George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin. Nearly every schoolchild recognizes them as the Founding Fathers — signers of the Declaration of Independence, framers of the Constitution, heroes of the Revolutionary War.
There were a great many more Founding Fathers, however, even if their names are not so familiar as the above. Several of those lesser-known men who played key roles in the creation of the United States of America were Catholics. Chief among them were three members of the Carroll family of Maryland: Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence; his cousin Daniel Carroll; and Daniel Carroll's brother John Carroll, who became America's first Catholic bishop.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832) was the most illustrious and best-known of the Carrolls. He was the only signer whose property — Carrollton — was mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Carrollton was the 10,000-acre estate in Frederick County, Maryland, that Charles Carroll's father had given him on his return to America from his education in Europe.
At the time he signed the Declaration, it was against the law for a Catholic to hold public office or to vote. Although Maryland was founded by and for Catholics in 1634, in 1649 and, later, in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution placed severe restrictions on Catholics in England, the laws were changed in Maryland, and Catholicism was repressed.
Catholics could no longer hold office, exercise the franchise, educate their children in their faith, or worship in public. With the Declaration of Independence, all this bias and restriction ended. Charles Carroll first became known in colonial politics through his defense of freedom of conscience and his belief that the power to govern derived from the consent of the governed. He was a staunch supporter of Washington, and when the war was going badly at Valley Forge, he was instrumental in persuading the Revolution's Board of War not to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates. Carroll supported the war with his own private funds; he was widely regarded as the wealthiest of all the colonists, with the most to lose were the fight for independence to fail. Carroll was greatly acclaimed in later life, and he outlived all the other signers of the Declaration.
Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek (1730-1796) was a member of the Continental Congress (1781-1783), and a signer of the Articles of Confederation. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and one of only two Catholic signers of the United States Constitution. (The other Catholic signer was Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania.) At the Constitutional Convention, Daniel Carroll played an essential role in formulating the limitation of the powers of the federal government. He was the author of the presumption — enshrined in the Constitution — that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government were reserved to the states or to the people.
Daniel Carroll later became a member of the first United States Congress (1789-1791). He was also a member of the first Senate of Maryland, where he served up to the time of his death. He was appointed by Washington as one of the first three commissioners of the new federal city that is now known as the District of Columbia. In today's terminology, he would have been considered the mayor of Washington, D.C.
John Carroll (1735-1815), Daniel Carroll's younger brother, was educated in Europe, joined the Jesuit order, and was ordained a priest. He founded a private school for boys and named it after the town where it was located, Georgetown, a port on the Potomac River that later became part of Washington, D.C. He went on to be elected — by all the Catholic priests in America — to become America's first Catholic bishop. He later became archbishop of Baltimore. In any procession of American bishops, the archbishop of Baltimore always goes last in recognition of its role as America's oldest diocese. In 1789, John Carroll founded the college in Georgetown that later became known as Georgetown University.
During a period when the Revolutionary War was going badly, Washington asked John Carroll to join a mission to Canada to seek the support of the French for the colonies. Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton were the others on the four-man mission. While it failed, it established a relationship with the French, much influenced by the Catholic faith they held in common with the Carrolls. It bore fruit years later at Yorktown, where the largely Catholic-financed French fleet cut off supplies to British general Charles Cornwallis, and Washington was able to force Cornwallis to surrender and bring the war to an end.
John Carroll was an intimate of Washington. He wrote a prayer at the time of Washington's inauguration asking God's blessing on the president, Congress, and government of the United States — a prayer still very much in use today. Out of gratitude for John Carroll's support during the war, Washington gave a modified version of the seal of the United States to the institution that is now Georgetown University, and that seal is still in use.
Despite their enormous contributions to the American founding, the three Carrolls somehow fell below the radar screen of recognition as full-fledged founding fathers. Perhaps that was because they were Catholics in a country and a culture that for many years was overwhelmingly Protestant.
Charles Carroll Carter. "Catholic Founding Fathers — The Carroll Family." Crisis 19, no. 3 (March 2001): 32-33.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute, a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Charles Carroll Carter is on the board of trustees of the Charles Carroll House of Annapolis, Maryland, the birthplace of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. He is a direct descendant of Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek.
Copyright © 2001 Crisis