Get to Know America’s Only Catholic Signer of the Declaration of Independence
When we consider the founding of the United States of America, we typically think of figures including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. They are just a few of a long list of men and women who had a profound impact in creating the country we know and love today. However, there are several lesser known figures, including Charles Carroll, the sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence who left his mark on religious liberty in our country.
Religious Persecution in His Early Life
Charles Carroll (1737-1832) was born in Annapolis Maryland to a wealthy family who were deeply rooted in their Catholic faith. The family believed that religious liberty was a birthright and raised their children to be faithful sons of the Church.
His cousin, John Carroll, was the first bishop and archbishop in the United States and the founder of Georgetown University. John’s brother and Charles’ cousin Daniel was one of two Catholics to sign the United States Constitution.
Their grandfather emigrated from England to Maryland because of the persecution of Catholics. Maryland was founded by Catholics in 1634 by Lord Baltimore, an English Catholic who established the colony on the principle of religious toleration.
However, as England colonized more of the land, it enforced some of the most anti-Catholic laws due to a brutal royal governor who ordered the Catholic churches to be locked. It became against the law for Catholics to hold public office or vote. There were no Catholic schools and they could not worship in public. Their lands were doubly taxed.
Despite this, the Carrols still practiced their Catholic faith and acquired a significant amount of land and assets. During the American Revolution, Charles had a 10,000-acre estate in Maryland and a net worth of over $2,000,000, adjusted for inflation is equivalent to about $56,000,000.
As a child, he and his cousin John studies with the Jesuits missionaries in secret. They were later sent to study in France receiving a classical and Jesuit education. John went on to seminary to become a priest and Charles studied law in London.
He returned to America when he was 28-years-old believing that the future of the colonies relied on them declaring independence from England. He wrote letters to a Maryland newspaper using the moniker of “First Citizen” even though as a Catholic, he was not recognized as a full citizen.
The Continental Congress
Regardless of this persecution, Charles convinced the people of Maryland to support the fight for independence and was elected to represent the state in the Continental Congress. This marked the end of the states’ ban on Catholic serving in Maryland’s politics.
At the Congress, he signed the Declaration with a steady, confident hand. He signed it “Charles Carroll,” until an anti-Catholic Congressman accused him of protecting himself. There were many men named “Charles Carroll” in the colonies including his father “Charles Carroll of Annapolis.” So, he edited his signature to “Charles Carroll of Carrollton.” It is just a few names down the page from John Hancock’s famous, dramatic signature.
Charles was a supporter of General George Washington. When the war went sour at Valley Forge, he was instrumental in persuading the Revolution’s Board of War not to replace Washington as general.
Charles believed in the cause so much, he supported the war with his own private funds and was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in all of Colonial America. He was perhaps the one who had the most to lose if the war was lost. Not only could he lose his wealth, but also his new-found religious liberties.
After the war was won, he returned to Maryland to help form the new state government. He was one of Maryland’s first two U.S. senators. When he decided he was finished serving at a federal level, he served for the Maryland state senate, preferring state politics over federal.
He endured persecution while serving public office. Many members of the government still held the old-fashioned belief that Catholics should not serve. Regardless, he persisted.
His Generosity and Legacy
He supported the founding of Catholic charities, hospitals, schools, seminaries and religious communities. He demonstrated that Catholics could be good citizens who were loyal to their country, but also true to their faith.
However, like many of the founding fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, he was a slaveowner, one of the largest in the nation with an estimated 400-500 slaves. However, in his later life as a senator, he spoke against slavery and urged the states to abolish the practice.
He was the last signer of the Declaration to die. He was 92 years-old.
Charles Carroll lived a life that American Catholics can look to for inspiration. He was a loyal son of the Church, but also a patriot who used his resources to better both the country and the Church.
He risked everything he had in pursuit of religious freedom and giving a voice to American Catholics in public office. Despite his immense wealth, he lived his life with an open hand, ready to be receptive to the graces and freedom that he found in Jesus Christ and using the blessings given to him to better the lives of his fellow man.