As we turn the page of the calendar to the month of July, we swiftly approach the celebration of Independence Day this Sunday on the Fourth of July. I always have cherished this National Holiday – not only for its festive events like parades, picnics and fireworks – but even more so for its patriotic commemoration of our country’s cherished values of freedom and equality. It was in that spirit that I recently spent some time researching and reading about the passage and signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia in 1776. Much to my interest and surprise, I learned that there actually was a Catholic who affixed his signature to this famous document – but only one Catholic.
The name of the Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence was Charles Carroll, a native of the state of Maryland, born in Annapolis on Sept. 19, 1737. One historical study claims that the religious affiliation of the signers of the document included those with connections to churches, which were Anglican, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Unitarian. However, many scholars nuance such affiliation by noting that many of the Founding Fathers held theological views influenced more by Deism than classic Biblical theology. One of the reasons why there were so few Catholics associated with the Declaration of Independence is related to the severe religious persecution which the members of the Church experienced during colonial times. Many colonists were very suspicious of the allegiance of Catholics to the power of the Pope and fearful that such fealty would be reminiscent of the adherence demanded by the royalty whose rule they had escaped in Europe.
The religious background of Charles Carroll likely can be traced to the origin of the colony of Maryland, which was founded as a safe haven for members of the Church, drawing many Catholic immigrants to flee there from the oppression of the British. However, the toleration which initially was accorded to Catholics in Maryland was overturned by the resistance of Protestants in the early years of the 1690s. By the time Carroll came of age, restrictions prohibited Catholics from holding political office and even from voting in elections. A statute established in 1704 in Maryland was said to be enacted into law in order to “prevent the growth of Popery in this Province.” Yet, Carroll still was able to gain considerable credibility and influence due to his wealth. He held a 10,000-acre estate, and his net worth would have a modern-day equivalent of nearly half a billion dollars. Some claim that he was the richest person in the colonies.
Charles Carroll became one of the prominent voices calling for independence from England as tensions grew between the colonists and the British Crown. Much like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison engaged in the practice of writing pseudonymous newspaper tracts under the name “Publius” in what became known as The Federalist Papers, Carroll wrote under the name “First Citizen,” defending the rights of the colonists and urging the separation from England.
After serving on several committees and conventions in Maryland and being sent from there as a representative to the Continental Congress, Carroll was chosen by the Congress as part of a delegation that would approach the French Canadians in Quebec to seek to convince them to join the colonists in their revolutionary cause. In addition to sharing in the Catholic faith of the Quebecois, he had been schooled in France and could speak their native language. The other members of the deputation sent to the north included Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase and a priest, Charles’ own cousin, John Carroll, who later would become the first Catholic Bishop in the United States of America and the first Archbishop of Baltimore. The group ultimately was not successful in persuading the French Canadians to come to their aid, but the presence of the Continental Congress representative from Maryland in this process indicates the esteem with which he was held.
The story of the famous signature of Carroll on the Declaration of Independence is shrouded in a bit of historical mystery. The popular belief is that the document was signed on the Fourth of July in 1776. However, that venerable date actually is when the vote was taken to pass the final wording of the Declaration. The copy of the document with which we are most are familiar – written in fine calligraphy and signed by the delegates of the Continental Congress – was produced on Aug. 2, 1776. It is said that when it was time for Carroll to write his signature on the Declaration of Independence, he went to the desk near John Hancock, where the text was lying. He simply wrote the words “Charles Carroll.” But, one of the other 56 signatories in the Congress, who was known to be prejudiced against the Catholic faith, criticized Carroll. He disparaged the representative from Maryland, claiming that the name was so common among the population of the colonies that Charles Carroll would face little threat of danger or execution from the King of England. It would be nearly impossible to discover the identity of the person with such a conventional name. In response, Charles Carroll went again to the desk near John Hancock and once more approached the text and added the words “of Carrollton” to his signature to clarify his place of residence and boldly proclaim his identity.
Charles Carroll continued to assume a pre-eminent role in government following the Revolutionary War – serving as a member of the Second Continental Congress, the Maryland State Senate and the Senate of the United States of America. He retired from public office in 1800 and became the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence, dying Nov. 14, 1832.
Although much can and should be said in honor of Charles Carroll in recognition of his important role in the founding of our nation, there remains a very tragic matter included in his historical resume. Along with so many other builders of our nation, he never fully advocated nor issued a declarative statement against slavery in the founding documents of the United States of America. Granted, Carroll did maintain personal opposition to the institution of slavery, calling it “a great evil.” Nevertheless, he owned and did not free his own slaves (more than 1,000 people), and, at best, he favored a “gradual abolition” of the institution.
Thus, it would be most appropriate for us Catholics who truly wish to celebrate the essence of our National Holiday of Independence Day to honor the memory of Charles Carroll by making a commitment to bring to fulfillment his hopes and dreams for our country. Conscious of the holiness of his faith as well as the sinfulness of his incompleteness, let us strive to right the wrongs, which he and other leaders failed to address when founding our nation. May we dedicate ourselves with the boldness and courage to eradicate the racism and its consequences, which were caused by the failure to abolish slavery at the time of the birth of our country so that future celebrations of Independence Day really will be a patriotic commemoration of our cherished values of freedom and equality.
Note: A first step in the journey noted above would be to follow this link to resources regarding the Teachings of the Catholic Church in addressing the sin of racism: https://www.archmil.org/offices/social-justice/Catholic-Social-Teaching/Anti-Racism-Resources.htm.