July 7, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence

John F. FinkSince this is the week during which Independence Day falls, I thought I should write about Charles Carroll of Carrollton. We American Catholics should be familiar with him because he was one of the most ardent patriots in the early history of the United States. He undoubtedly was the most influential Catholic of this period of American history.

He was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Since he was the wealthiest man in the colonies at the time, he had more to lose than any of the other signers who pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Yet he signed the document Charles Carroll of Carrollton “so the British will know where to find me.”

He was born in Annapolis, Md., on Sept. 19, 1737, to Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke. They were not married at the time for legal and financial reasons that concerned the inheritance of the Carroll family estates.

When he was 11, Charles was sent to France for his education at the Jesuit College of St. Omer and then Louis the Great College. He went with his cousin John, who was two years his elder. (John would become the first bishop and then archbishop in the United States.)

After studying law in London for several years, he returned to this country in 1765 to take over an estate in Carrollton, Md. Within a few years, he expanded his estate to become one of the wealthiest men.

At that time, Maryland’s laws prohibited Catholics from entering politics, practicing law or voting, “to prevent the growth of Popery in this Province.” Nevertheless, in 1772, Charles wrote in the Maryland Gazette against taxation without representation, which was to become a battle cry of the Revolutionary War.

He became a leading opponent of British rule. In 1774, he was elected to the provincial convention where he successfully swung a hostile Maryland government to approve a move toward independence supported by the Continental Congress. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1776 and signed the Declaration of Independence.

In 1776, too, the Congress sent him, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase and Father John Carroll on a mission to Canada to seek its support during the Revolutionary War. The mission failed, mainly because the United States invaded Canada, but it allowed both Carrolls to become friends with Franklin.

After the Revolutionary War, Charles was elected a United States senator from Maryland. He was a supporter of George Washington and the Federalist Party. In 1792, when a new law made it impossible to hold two political posts at the same time, he resigned as a U.S. senator to retain his position as a state senator. He served his state in that capacity until 1801. After his retirement that year, he continued to comment on public events.

Charles became the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was highly esteemed throughout the country.

He died at age 95 on Nov. 14, 1832. A bronze statue of him is in the crypt of the U.S. Capitol, representing the state of Maryland.

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