The Church in America does not begin with the great waves of migration that started in the middle decades of the 19th century, mostly from Ireland and Italy. The cities of New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., for example, had long established a strong Catholic identity, and in the Southwest, the Spanish had introduced the Church to what would become Western states such as California.
But there is one state where the Church and the nation’s British political inheritance coincided: Maryland. There, the Carroll family had established itself in 1688, when the first Charles Carroll was sent as attorney general at the request of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore. As Brad Birzer recounts in American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, an engaging biography of the life of another Charles Carroll (grandson of the founder), Catholics were present at the very birth of the republic. Indeed, this Charles Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and had before that distinguished himself in defense of traditional American liberties against what he saw as increased British oppression.
Carroll (1737-1832) lived a remarkable life. Born illegitimate, he was not recognized as the rightful family heir until he turned 20, though Birzer speculates that this had something to do with the financial penalties imposed upon Catholics at that time. Educated abroad, largely by the Jesuits, and trained as a British barrister, young Charles returned to his Maryland estate in 1765, some 20 years after he started out. Birzer ably recounts the liberal education provided to Catholics in those days, deeply infused with medieval and classical learning. These lessons, capped by Carroll’s studies of the European civil and British common law traditions, provided the intellectual backdrop for his defense of the Colonies and their traditional liberties.
The Carrolls had vast holdings in Maryland, among other business interests, and the younger Carroll was immediately the richest man in the Colonies, after his father. He soon enmeshed himself in public life, even though Catholics were prohibited from legal practice, voting or holding political office. As Birzer, who holds the Russell Kirk chair at Hillsdale College, explains, Carroll became a prominent voice, under the pseudonym “First Citizen” in a debate over the proper powers of government. Birzer explains that Carroll drew upon his deep learning of classical philosophy and Western intellectual history to defend a tolerant, liberal government in the face of vicious anti-Catholic attacks and in a state that denied Catholics their participation in public life. The attacks on Carroll for his faith during these debates were no less vitriolic than many contemporary attacks on the hierarchy or individual Catholics. This study is a timely reminder that, in some sense, anti-Catholicism is woven into the fabric of the nation, and that the Church must always be slightly at odds with the American experience.
Carroll emerged from that first set of debates among Maryland’s prominent citizens, and with a well-developed position on the need for an American constitutional government free of its British ties. Both propelled him to take the lead in the Revolution. He served in the colonial Maryland Convention, which opposed the oppressive Maryland Legislature. By the 1770s, Carroll, despite his religious handicap, had won the trust of the colonists’ rebel leaders. John Adams recommended him as an ambassador on behalf of the fledgling American government to Canada, in recognition of that country’s Catholic character.
Carroll went on to serve in the U.S. and Maryland Senates until he retired from public life in 1800. Over the next three decades, and especially after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and Adams in 1826, Carroll was considered “the last of the Romans” by his contemporaries, in recognition of his role in the founding of the new republic.
Carroll’s life offers a lesson for contemporary Catholics. Catholics can vote now, of course, but now the modern state has asserted its power over the Church in the social sphere, such as with health care and education. Further, the state has increasingly denied that religious believers, and in particular those in the Church, should act on their faith in the public square, in the name of a false understanding of “toleration.”
Carroll’s forthright defense of the Western tradition of limited, constitutional government combined with his forthright proclamation of his faith may yet provide a model of Catholic engagement with the secular culture. He represents a tradition that may prove critical to Catholics’ successful coexistence in America in the coming years. Birzer is to be commended for recovering that tradition for us.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.
The Life of Charles Carroll
By Bradley J. Birzer
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010
230 pages, $25
To order: isi.org/books