Charles Carroll (aka Charles Caroll of Carrollton) was a Maryland planter. He was the wealthiest man in the colonies and one of the best educated. Carroll was an early advocate of armed resistance to achieve independence from the British Crown and was the sole Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Despite religious discrimination he served in various state and federal positions. He personally gave considerable financial support to the Revolutionary War. Charles Carroll could have comfortably sat out the Revolution but risked his considerable fortune and his life to rebel against the Crown. He was an American patriot and a generous hero.
The Catholic Carrolls were descended from Irish aristocrats that emigrated to the Colony of Maryland in 1689. They became extremely wealthy planters with huge land holdings. Maryland had been founded as a haven for Roman Catholics in 1634 although most emigrants were Protestant. At first all worked together, which was a radical concept in those days, but it did not last. An uprising by Puritans and Anglicans in 1689 resulted in Catholics being denied religious rights. They were denied the right to hold political office in 1704. Religious freedom did not return for over 80 years when it was finally enshrined in the US Constitution.
Charles Carroll of was born on 19 September 1737 in Annapolis in the Colony of Maryland. He was the only child of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke. His parents were not married at the time because of technical problems with the inheritance of Carroll family estates. They eventually were married in 1757.
According to one source the young Carroll initially attended a Catholic school in Maryland and was sent to France for further education at 11 years old. Others say he was denied a Catholic education in Maryland and was shipped to France at eight years old. We do know that he attended French Jesuit schools. First at the College of St. Omer in Northern France and later Louis the Great College in Paris. He graduated in 1755, but continued studies in Europe and read for the law in London, England. He returned to Annapolis in 1765.
Charles Carroll of Annapolis granted 17,000-acre Carrollton Manor to his son who took the title, “Charles Carroll of Carrollton.” He was denied by law the right to engage in politics, practice law or vote. No wonder he was not initially interested in politics. Despite the discrimination he became the wealthiest man in the colonies. His personal wealth was believed to be 2,100,000 pounds sterling in 1775 (269,884,478 pounds in 2019). The plantation that was his principal home, Doughoregan Manor, consisted of 10,000 acres.
On 5 June 1768, Charles Carroll of Carrollton married Mary (Molly) Darnall. The couple had seven children, but only three survived infancy. Molly was only 33 years old when she died in 1782.
Despite the legal restrictions, Carroll became a powerful voice for independence as the push for rebellion increased in the early 1770s. In 1772 he engaged in a newspaper debate with a loyalist, both using pseudonyms, arguing against British tax policies and against the colonial government of Maryland. Eventually both identities became known, but the debate continued. Carroll was a true gentleman who always responded very diplomatically noting “virulent invective” showed a “lack of knowledge and ignorance.”
After the debates Charles Carroll became a leading revolutionary spokesman opposing British rule and becoming convinced that only armed conflict could achieve independence. He served on various committees of correspondence. He also played a significant role in the October 1774 burning of the merchant ship Peggy Stewart in the Annapolis harbor. That ship was carrying tea and the burning was a protest about imposition of British taxes. This protest was about a year after the famous “Tea Party” protest in Boston, Massachusetts.
Carroll was a delegate to the “Annapolis Convention” (1774-1776) which functioned as Maryland’s revolutionary government until the Declaration of Independence. In early 1776 the Continental Congress sent a four-man diplomatic mission to Canada to request assistance from French Canadians in the confrontation with Britain. Carroll was selected and was an excellent choice because of his French education, language fluency, and Catholic religion. The other mission members were Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and his cousin John Carroll. The mission failed partly because of the unsuccessful American invasion of Quebec (1775-76).
On 4 July 1776 Carroll was elected to the Continental Congress. He arrived in Philadelphia too late to vote for the Declaration of Independence but was present to sign it. He signed “Charles Carroll of Carrollton” to distinguish him from his father, his son, and several other Charles Carrolls in Maryland.
While in the Congress, Carroll served on the board of war. He also personally provided considerable financial support to the Revolutionary War. By doing so he joined a few other wealthy patriots such as Robert Morris who financed much of the Revolution.
Carroll served in Congress until 1778 when he returned to Maryland to help form the state government. He was re-elected to the Continental Congress in 1780 but declined to serve. He was elected to the Maryland State Senate in 1781 and served in that body until 1800.
In November 1779, the Maryland House of Delegates introduced a bill to confiscate the property of those who had remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution. Carroll believed such a law would be unjust, and he questioned the motives of those who proposed it. Confiscation of Tory property had wide support throughout the nation, however, and Maryland passed their bill in 1780. Americans were exacting revenge against loyalists.
Carroll did not serve in the Constitutional Convention and had no part in drafting the Constitution. However, many believe the Freedom of Religion clause was included in the Constitution partially to show gratitude to Carroll for his financial support of the Revolution.
When the United States of America was created, the Maryland legislature elected Charles Carroll of Carrollton to the first US Senate, which convened in 1789. However, in 1792, Maryland passed a law that prohibited concurrent service in state and federal legislatures. Carroll preferred to serve in the Maryland Senate, so he resigned from the US Senate on 30 November 1792.
Carroll retired from public service in 1801. He became concerned about bickering and partisan political activity during the Jefferson administration and did not support the War of 1812. He was elected to the prestigious American Antiquarian Society in 1815 (three years after its founding). He came out of retirement to help create the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad in 1827. In 1828 he commissioned the Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore and laid its cornerstone. The tower was the tallest structure in the US until the Washington Monument was completed in 1884.
Carroll laid the cornerstone of the B & O Railroad on 4 July 1828, which was his last public act. He was asked to attend the first Democratic Party Convention in May 1832 but declined due to poor health. Charles Carroll of Carrollton died on14 November 1832 at the age of 95 in Baltimore. He had outlived all the other signers of the Declaration of Independence and four of the first five US presidents. His funeral was at the Baltimore Cathedral (now the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and he was buried at his Doughoregan Manor Chapel at Ellicott City, Maryland. Carroll’s descendants still own this estate.
Charles Carroll has certainly not been forgotten. Many counties, towns, schools, and colleges carry his name. Maryland placed a bronze statue of him in the US Capitol Statuary Hall, and he is remembered in a stanza of the Maryland state song. During the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia to celebrate the birth of the United States, the Catholic Total Abstinence Union commissioned the construction of a large fountain that includes a statue of Carroll and three other prominent American Catholics.
All the recognition of Charles Carroll is well deserved. When he completed his education in Europe and returned to Maryland it was to a world that he could hardly remember. He had wealth and prestige enough to live a good life while staying above the fray and danger of Revolution, and he was denied political rights because of his religion. Despite all this, he chose to be a highly active participant in Revolution. Signing the Declaration of Independence alone put his life and fortune at risk. From there he went on to help gain independence, and to organize the new nation and his State. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was an American patriot and hero.