When Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of American Independence, he was both the wealthiest man in the United States and the only important founder who adhered to a church whose members did not have the right to vote! The Providential Liberty in store for generations of future Americans emanated from the life of the man who had the most to lose, when he pledged his life, his property, and his sacred honor.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton entered life in September of 1737 as the son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke. His brilliant but wily father refused to marry his mother until Carrollton reached an age that he could take care of the fortune that would be left him, for Charles Carroll of Annapolis was the second wealthiest man in Maryland and did not want to risk his wife carrying his fortune into another family if he died prematurely! Carrollton, as the son of Charles of Annapolis was called, never actually lived at Carrollton, but in Annapolis and Baltimore, other homes they owned!
Young Charles’s early years were spent with his mother at Doughoregan Manor, near Elk Ridge, outside Baltimore. A small army of slaves attended their wants and were his only companions as he was raised in virtual isolation from other white children. Because Roman Catholics in Maryland suffered the legal restrictions that the Protestant establishment imposed, Chares of Annapolis could not vote nor hold political position, only “make money and spend it.” He was, according to his son “a man of activity, thought, perseverance, and economy” and he amassed an enormous fortune through trade.
There were no legal Catholic institutions of education in America so Charles was sent to a secret Jesuit academy in a remote part of the colony at the age of ten. From there he sailed to Flanders to attend the elite English-speaking Roman Catholic College/Seminary, known as St. Omers. Charles Carroll’s European education exposed him to both the classic Roman Catholic theology of Thomas Aquinas and natural law and the Enlightenment thinking of the French philosophes like Voltaire and Rousseau and the British philosophers Gibbon, Hume, and Locke. He especially admired Montesquieu and the idea of popular sovereignty. Few of the Founding Fathers of the United States received such a powerful and thorough education or could have distilled the world of ideas into a profound love of liberty and practical application in the new republic, as did Carroll of Carrollton.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton believed by 1764 that America “must and will be independent.” No other major Founding Father is known to have believed or contemplated separation from the mother country that early. In fact, several, perhaps many, held out hopes of remaining within the fold of the empire until mere days before they signed the Declaration of Independence. Carrollton’s leadership came to the fore in the Stamp Act Crisis.
Seeking ways to finance the doubling of the size of their empire by way of the victory over France in the Seven Years War, Parliament came up with various schemes of “revenue enhancement.” The Stamp Act got the most widespread negative reaction in the colonies. Consumers were suddenly required to purchase stamps on a variety of products, from playing cards to official documents. Many colonists saw such a tax as a violation of their rights as Englishmen and as a violation of their colonial charters. Incensed by what he considered an assault on liberty, Charles Carroll of Carrollton called for a boycott of English goods and refusal to pay the tax. He considered America “the new empire of liberty,” and warned that “liberty will maintain her empire, till a dissoluteness of morals, luxury and venality shall have prepared the degenerate sons of some future age, to prefer their own mean lucre, the bribes, and the smiles of corruption and arbitrary ministers, to patriotism, to glory, and to the public weal.”
By the time of the Tea Act in 1773, Carrollton was firmly in the anti-royalist camp against the Governor. When Parliament engineered the tax on tea, many people of Maryland looked to Carrollton for leadership. The Patriots organized a Committee of Correspondence to keep in touch with Massachusetts and other colonies, with Carrollton one of the leaders of the “conservative” party. Marylanders declared non-importation and no tea tax payments.
Under Carrollton’s leadership Maryland declared independence from Great Britain in June of 1776. Charles Carroll was drafted to write the declaration, which diverged from Jefferson’s effort on behalf of all the states; the Marylander stressed natural law and overtly referred to God in the document. On 4 July 1776, Carrollton was chosen to be a delegate to the Congress and thus became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. When asked by the President, John Hancock, if he would sign, he responded “most willingly.” Someone nearby commented “there go a few millions.” John Adams would later say of Carrollton: “In the cause of American liberty, his zeal, fortitude and perseverance have been so conspicuous that he is said to be marked out for peculiar vengeance by the friends of Administration; but he continues to hazard his all, his immense fortune, the largest in America, and his life.” Although Roman Catholics still did not have full religious and political rights, Carroll persevered in his total allegiance to independence and hoped that through persuasion and good example he would be able to help his religious cause even more. One out of twelve Marylanders were Catholic and nearly all went over to the patriot cause due to Carrollton’s influence.
Carrollton died in his sleep on November 14th, 1832 at age 95, and was mourned across the political spectrum. He was buried in the chapel at Doughoregan Manor where he spent his lonely boyhood. It is still owned by his descendants. As one of his biographers has noted that the “tableau placed over his tomb had thirteen stars, above them all was the cross.”