On July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – one of the most amazing coincidences in U.S. history unfolded. On that day, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s author, and John Adams, perhaps its greatest advocate, died within hours of each other.
David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams tells the poignant story of how the two patriots he called “the pen” and “the voice” of the Declaration, who had helped forge liberty in their new nation later became bitter political rivals but in their old age corresponded as friends.
But their rivalry even extended to their dying moments, as McCullough noted that Adams on his deathbed in Massachusetts whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Yet earlier that afternoon, Jefferson had died in Virginia.
And then there was one.
The deaths of those two Founding Fathers left just Charles Carroll of Carrollton – the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence – as the sole survivor of the 56 men who had boldly added their signatures to the charter dated July 4, 1776, and the Marylander used that national spotlight to promote religious freedom, which he said was a central message of the new nation’s founding document.
“I am now the last surviving signer,” Carroll wrote on Aug. 2, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the date when he signed the Declaration.
“(I) do hereby recommend to the present and future generation the principles of that important document as the best earthly inheritance their ancestors could bequeath to them, and pray that the civil and religious liberties they have secured to my country may be perpetuated to the remotest posterity and extended to the whole family of man.”
Before he died at the age of 95 in 1832, Carroll became a celebrity as the last living connection to the Declaration, but today he is largely a forgotten patriot.
“Charles Carroll’s place in history has not been acknowledged,” said Charles Carroll Carter, an 87-year-old Washingtonian who is named for the patriot and who is a direct descendant of the Founding Father’s cousin, Daniel Carroll, one of two Catholics to sign the U.S. Constitution.
Bradley Birzer, the author of the 2010 book, American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, said the signer’s legacy should be remembered by Americans, and especially by Catholics.
“I can’t imagine going through the Fourth of July without talking about him,” said Birzer in an interview with Crux.
Birzer, a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan where he holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American studies, noted that when the nation began, Catholics were a small and sometimes distrusted minority, but Carroll by his life and work demonstrated that Catholics could be good citizens, loyal to their country and true to their faith.
Carroll was a member of the most illustrious Catholic family in the United States’ early years. His cousin, Archbishop John Carroll, became the nation’s first Catholic bishop in 1789, heading the Diocese of Baltimore, which at that time included all 13 original states.
The bishop’s brother, Daniel Carroll, in addition to signing the U.S. Constitution, also served in the first Congress as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland. Charles Carroll of Carrollton served as one of Maryland’s first two U.S. senators in the fledgling republic.
The Carrolls came from Maryland, which had some of the most anti-Catholic laws in the colonies. Until the time of the Revolutionary War, Catholics there could not practice their faith openly, raise their children in the faith or send them to Catholic school, they could not vote, serve in the legislature or in professions like the law, and their lands were double taxed.
Ironically, Lord Baltimore, an English Catholic, had established the Maryland colony in 1634 on the principle of religious toleration, but by 1704, the royal governor there had ordered Catholic churches to be locked.
Some historians today regard Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in what would become the United States, and say that colonial Maryland’s story demonstrates the fragility of religious liberty and the need for vigilance in maintaining it.
The Carroll family, deeply rooted in their Catholic faith and Irish ancestry, knew Maryland’s legacy of religious freedom, and those three patriots were dedicated to restoring those rights that had been taken away from that colony’s Catholics, said Tricia Pyne, the director of the Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.
“They (the Carrolls) remained Catholic and loyal to the Catholic Church and were never going to compromise their faith for religious or social gain,” she said in an interview with Crux. “…They believed it (religious liberty) was their birthright, based on the charter of Lord Baltimore.”
Like his two noted cousins, Charles Carroll studied in Europe. Returning to Maryland after 16 years of a classical and Jesuit education, “he concluded that the future of the colonies was in declaring their independence from England,” said Pyne, whose doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America was on the Maryland Catholic community in the Colonial period.
“This new country he saw would be one where the policy of religious toleration would be embraced, so all of its citizens regardless of religious beliefs would be recognized as full citizens,” Pyne said.
Carroll soon began advocating liberty in a series of letters to a Maryland newspaper using the ironic moniker of “First Citizen,” even though as a Catholic he did not yet have full citizenship rights in the colony.
He played a key role in convincing Maryland to support the fight for independence against England, and in 1776, he was elected to represent Maryland in the Continental Congress.
That summer he signed the Declaration with a steady, elegant signature in the lower center part of the document, a few names beneath John Hancock’s famous signature. In his biography, Birzer wrote, “The Declaration of Independence articulated almost everything Charles had accepted and believed in about the world.”
But Carroll did more than lend his name and voice to the struggle. At the time of the Declaration, his family may have been the wealthiest in the colonies from their land holdings and investments. The very last line of the Declaration noted, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
That pledge was especially true in Carroll’s case.
“He was a person who remained steadfast in his faith and committed to the ideals the new nation was founded on,” Pyne said. “He risked it all. He put everything on the line – his fortune, his family’s reputation and future, by supporting the patriot cause.”
Birzer noted that Carroll, like George Washington, used some of his own resources to help fund the Continental Army, and the wealthy Marylander also provided money to keep the new American government afloat.
Carroll’s biographer also noted that the Catholic patriot was the architect of the Maryland Senate in that state’s Constitution, which became the model for the U.S. Senate that Madison devised in his drafting of the new nation’s Constitution. While serving in the U.S. Senate, Carroll was a key advocate for the nation’s capital being located in Washington, D.C.
One stain on Carroll’s legacy was that he, like several of the founding fathers including Washington and Jefferson, was a slaveholder, which was a tragic paradox to the Declaration’s statement that “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
When the Revolution was being fought, Carroll was one of the largest slaveholders in the emerging nation, with an estimated 400-500 slaves. But later as a Maryland senator, he spoke out against slavery and urged the state to abolish the practice gradually. He also joined a movement advocating the establishment of colonies in Africa for released American slaves.
Birzer’s biography noted that in 1820, Carroll wrote that slavery “is admitted by all to be a great evil,” and during his lifetime he “slowly and sporadically” freed many of his slaves.
“Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion in the country at the time was to accept the institution of slavery,” said Pyne, who noted that the Catholic Church was also slow to condemn the practice.
Birzer noted that Carroll generously supported Catholic charities, hospitals, schools, seminaries and religious communities. “He truly saw wealth as a gift. You use it for the good of everybody,” Birzer said.
That author’s book noted how Carroll in his old age was a sprightly man who took long horseback rides and daily cold baths, and who continued to read the Bible, Catholic books and classical writings like those of Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman.
Being a man of faith, and a good citizen, remained central to his identity throughout his life.
Hours before his death, Charles Carroll of Carrollton sat in his chair and reverently received the Eucharist from a priest for the last time.
In “American Cicero,” Birzer noted how the classically trained Catholic patriot had once written, “Who are deserving of immortality? They who serve God in truth, and they who have rendered great, essential and disinterested services and benefits to their country.”