Interview with Bradley J. Birzer, author of
Who was Charles Carroll of Carrollton?
Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), one of the most educated of the American founders, served as the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. As advocate of government defending justice through a proper understanding of Natural Rights and Natural Law, Carroll defended the U.S. Constitution, served as the inspiration for the U.S. Senate, and served as a U.S. Senator. After 1800, he commented vigorously on the growing democratization of the American republic.
Why was Maryland so anti-Catholic? Was this true of the American colonies as a whole?
The original English and Scottish settlers in North America had been intimately involved in the latter stages of the Reformation. They viewed Catholicism as superstitious and oppressive. Generally, each colony expressed religious tolerance only for a particular sect of Christianity, excluding all others. One can regard the individual colonies, generally, as islands of intolerance within a sea of tolerance. Though founded by a Catholic, Maryland became the most intolerant of the colonies after the Revolution of 1689. Anti-Catholic laws, many of them heinous, remained on the books and were selectively enforced until 1774.
Why does education matter in the formation of a person?
It shapes, limits, and unleashes the abilities and gifts of any person. Carroll offers an excellent example how liberal education can elevate the best qualities of a person while limiting his worst qualities. Cicero, Horace, and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name a few figures, were as alive to Carroll as were his contemporaries. He and his fellow founders communicated with the great minds of the past, to reform the present, and to promote liberty and justice for future generations.
What was his relationship with his father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, like? Did they consider themselves aristocracy?
Though disenfranchised, denied legal status, and always under the threat of censure for their Roman Catholicism, the two Carrolls considered themselves gentlemen, and they and lived in an English genteel fashion. Certainly, they were among the wealthiest persons in the colonies at the time of the revolution. They shared a deeply intimate relationship, and it would be difficult to separate the ideas and convictions of one from the other. They formed a true and meaningful partnership as father and son.
If Carroll was such an important founder, why has history largely forgotten him?
At the time of the Founding, Carroll held a great status, and men such as John Adams assumed he would one day be considered among the greats. With the so-called Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800, Carroll fell out of favor with the democratizing American culture. To many, though once a hero, Carroll had become a “hoary-headed aristocrat” during the first years of the nineteenth century.
What are Carroll’s distinct contributions to America?
He, along with his cousin, John Carroll, legitimized Roman Catholicism in the American republic; he advocated a proper understanding of the American Revolution as deeply rooted in the western tradition; and he inspired the creation of the U.S. Senate through his creation of the Maryland Senate.
Why was Carroll so critical of the democratization of America?
Carroll served as one of the main informants for Alexis de Tocqueville. He believed that the democratic spirit promoted avarice and reckless individualism, destroying the proper spirit of self sacrifice necessary to maintain a virtuous republic. He also believed the individualism of democracy destroyed proper community. Finally, he thought that democracy would advance mediocrity rather than excellence. Democracy had its role within the republic, Carroll believed, but it needed to be balanced by reason and rationality.
What can Carroll teach us today?
Many things: excellence; perseverance; eloquence; class; beauty.