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Charles Carroll, the Catholic Founder: An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll | Ignatius Insight | June 3, 2010 | Part 1 | Part 2

Or, to quote Christian Kopff, quoting the founders themselves--when writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1825) explained that he drew on ancient sources:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
John Adams sounded very similar to Jefferson, but fifty years (1774) earlier:
These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.
Unlike the French revolutionaries of the 1790s or the Russian revolutionaries of 1917, attempting to create, in the words of Shakespeare, a "brave new world," the American patriots turned the world right-side up. They desired a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law. From the perspective of the founders, God had written the republican principles of the American Revolution into nature herself. "We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book," a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.

Again, it is worth noting how liberally educated the founders were. As Forrest and Ellen McDonald have written, when a student entered college in the 1750s or 1760s, (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.'"

This helps us understand why the classical world held such sway over the founding generation. They lived and breathed the classical and Christian worlds in their youth.

Ignatius Insight: What affect did Carroll's illegitimacy have on him as a man and a leader? What was the place and influence of the Carroll family as a whole in the Catholic Church during the late 18th century?

Dr. Birzer: Because of its wealth and reputation, the Carroll family stood as the most prominent Catholic family in the colonies. Even after the war, Charles Carroll maintained his position as leader of lay Catholics in America. His cousin, John, made archbishop toward the end of the founding period, wrote to Charles in 1800: "The concerns of our religion in this country are placed especially under my superintendence; and under God, its chief protection has long been owing to the influence and preponderance of yourself & your venerable Father before you."

As Catholics, the Carrolls had suffered severe disadvantages in colonial society. After the so-called "Glorious Revolution of 1688," a group of Protestants overthrew the Maryland government, establishing the Church of England as the only legitimate church of Maryland. Roman Catholics refusing to submit to the Anglican faith could not, by law, serve in politics or law, vote, represent themselves in court, worship in public, or raise the child in a "Catholic fashion." In short, no colony restricted and persecuted Catholics more than did Maryland, once (prior to 1689) the most tolerant of the English colonies.

Charles's father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, had little choice but to send the future signer overseas, away from Protestant eyes. To have adopted his son legally could have risked the entire Carroll fortune and estate. As an aristocrat, no matter how disenfranchised, Charles Carroll of Annapolis had to uphold the honor of the family, past, present, and future. To endanger the family for an emotional attachment would have been, to Carroll of Annapolis, dishonorable.

From a great distance, Charles Carroll of Carrollton learned these lessons, the lessons of a persecuted minority, and he kept these with him until his death. This helps explain why Carroll proved extremely tolerant as a political leader, advancing the cause of religious liberty wherever possible. As he explained in 1829: "When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all Sects, professing the Christian Religion, and communicating to them all great rights . . . . Happily this wise and salutary measure has taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution." When one considers "the proscriptions of the Roman Catholics in Maryland, you will not be surprised that I had much at heart this grand design founded on mutual charity, the basis of our holy religion," Carroll explained.

Ignatius Insight: Carroll was aristocratic and republican, and a strong Federalist. What influence did he have on the creation of the Constitution? What was his opinion of democracy, and what essential differences would he have seen between democratic and republican forms of government?

Dr. Birzer: Though elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Carroll couldn't attend the august gathering in Philadelphia because of political problems in Maryland. He worried that his absence would encourage his political opponents to create mischief. So, sadly, Carroll never attended the convention. Regardless, he defended the adoption of the Constitution in Maryland, leading the Federalist forces there.

As mentioned previously, he inspired the creation and actual form of the U.S. Senate through his design (with state approval, of course) of the Maryland Senate. In Maryland as well as at the federal level, the Senate would serve as a form of aristocratic check on the executive as well as on the democracy.

As with many of the authors of the Constitution, Carroll feared the growth of democracy. Clearly, the founders incorporated elements of democracy, but they did so in a very limited way. The only true democratic element of the Constitution came in the form of the House of Representatives, one half of one branch of government. The people had no direct say in the election of the president, senators, or the Supreme Court justices. Citizens could vote only for their one representative, representing their one small district. If anything, the Constitution did everything possible to limit the direct influence of the people in any kind of immediate way. Today, we forget this, as we use the term "democracy" to mean almost anything good. Or, at least what we think is good. But for the founding generation, one could readily equate democracy with passion, irrationality, and mob role. Such distrust of democracy in the western tradition went back to Plato.

After a particular radical movement animated by a democratic sentiment emerged in the fall of 1776, Carroll wrote: "They will be simple Democracies, of all governts. the worst, and will end as all other Democracies have, in despotism."

While Carroll believed as many of the other founders did, his anti-democratic language came back to haunt him in the aftermath of Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800. As America became more democratic in spirit, if not in form, Carroll began to look outmoded and reactionary.

Still, Carroll persevered in his criticism of the direction of the republic. "It is however I find, impossible for a man tainted with democratic principles, to possess an elevated soul and dignified character," he wrote to his son in 1806. "In all their actions and in all their schemes and thoughts, there is nothing but what is mean and selfish."

Ignatius Insight: Carroll died in 1832. What role or roles did he play in the first decades of the fledgling American republic?

Dr. Birzer: Mostly a private citizen after 1800, Carroll spent much time with his family, his land, and his books. He also, however, thoroughly enjoyed entertaining and parties at the Carroll estate became legendary in Maryland and throughout the colonies.

Additionally, Carroll worked hard to end slavery in the United States, mostly through the American Colonization Society.

Ignatius Insight: Up until the Civil War, Carroll was a well-known and beloved American hero. Why did interest in him fade so quickly in the late 19th century?

Dr. Birzer: Well, for two reasons, I think. A) He was Roman Catholic and serious about his faith. As America continued to centralize, democratize, and nationalize, it grew increasingly anti-Catholic. The Catholic Church became, as it had during the colonial period, the perceived enemy of American democracy and American freedom--at least in the eyes of Nativists. John McGreevy, Dean of Arts and Letters of the University of Notre Dame, has done an especially good job of showing how American nationalism and centralization needed the scapegoat of Catholicism. The pope and the Vatican could once again serve as those outside forces hindering true "progress" and liberty. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Carroll, understandably, became inconvenient for such nativists and his reputation declined dramatically.

B) Carroll truly distrusted democracy. As the democrat spirit raged in the 19th century, as mentioned earlier, Carroll seemed more and more outmoded, reactionary, and aristocratic.

In the early 1830s, the brilliant Alexis de Tocqueville interviewed Carroll. His description of Carroll, I think, helps answer this question:

"This race of men is disappearing now after having provided America with her greatest spirits . . . .With them the tradition of cultivated manners is lost; the people becoming enlightened, attainments spread, and a middling ability becomes common. . . . 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."

After departing from Carroll's estate, de Tocqueville recorded, "The striking talents, the great characters, are rare. Society is less brilliant and more prosperous."

Ignatius Insight: Having written this biography and being a historian of the founding of the United States, what do you believe Charles Carroll would think of the United States in the year 2010? What observations or advice might he offer on matters religious and political?

Dr. Birzer: I can't imagine him being happy with much in 2010. As historian Gordon Wood has pointed out in his Radicalism of the American Revolution, every one of the signers of the Declaration believed the republic had fallen by the time each one of them had died. A sobering thought, to be sure. Carroll saw hope only as long as men kept their virtue. In 1828, he offered the following advice to a labor group in Baltimore:
"You observe that republics can exist, and that the people under that form of government can be happier than under any other. That the republic created by the Declaration of Independence may continue to the end of time is my fervent prayer. That protracted existence, however, will depend on the morality, sobriety and industry of the people."
So, it would be wrong to conclude that Carroll had no hope for the future. As Carroll fully understood, one never knows when God would manifest his love and grace in very tangible ways in the world.

But, to be somewhat objective--he would be shocked by the prevalent use of the word "democracy"; the direct election of Senators; the powers of the federal government; the powers of the individual branches of government; the laxity of morals, the high divorce rates, and the high out of wedlock sexual relations; the dramatic decline of liberal education and on and on and on. . . .

Really, what founder would not be horrified by the current state of politics, the economy, the culture, etc.?

Of course, Carroll might also see the various populist movements today, such as the Tea Party, as a sign of coming reform, purification, and return to first principles.

But, overall, I can't imagine he would be happy with our year or our century.

Ignatius Insight: If Carroll is known at all today, it is usually as the lone Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence. How do you hope your biography will bring a greater, deeper appreciation for Carroll's life and thought?

Dr. Birzer: Well, there's certainly nothing wrong with being known as the lone Catholic who signed the Declaration, but Carroll's life reveals so much more. First, and perhaps most importantly, Carroll gives us a model. He stood against the popular will, and he stood for what's right in terms of what he believed to be eternally true. His life offers us a number of examples of intelligent piety and heroic fortitude.

As I see it, the best biographies attempt to get into the very heart and soul of the subject. I believe the biographer must have a poetic element in his writing and thinking. If he merely recounts the dates and events and marriages and children, etc., he has done a great disservice to an unfathomably complex and unrepeatable human life. This is the real genius of someone like Joseph Pearce, our greatest living biographer, in my opinion. Pearce dives right into the person, seeing the world through the eyes of his subject. Scholars sometimes criticize Pearce for this subjective element, but I find it immensely refreshing and convincing. This is a rare and precious skill. Russell Kirk did it stunningly with his biography of his friend, T.S. Eliot, The Age of Eliot. And, I think Robert Utley wrote a captivating biography of the Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, in his The Lance and the Shield.

While I would never claim the ability to match the skill of any of these biographers, I strive to model myself after each of them. Tolkien and Dawson were easier figures--from my perspective--to understand than Carroll proved to be. Whether my end conclusions about Tolkien and Dawson were right or wrong, each of these English academics "made sense" to me. It was only with great difficulty that I broke into a part of Carroll's life. I still don't think I really understood his marriage, his relationship with his children, or his considerable business acumen. I, consequently, left these aspects of his life almost completely out of American Cicero. Instead, I focused somewhat exclusively on his intellectual and spiritual life, both of which I found convincing, cohesive, and inspiring.

Frankly, I would only want to write a biography of someone with whom I could sympathize. This means, of course, I could never write (or even attempt to write) a biography of an Adolph Hitler, a Josef Stalin, or a Margaret Sanger.

Give me a good Catholic like Tolkien, Dawson, or Carroll any day, and I'll be a happy man.

After all, Carroll asked in 1826: "Who are deserving of immortality? . . . They who serve God in truth, and they who have rendered great, essential, and disinterested services and benefits to their country."

Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Interviews:

A New Christian Republic of Letters | Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson | From Chapter 2 of The Formation of Christendom
Out of Virtue, Greatness: Washington as Aristotle's Magnanimous Man | Dr. Jose Yulo
What Is America? | G.K. Chesterton
On Being Catholic American | Joseph A. Varacalli

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