01 October 2012

American Cicero: Carroll the Catholic Founder

The following are insights from historian Bradley J. Birzer, author of American Cicero

Though I've studied the American founding throughout the entirety of my adult life, I'd never had the chance (or, at least, I'd never taken the time) to study much about Carroll.

Prior to the Carroll project, I had never studied Catholicism and its presence or absence in the American founding directly. I had studied the 1774 Quebec Act, perhaps, as J.C.D. Clark has argued, the catalyst for war, and the blatant anti-Catholicism of the American colonials. Prior to starting this project in 2005, I think I vaguely knew Carroll was Roman Catholic, but I was more fascinated with his self-identification, "of Carrollton," and his immense fortune, supposedly the largest in the colonies at the time of the founding. Sadly, prior to my study of Carroll, I also probably confused Charles with his cousin, Jacky (John), the first archbishop in the United States.

Just briefly, for those readers who were like me before I started this project in the fall of 2005--Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and a devout Roman Catholic, was born in 1737 and died in November 1832. He was the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to die, outliving Jefferson and Adams by over six years. A driving force behind Maryland's move toward independence, Carroll helped shape the fundamental doctrines of rights and government in Maryland. His creation of the Maryland Senate, as admitted in Madison's note on the Constitutional Convention and in Federalist 63, directly inspired the creation of the U.S. Senate. A moderate Federalist, he defended the passage of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 and served as a U.S. Senator for the first several years of the Senate's existence. With the so-called "Revolution of 1800" and Jefferson's ascendence to the presidency, Carroll retired from all active politics but continued to serve as a cultural and political critic during the period of the early republic.

The Title "American Cicero"

Beginning sometime in his teenage years, Carroll fell in the love with the life, the ideas, and the writings of Cicero. From that point until his death in 1832, Carroll considered Cicero one of his closest friends and, as he put it, a constant companion in conversation. After the teachings of Christ and the Bible, he said toward the end of his life, give me the works of Cicero. Again, as Father Hanley has argued, Carroll truly was a Christian Humanist, blending the Judeo-Christian with the Greco-Roman traditions of the West quite nicely in his person as well as in his intellectual life.

The founders, overall, greatly respected Cicero. Not only had he served as the last real bulwark against the encroachment of tyranny and empire in ancient Rome, but he represented the best a republic had to offer, then or now. Probably Carl J. Richard, author of The Founders and the Classics and Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts, has presented the most extensive and best work on this. Forrest McDonald, too, has done yeoman's work. Classicists Christian Kopff and Bruce Thornton have published excellent studies on this as well.

In many ways, Carroll resembled Cicero not at all. Certainly, no leader ever hunted down Carroll, as Marc Antony did to the great Roman senator. And, while Carroll could speak with force, dignity, and clarity, his oratorical skills could in no way match Cicero's.

But, like Cicero--and, indeed, inspired in large part by the example and words of Cicero--Carroll always put the needs of the res publica ahead of his own personal self interest. In fact, I couldn't find an instance in Carroll's public life where he did not always put the good of the republic ahead of his own good. He served as a model leader.

"An exemplar of Catholic and republican virtue"

Just as figures (some mythical, some historical, most a combination of both) such as Cincinatus and Cicero served as exemplars for the American founders, so Carroll should serve as an exemplar for us. Carroll devoted his considerable resources and gifts to the common good.

We live, however, in an age of cynicism and scandal. Such men as Washington or Carroll seem like cardboard figures to us, mostly because we can no longer imagine what real service and sacrifice means, especially to something so "old fashioned" as the republic. All we have to do is give a sidelong glance toward Washington or Wall Street to see where our society as "progressed": deals, corruption, and the radical pursuit of self-interest infect, inundate, and adulterate almost every aspect of our institutions and so-called leadership. A figure who stands for right seems the fool, the buffoon, or the flighty romantic, merely positioned to be stepped upon or used.

Throughout his public career, Carroll defended the soul and nature of the republic. Like many of the founders, he believed that no people could enjoy the blessings of liberty without the virtue necessary to maintain it. If a man cannot order himself, how can we expect him to order his community?

For Carroll, republican virtue would have flowed neatly into a Catholic understanding of the world. Virtue--our English equivalent of "virtu" or "manly power"--animates a person as well as a society. During the revolution, Carroll used much of his own wealth to maintain armies as well as governments. Never did he expect to be paid back for any of this. As he saw it, God placed him in that time and that place. His material wealth, a blessing, could only be sanctified by using it for God's greater glory. In the providence of history, Carroll believed, the American revolution served not only to give an example of religious liberty to the world, but also a representation and manifestation of God's desire for man to reform, to purify, and to bring society back to first principles.

Carroll's education in Jesuit schools in Europe

 Carroll's education in Jesuit schools in Europe profoundly shaped his political thought and guided his decisions regarding the American Revolution.  He lived with or near the Jesuits for most of his childhood, all of his teen years, and as a young adult. Carroll, with his cousin, John, received a typical Jesuit liberal education, then known as the "Ratio Studiorum." Over a six-year period, students learned Greek and Latin, especially "the acquisition of a Ciceronian style." The education, the Jesuits hoped, would harmonize "the various powers of faculties of the soul--of memory, imagination, intellect, and will." After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree, Carroll earned a M.A. in "universal philosophy." With the M.A. in hand, he studied civil and common law.

Ultimately, he and John Dickinson were the two most formally educated of all the founders. This is, by no means, faint praise. One of the most interesting things to me, especially as a historian, is how much we as an American people have forgotten the educational climate of the colonial and founding eras. At that time, education meant "liberal education." Anything else was considered "servile" or training.

Consequently, the founding generation knew the classical world, inside and out. Perhaps historian and man of letters Russell Kirk put this best in a number of writings. The patrimony of four symbolic cities of western civilization—Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London—culminated in a fifth iconographic city, Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. "The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easer for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror," historian Trevor Colbourn has written. "They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties."

Or, to quote Christian Kopff, quoting the founders themselves--when writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1825) explained that he drew on ancient sources:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
John Adams sounded very similar to Jefferson, but fifty years (1774) earlier:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.
Unlike the French revolutionaries of the 1790s or the Russian revolutionaries of 1917, attempting to create, in the words of Shakespeare, a "brave new world," the American patriots turned the world right-side up. They desired a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law. From the perspective of the founders, God had written the republican principles of the American Revolution into nature herself. "We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book," a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.

Again, it is worth noting how liberally educated the founders were. As Forrest and Ellen McDonald have written, when a student entered college in the 1750s or 1760s, (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek. He would need to "read and translate from the original Latin into English 'the first three of [Cicero's] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil's Aeneid' and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be 'expert in arithmetic' and to have a 'blameless moral character.'"

This helps us understand why the classical world held such sway over the founding generation. They lived and breathed the classical and Christian worlds in their youth.

Place and influence of the Carroll family
Because of its wealth and reputation, the Carroll family stood as the most prominent Catholic family in the colonies. Even after the war, Charles Carroll maintained his position as leader of lay Catholics in America. His cousin, John, made archbishop toward the end of the founding period, wrote to Charles in 1800: "The concerns of our religion in this country are placed especially under my superintendence; and under God, its chief protection has long been owing to the influence and preponderance of yourself & your venerable Father before you."

As Catholics, the Carrolls had suffered severe disadvantages in colonial society. After the so-called "Glorious Revolution of 1688," a group of Protestants overthrew the Maryland government, establishing the Church of England as the only legitimate church of Maryland. Roman Catholics refusing to submit to the Anglican faith could not, by law, serve in politics or law, vote, represent themselves in court, worship in public, or raise the child in a "Catholic fashion." In short, no colony restricted and persecuted Catholics more than did Maryland, once (prior to 1689) the most tolerant of the English colonies.

Charles's father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, had little choice but to send the future signer overseas, away from Protestant eyes. To have adopted his son legally could have risked the entire Carroll fortune and estate. As an aristocrat, no matter how disenfranchised, Charles Carroll of Annapolis had to uphold the honor of the family, past, present, and future. To endanger the family for an emotional attachment would have been, to Carroll of Annapolis, dishonorable.

From a great distance, Charles Carroll of Carrollton learned these lessons, the lessons of a persecuted minority, and he kept these with him until his death. This helps explain why Carroll proved extremely tolerant as a political leader, advancing the cause of religious liberty wherever possible. As he explained in 1829: "When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England but the toleration of all Sects, professing the Christian Religion, and communicating to them all great rights . . . . Happily this wise and salutary measure has taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution." When one considers "the proscriptions of the Roman Catholics in Maryland, you will not be surprised that I had much at heart this grand design founded on mutual charity, the basis of our holy religion," Carroll explained.

Carroll's View on Democracy

Though elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Carroll couldn't attend the august gathering in Philadelphia because of political problems in Maryland. He worried that his absence would encourage his political opponents to create mischief. So, sadly, Carroll never attended the convention. Regardless, he defended the adoption of the Constitution in Maryland, leading the Federalist forces there.

As mentioned previously, he inspired the creation and actual form of the U.S. Senate through his design (with state approval, of course) of the Maryland Senate. In Maryland as well as at the federal level, the Senate would serve as a form of aristocratic check on the executive as well as on the democracy.

As with many of the authors of the Constitution, Carroll feared the growth of democracy. Clearly, the founders incorporated elements of democracy, but they did so in a very limited way. The only true democratic element of the Constitution came in the form of the House of Representatives, one half of one branch of government. The people had no direct say in the election of the president, senators, or the Supreme Court justices. Citizens could vote only for their one representative, representing their one small district. If anything, the Constitution did everything possible to limit the direct influence of the people in any kind of immediate way. Today, we forget this, as we use the term "democracy" to mean almost anything good. Or, at least what we think is good. But for the founding generation, one could readily equate democracy with passion, irrationality, and mob role. Such distrust of democracy in the western tradition went back to Plato.

After a particular radical movement animated by a democratic sentiment emerged in the fall of 1776, Carroll wrote: "They will be simple Democracies, of all governts. the worst, and will end as all other Democracies have, in despotism."

While Carroll believed as many of the other founders did, his anti-democratic language came back to haunt him in the aftermath of Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800. As America became more democratic in spirit, if not in form, Carroll began to look outmoded and reactionary.

Still, Carroll persevered in his criticism of the direction of the republic. "It is however I find, impossible for a man tainted with democratic principles, to possess an elevated soul and dignified character," he wrote to his son in 1806. "In all their actions and in all their schemes and thoughts, there is nothing but what is mean and selfish."

American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll

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