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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

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Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College, and a Senior Fellow with the Center for the American Idea in Houston. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Christendom Press) and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth (ISI). He recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, about his new book, American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, published by Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Ignatius Insight: Why a book about Charles Carroll? How did it come about?

Dr. Birzer: Thank you very much, Carl, for wanting to talk about Charles Carroll of Carrollton and American Cicero. Please know — as I hope and assume is obvious — I always thoroughly enjoy working with you and talking to you. Thanks, too, to Mark Brumley and Ignatius for providing this forum as well as for all the excellent media promoting orthodox Catholicism. The influence of Ignatius Press is clearly being felt in the reforms in the Church over the last few decades.

I'm especially happy to talk about Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a man I have come to admire deeply in my study of him, the American Roman Catholic Church, and the American founding.

Though I've studied the American founding throughout the entirety of my adult life, I'd never had the chance (or, at least, I'd never taken the time) to study much about Carroll.

As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, I studied the American founding as well as American expansion (frontier and empire) with Walter Nugent and Greg Dowd (now at the University of Michigan).

As a graduate student, I studied with David Edmunds (now at UT-Dallas) and Bernhard Sheehan at Indiana University. While at IU, I chose the American founding (specifically the ideas--republicanism/whiggery, liberalism, and Protestantism--that went into shaping the minds of the founders) as one of my four fields of concentration and examination.

In the late 1990s, I had the chance to listen to a number of lectures by Donald Lutz in Houston through Winston Elliott's group, the Center for the American Idea. Lutz, armed with an eye patch and a spectacular intellect, really provided me with a strong, non-ideological grounding in the Founding. Though a Georgetown man, Lutz taught me, significantly, that one could never consider the American founding "one thing." Instead, it must be understood as an extremely complex era, 1763-1793, with fully developed human persons of like minds and common educational backgrounds arguing over the need for reform and purification of the English commonwealth.

In some instances, Lutz taught me, the founders acted as historians. In others, as warriors; and, still in others, as political philosophers. To narrow the founding to one philosopher or, say, six important founders--maybe, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, and Wilson--with the rest as "pious dupes" was a mistake of monumental proportions. While certain men stood above the rest, all contributed, even if through disagreement and strife. When it comes to the founding and our modern and post-modern claims upon it, Lutz provides a needed dose of sanity.

Each of these men--Nugent, Dowd, Edmunds, Sheehan, and Lutz--shaped my own views profoundly.

Winston Elliott (mentioned above), by the way, has fundamentally influenced my ideas as well. Of course, with the Center for the American Idea, he's not only creating immense networks of scholars (where I met Gleaves Whitney, Bruce Frohnen, and Don Lutz, for example) but he's also directly transmitting the ideas of the founding to teachers and professors, thus connecting the generations. Moreover, Elliott possesses not only a vast library of works on and about the founding, but, equally impressive and uncannily supernatural, he's also a walking, living, breathing bibliography of the period. I doubt if I know any one as well versed in the literature of the founding period as is Winston.

This is all a rather long way to explain that prior to the Carroll project, I had never studied Catholicism and its presence or absence in the American founding directly. I had studied the 1774 Quebec Act, perhaps, as J.C.D. Clark has argued, the catalyst for war, and the blatant anti-Catholicism of the American colonials. Prior to starting this project in 2005, I think I vaguely knew Carroll was Roman Catholic, but I was more fascinated with his self-identification, "of Carrollton," and his immense fortune, supposedly the largest in the colonies at the time of the founding. Sadly, prior to my study of Carroll, I also probably confused Charles with his cousin, Jacky (John), the first archbishop in the United States.

Anyway, to make a very long story somewhat short, I fell rather easily into conversation with the intellectually and charismatically intimidating Lt. General Josiah Bunting at a conference held by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in the fall of 2005. My good friend, Gleaves Whitney, president of the Hauenstein Center, had asked me to speak on the literary and journalistic reaction to President Woodrow Wilson's progressive war policies. When Lt. General Bunting told me he was editing a series on the "forgotten founders," we discussed what a shame it was that Americans, by and large, remembered the names of several founders but had almost completely forgotten the vast majority of them. As we walked into a conference room, ready to begin the next session, Lt. General Bunting graciously invited me to write the Carroll volume. I doubt many people say "no" to Bunting, and I accepted immediately. As I told him jokingly, "I have a feeling I would probably follow you into Hell and back. . . 'the back,' by the way, is really important." Anyway, I accepted immediately, not just because Bunting has a powerful charisma about him, but because I really wanted to write on Carroll.

I had just completed my intellectual biography of the historian and English man of letters, Christopher Dawson, and I was eager to continue pursuing themes of Christian Humanism. As it turns out, Father Thomas O'Brien Hanley, S.J., had labeled Carroll as nothing less than this than a Christian Humanist in his two-volume biography published a few decades ago. So, what better thing could I do: a book about Christian Humanism and the American founding. Too good to be true, frankly. And, yet, there it was.

I have used some form of "sanctifying" in my previous books: Sanctifying Myth and Sanctifying the World. My friend, John Miller of National Review--and now a well known novelist as well as a journalist in great demand--said: "Brad, you have to leave "sanctifying" out of the title of your next book. What could I have called it: "Sanctifying the Revolution: Charles Carroll and the American Founding"?

So, I left out "sanctifying."

And, just briefly, for those readers who were like me before I started this project in the fall of 2005--Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and a devout Roman Catholic, was born in 1737 and died in November 1832. He was the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to die, outliving Jefferson and Adams by over six years. A driving force behind Maryland's move toward independence, Carroll helped shape the fundamental doctrines of rights and government in Maryland. His creation of the Maryland Senate, as admitted in Madison's note on the Constitutional Convention and in Federalist 63, directly inspired the creation of the U.S. Senate. A moderate Federalist, he defended the passage of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 and served as a U.S. Senator for the first several years of the Senate's existence. With the so-called "Revolution of 1800" and Jefferson's ascendence to the presidency, Carroll retired from all active politics but continued to serve as a cultural and political critic during the period of the early republic.

Ignatius Insight: In what ways was Charles Carroll an "American Cicero"?

Dr. Birzer: Beginning sometime in his teenage years, Carroll fell in the love with the life, the ideas, and the writings of Cicero. From that point until his death in 1832, Carroll considered Cicero one of his closest friends and, as he put it, a constant companion in conversation. After the teachings of Christ and the Bible, he said toward the end of his life, give me the works of Cicero. Again, as Father Hanley has argued, Carroll truly was a Christian Humanist, blending the Judeo-Christian with the Greco-Roman traditions of the West quite nicely in his person as well as in his intellectual life.

The founders, overall, greatly respected Cicero. Not only had he served as the last real bulwark against the encroachment of tyranny and empire in ancient Rome, but he represented the best a republic had to offer, then or now. Probably Carl J. Richard, author of The Founders and the Classics and Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts, has presented the most extensive and best work on this. Forrest McDonald, too, has done yeoman's work. Classicists Christian Kopff and Bruce Thornton have published excellent studies on this as well.

In many ways, Carroll resembled Cicero not at all. Certainly, no leader ever hunted down Carroll, as Marc Antony did to the great Roman senator. And, while Carroll could speak with force, dignity, and clarity, his oratorical skills could in no way match Cicero's.

But, like Cicero--and, indeed, inspired in large part by the example and words of Cicero--Carroll always put the needs of the res publica ahead of his own personal self interest. In fact, I couldn't find an instance in Carroll's public life where he did not always put the good of the republic ahead of his own good. He served as a model leader.

When I first sent the manuscript to ISI, I had wanted to name the book, "The Last of the Romans: The Life of Charles Carroll." The title, "Last of the Romans" was given to Carroll at his death. It's fitting. Jed Donahue, ISI's new editor, rightfully thought Carroll too obscure a figure to give such a title to his biography; an audience might justly believe the book to be about ancient history. My close friend and colleague, Dr. Mark Kalthoff, came up with the clever title "Papist Patriot." While Kalthoff's title is certainly catchy and edgy, I didn't want to have to explain to Catholic audiences why I was using a term usually associated with an insult.

In the end, American Cicero seemed fair and just, as it tied the founding to the ancient world without forgetting the medieval or the early modern worlds. As another close friend of mine, Thomas More and Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Smith, has argued in private conversation, "Cicero serves as a key to true reform and progress in the western world." And, of course, Smith is right. We can't even imagine St. Augustine, Petrarch, or Thomas More without the Ciceronian element. The same should be true of the American founding. To my mind, among the American founders, Charles Carroll best continued the Ciceronian legacy.

Ignatius Insight: In the Introduction, you describe Carroll as "an exemplar of Catholic and republican virtue." What are some examples of each?

Dr. Birzer: Just as figures (some mythical, some historical, most a combination of both) such as Cincinatus and Cicero served as exemplars for the American founders, so Carroll should serve as an exemplar for us. Carroll devoted his considerable resources and gifts to the common good.

We live, however, in an age of cynicism and scandal. Such men as Washington or Carroll seem like cardboard figures to us, mostly because we can no longer imagine what real service and sacrifice means, especially to something so "old fashioned" as the republic. All we have to do is give a sidelong glance toward Washington or Wall Street to see where our society as "progressed": deals, corruption, and the radical pursuit of self-interest infect, inundate, and adulterate almost every aspect of our institutions and so-called leadership. A figure who stands for right seems the fool, the buffoon, or the flighty romantic, merely positioned to be stepped upon or used.

And, of course, this isn't true for everyone in what remains of our constitutional republic. Just this past weekend, I learned that 13 of our roughly 280 graduates of the Hillsdale Class of 2010 have joined the Marines. At least one graduate is heading off to a Catholic monastery; another is off to Orthodox seminary to become a priest. So, a few good men and women remain.

Sadly, though, these Hillsdale students serve as exceptions in a larger culture that puts security and material comfort above eternal certainties.

Throughout his public career, Carroll defended the soul and nature of the republic. Like many of the founders, he believed that no people could enjoy the blessings of liberty without the virtue necessary to maintain it. If a man cannot order himself, how can we expect him to order his community?

For Carroll, republican virtue would have flowed neatly into a Catholic understanding of the world. Virtue--our English equivalent of "virtu" or "manly power"--animates a person as well as a society. During the revolution, Carroll used much of his own wealth to maintain armies as well as governments. Never did he expect to be paid back for any of this. As he saw it, God placed him in that time and that place. His material wealth, a blessing, could only be sanctified by using it for God's greater glory. In the providence of history, Carroll believed, the American revolution served not only to give an example of religious liberty to the world, but also a representation and manifestation of God's desire for man to reform, to purify, and to bring society back to first principles.

Ignatius Insight: How did Carroll's education in Jesuit schools in Europe shape his political thought and guide his decisions regarding the American Revolution?

Dr. Birzer: Profoundly. He lived with or near the Jesuits for most of his childhood, all of his teen years, and as a young adult. Carroll, with his cousin, John, received a typical Jesuit liberal education, then known as the "Ratio Studiorum." Over a six-year period, students learned Greek and Latin, especially "the acquisition of a Ciceronian style." The education, the Jesuits hoped, would harmonize "the various powers of faculties of the soul--of memory, imagination, intellect, and will." After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree, Carroll earned a M.A. in "universal philosophy." With the M.A. in hand, he studied civil and common law.

Ultimately, he and John Dickinson were the two most formally educated of all the founders. This is, by no means, faint praise. One of the most interesting things to me, especially as a historian, is how much we as an American people have forgotten the educational climate of the colonial and founding eras. At that time, education meant "liberal education." Anything else was considered "servile" or training.

Consequently, the founding generation knew the classical world, inside and out. Perhaps historian and man of letters Russell Kirk put this best in a number of writings. The patrimony of four symbolic cities of western civilization—Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London—culminated in a fifth iconographic city, Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. "The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easer for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror," historian Trevor Colbourn has written. "They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties."

Read Part Two of "Charles Carroll, the Catholic Founder"


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