to Hamilton. “The turbulent and disorganizing spirit of Jacobinism, under the worn out disguise of equal liberty, and rights and division of property held out as a lure to the indolent, and needy, but not really intended to be executed, will introduce anarchy which will terminate, as in France, in military despotism.”

Carroll’s fears proved untrue, of course, and as Jefferson’s reputation soared, Carroll’s dropped precipitously.

Though Carroll lived until November 14, 1832, he remained relatively silent throughout much of his last three decades of life. He did, however, meet with the greatest of nineteenth-century French thinkers, Alexis de Tocqueville. The two, not surprisingly, hit it off well. Perhaps, most impressive to Tocqueville, Carroll represented the end of a period in history. “This race of men is disappearing now after having provided America with her greatest spirits,” Tocqueville lamented. “With them the tradition of cultivated manners is lost; the people becoming enlightened, attainments spread, and a middling ability becomes common.” Their conversation covered a number of topics, including the signing of the Declaration and the war for independence. Charles also offered his views on government and democracy.

The general tone and content of his conversation breathed the spirit of the English aristocracy, mingled sometimes in a peculiar way with the habits of the democratic government under which he lived and the glorious memories of the American Revolution. He ended by saying to us: “A mere Democracy is but a mob. The English form of government,” he said to us,“is the only one suitable for you; if we tolerate ours, that is because every year we can push our innovators out West.” The whole way of life and turn of mind of Charles Carroll make him just like a European gentleman.

One can only wonder at how much Carroll influenced Tocqueville’s magisterial Democracy in America. Certainly, one finds at least a parallel to Carroll’s understanding of the dangers of democracy and the need for a self-sacrificing aristocracy in the chapter entitled, “Why Democratic Nations show a more ardent and enduring love of equality than of liberty.” “Men cannot enjoy political liberty unpurchased by some sacrifices,” Tocqueville wrote, “and they never obtain it without great exertions.” In concluding his discussion of Carroll, Tocqueville recorded: “The striking talents, the great characters, are rare. Society is less brilliant and more prosperous.”

When Charles Carroll of Carrollton passed away in November, 1832, two headlines predominated in American papers: “A great man hath fallen in Israel” and “The Last of the Romans” has passed into eternity.

Most likely, Father John Jenison of St. Omer would still be proud of his student

Bradley J. Birzer

Bradley J. Birzer is the co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College. He is a Fellow of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Dr. Birzer is author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative (2015, University Press of Kentucky), American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Sanctifying the World: the Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, co-editor of The American Democrat and Other Political Writings by James Fenimore Cooper, and co-author of The American West.

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