More than 90% of the Founding Fathers of America were Protestant. These “Founding Fathers” are those who did one or more of the following:
- signed the Declaration of Independence
- signed the Articles of Confederation
- attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787
- signed the Constitution of the United States of Americ
- served as Senators in the First Federal Congress (1789-1791)
- served as U.S. Representatives in the First Federal Congress.
The fact that most of them were Protestant is a large reason our nation’s founding is typically considered a “Christian nation”, as our laws and even the founding documents themselves clearly suppose a Christian framework. Regardless of how that impacts our laws today, who were the exceptions to the Protestant-dominated list of “Founding Fathers”?
The primary exception was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the few prominent Catholics in America at the time (for reasons which will be made clear). He was an exceptional historical figure for many reasons.
Charles Carroll: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise
Born in 1737, Carroll was an agricultural mogul of Irish descent, becoming the wealthiest man in America in his later life, which enabled him to wield considerable weight in American politics. His wealth at the time corresponds to roughly $465 million USD today.
Whether by his wealth, good luck, or some favor from God, he was also the longest living signer of the Declaration, outliving all other signers.
Carroll was a Federalist and one of the first advocates for independence from the British. His will for independence was exemplified prominently through his writings in the Maryland Gazette, where he was known by the pseudonym as “First Citizen”, a clear indication of his favoring an independent America. Carroll voiced the pro-separation stance in the Maryland Gazette and engaged in frequent written battles against loyalist advocate Antillon. Their arguments developed into open vitriol with ad hominin attacks after Antillon’s identity was exposed as Daniel Dulany the Younger, a politician and lawyer loyal to British rule. Carroll once responded to attacks from Dulany with “virulent invective and illiberal abuse, we may fairly presume, that arguments are either wanting, or that ignorance or incapacity know not how to apply them”. Imagine for a moment if today’s public figures had such large vocabularies!
Not only was Carroll the wealthiest and healthiest of all the signers, but he was also the most highly educated. His deep intellect, including fluency in five languages, stemmed from his 17 year Jesuit education in France.
Early America: True Religious Freedom?
Carroll, though not a “framer” of the Constitution, provided the sole Catholic signature on the Declaration of Independence.
I was thoroughly surprised that when delving in to the early religious history of the United States I found freedom of religion was not immediate. Throughout most of the American colonies, Catholics were not granted the same rights as other Christians. Even in the heavily Catholic state of Maryland, Catholics including Carroll were barred from holding political offices, practicing law, and even voting! These laws proceeded from a 1704 act meant to “prevent the growth of Popery in this Province.”
Most concerningly, the act banned proselytizing, Catholic baptisms of new converts, and even Mass itself. Luckily, most of these horrifying laws were eliminated by the middle of the century. This all strikes a much different historical chord than what I imagined, since I believed that America was founded on the principle of religious freedom and hence free of religious persecution.
Much more about the early Catholic history of Maryland can be found here.
The Curious Signature of Charles Carroll (of Carrollton)
Nonetheless, Carroll participated actively in the 1774 tea party protests and the sinking of the British tea-carrying ship, the Peggy Stewart. Two years later, Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence with a distinctive signature that has generated much speculation since. Mid-20th century journalist John Hix explained (though without sufficient proof) that Carroll’s distinctive signature arose from his hesitancy in adding “of Carrollton” to his name.
Each of the signers knew their signatures on the Declaration of Independence would identify them as criminals, guilty of sedition against current British monarch, King George III. Therefore, those with commonplace names (such as Charles Carroll) might hope for an escape from punishment should the revolution fail. Others with more identifiable names, such as Button Gwinnett, would be easily incriminated.
According to Hix, when Carroll signed his name, he originally wrote only “Charles Carroll”. Upon badgering from an anti-Catholic colleague of the Continental Congress due to the safety enjoyed by Carroll (due to his commonplace name), he added “of Carrollton” to distinguish himself from other possible “Charles Carrolls”. Though mostly speculation, this story presents a viable history given the circumstances at hand.
Carroll in Politics
After the signing, the American Revolutionary War ensued, and Carroll generously funded much of the war out of his own pocket. This spending in support of America’s liberty later paid off (besides winning the war), as some believe the Constitution explicitly protected religious freedom in thanksgiving to Carroll for his war efforts.
Whether religious freedom was indeed protected for so peculiar a reason or not, Carroll took full advantage of his newfound Constitutional right to participate in politics and became Maryland’s first Senator (state-level) from 1781 to 1800. In fact, he also became a U.S. Senator while still holding office in Maryland; however, laws were soon passed to ban service at both state and federal levels, and Carroll resigned from the U.S. Senate soon after.
Later Life and Legacy
Later in life, Carroll helped establish the first railroad in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830. Two years later, he died at the old age of 95 years. He is remembered reverently in Maryland’s state song, Maryland, My Maryland in the third stanza:
Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust
–And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Though one of the few Catholic Founding Fathers, Carroll was thoroughly an American revolutionary deserving of his place in history – and not to be forgotten.