American Independence's Catholic Architect


by Scott McDermott Scepter Publishers, 2002 352 pages, $24.95 To order: (800) 322-8773

He was the richest man in Maryland—probably in all 13 Colonies. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress appointed him to go on a sensitive diplomatic mission to Canada. He later became a U.S. senator and, eventually, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Not bad for the grandson of an Irish immigrant.

This new biography of Charles Carroll (1737-1832), by occasional Register columnist Scott McDermott, is a vivid and memorable portrait of America's Catholic founding father. Meticulously researched and annotated, the book relies heavily on Carroll's own correspondence and papers. The author examines historical issues—religious freedom in the colonies, the mercantile system, slavery and taxation—through the firsthand accounts of an intelligent observer.

The wealth amassed by Carroll's grandfather and father through land holdings and rents in Maryland was a mixed blessing. His father, fearing that his property might pass into another family if he died before he had a suitable male heir, did not regularize his common-law marriage to Elizabeth Brooke until their son was 20 years old. While studying with the Jesuits in Belgium, “Carrollton” constantly had to prove himself worthy during his “exile.”

The younger Carroll, though a late bloomer (he himself married at age 31), had great intellectual gifts. Upon returning to the New World, he quickly learned to be as shrewd a businessman as his father. Despite the anti-Catholic prejudices in 18th-century Maryland, he became a mover and shaker in the government of the colony.

“Carrollton's most striking contributions to American political life were the Senate and the Electoral College,” writes McDermott. “The inspiration for the Senate came from Montesquieu. A strong and independent Senate, made up of the most responsible citizens, brings the [Catholic social] principles of hierarchy and subsidiarity into a republic.” Both of these institutions would become part of the new national government as well, helping to stabilize it and to offset the potentially volatile populist forces.

Charles Carroll's role in the politics of his time was guided by principles and loyalties, not by ambition. When the Maryland Senate passed a law in 1792 prohibiting dual office-holding, Carroll resigned from his seat in the Senate so as to continue to guide the fledgling state government back home.

Though the biography is arranged chronologically, McDermott occasionally digresses to provide background information, demonstrating that Carroll and his contemporaries not only shaped the course of events—but were themselves shaped by previous history.

“At Ticonderoga [during his diplomatic mission to Canada] Carroll described the remains of a French abatis, a defensive work made of sharpened tree branches,” writes McDermott. “These ghostly reminders of [the French and Indian War] were still a hazard for the commissioners, whose boats struck against pickets the French had driven into the riverbed twenty years earlier.”

Faithful Revolutionary is a fine study in American history that also offers fascinating insights into our Catholic heritage.

Michael J. Miller writes from

Glenside, Pennsylvania.

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