Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Revolutionary Religious Toleration: The Making of a Founder

Painting of Charles Carroll of Carrollton by Michael Laty, ca. 1846. (Maryland Historical Society)

The prevailing academic theories that attempt to interpret the motivations of those American colonists who rebelled against British taxation of, and ultimately, British sovereignty over the Thirteen North American colonies during the American Revolutionary War tend to center their focus on one of two broad themes: either political ideology or economic self-interest. While proponents of one model pursue the rigorous examination of the ideological imperatives that they argue inspired American colonial resistance, those of the other, more jaded camp contend that colonial insurrection was more a matter of incentives than ideas, incited by the colonial elite to secure their personal interests. As this largely binary debate is waged amongst scholars, other alternative approaches to understanding the motivations of those who thought and fought the American Revolution are often lost. Although economic interests and ideological impulses may well have eclipsed the import of other provocations to revolution amongst the greater sum of American patriots, adopting only such limited vantage points risks obfuscating the myriad of individual perspectives harbored by those who constituted the Revolutionary movement, whose many reasons for participation compose a much more diverse mosaic of inspirations. Religious freedom and toleration, for example, hardly register as a serious raison d’être for the American Revolution. By and large, as a matter of fact, it was not, at least amongst the vast majority of patriots. Yet, in at least one important case, the struggle for the freedom to practice one’s faith without injury or oppression represented the foremost consideration of a prominent American revolutionary.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first two United States senators to represent the State of Maryland. He was a well-studied scholar of common law and the English Constitution, versed in the literature and tradition of liberty: an apparent disciple of the strain of political ideology most associated with the American Revolution. He was a wealthy, slave-holding tobacco planter who strongly identified with the interests of the Southern colonial elite, one of the richest men in North America. A conventional analysis of the Founding Fathers’ revolutionary motivations would fixate on these twin details of Carroll’s biography, which alone provide ample fodder for an exploration of those factors which most propelled such a man to take up the cause of American independence.

Yet, these factors alone cannot and do not account for this founder’s conviction to the Revolutionary cause. The case of Daniel Dulany, a prominent Maryland contemporary of Carroll’s who shared with him a similar background as a scholar of law and pamphleteer for liberty, although likewise dedicated to the protection of his own considerable economic interests as an elite, offers an important contrast. Despite sharing the same ideological inclinations and economic reservations about the Revolution, Carroll emerged as a champion of independence while Dulany became a Loyalist. The cause of this divergence highlights the critical role of a third, not-to-be-neglected aspect of Carroll’s identity as an American founder. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was a devoted Roman Catholic, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence during an era in which dissent from Protestantism represented a significant social and political handicap, accompanied by the denial of equal rights and status. Carroll’s public Catholicism in the Protestant British North America of the late eighteenth century colors his more complex motivations to join the American Revolution. In fact, Carroll’s experience as a religious minority and yearning for religious freedom was, regardless of the strength of his ideological bent or economic agenda, the single most important factor that compelled him to support and eventually take a leadership role in the American Revolution.

The weight Charles Carroll placed on the various factors that ultimately led him to lend his support to the risky endeavor of the American Revolution can be seen by examining in detail his personal written correspondence, from his earliest letters to his final commitment to revolution. In this study, only those letters that were not published until after his death are considered, so as to eliminate any public sentiments that may be more rooted in the demands of political performance than his own sincere belief and draw closer to those private thoughts that were closest to his heart as he actively processed the imperial crisis to formulate his position. After analyzing the influences of both ideological inspiration and economic incentive on Carroll’s decision to participate in the Revolution, it is unclear which of the two wielded the stronger impact: while both informed Carroll’s revolutionary frame of mind, neither impulse can be deemed decisive on account of the other. However, with the introduction of a third consideration, Carroll’s identity as a Roman Catholic, it becomes clear that his fear of persecution and experience of exclusion from the full rights and liberties common to his neighbors were the decisive factors in his adoption of the Revolutionary cause, as he pursued and realized his long-held dream of religious toleration as an American founder.

Sent abroad to Europe as a youth to study law and government, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was nonetheless instructed in his appreciation for liberty and justice by his father, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan, who instilled in him a commitment to these ideals. “Would not it be of infinite advantage …  if every man of property … were a sound Lawyer and well acquainted with the Constitution?” the elder Carroll asked the younger as he endowed him with that mission, the pursuit of which would occupy the seventeen years of his life spent in study.[1] Carroll’s father implored him to pay special attention to the constitutional qualities that underlay governments, urging him on his departure that “it is necessary to obtain a pretty good insight into ye Constitution of France” and later making similar exhortations that he should familiarize himself in depth with that of England.[2] Beyond simply requesting that his son conduct his own inquiries into the nature of government, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan, as a follower of the English “country” Commonwealth tradition of political thought, cultivated his son to internalize that same set of principles which guided him politically, suggesting early in his son’s education that he adopt that theoretical framework. In one lesson, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan expounded to his son the basic creed, at the heart of his school of thought, that “corruption and freedom cannot long subsist together.”[3] In the strong words of yet another letter, the young Charles Carroll of Carrollton was taught that “if government cannot be carried on without corruption, there is an end of ye Constitution.”[4] Such lessons would soon assume a grimmer undertone as the elder Carroll infused his notes on political theory with interpretations of current events. By 1762, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan had sounded the alarm bell to his son, conveying to him in despair that “virtue has abandoned us and liberty is gone with it.”[5]

For his part, a young Charles Carroll of Carrollton was soon convinced that, towards the latter part of his stay in London, he was himself an eyewitness to the startling decay of virtue and subsequently, of liberty. In a letter to his concerned father, Carroll insisted that “whoever presides in the Treasury can command in Parliament,” signaling the long-feared fall to corruption of England’s once virtuous government, while also painting a picture of a vile citizenry that “seems to be tending hastily to Anarchy.”[6] In a letter to his friend and peer, Bradshaw, Carroll expressed his gloomy confidence in his apocalyptic vision of England’s inevitable political fate: “the English Constitution seems hastening to its final period of dissolution,” he wrote, “and the symptoms of a general decay are but too visible.”[7]

Such beliefs reflect Carroll’s familiarity with contemporary political theory focused on the vulnerability of liberty, which he came in contact with during his years of study at the Temple in England. His views regarding the inevitable decay of constitutions as virtue diminishes amongst a population speak to his understanding of Robert Molesworth’s central thesis in An Account of Denmark, which recounts the decline of liberty in that kingdom along a similar trajectory to that which the young Carroll projected upon England during his own time. Molesworth’s fear of “a sickly Constitution” which “mortifies … Liberty and Freedom” was emulated by his student, Carroll, who feared that the experience of Denmark, where “at one instant the whole Face of Affairs was changed so … not the least remnant of Liberty remains to the Subject and the very name of Liberty is quite forgotten,” may well have been repeating itself in his own country.[8] Aside from Molesworth, the young Charles Carroll of Carrollton counted amongst his teachers “the books of Livy, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and Caesar,” purchased for him by his father, which would have illustrated for him yet another example of the precipitous decline and fall of liberty that must accompany the wane of virtue, as infamously occurred in ancient Rome.[9] Amongst other ideological inspirations, Carroll counted Voltaire, who he esteemed as possessed of a “sarcastic wit and humour so peculiar and original that ye easily distinguish his works,” and Jonathan Swift, whose satires he professed to love.[10] Even upon his return to the Maryland, Carroll had grown so entranced with Europe’s literature of liberty, that, in one letter, he begs his English friend Henry Graves to “continue to send [him] the most interesting Pamphlets” upon his departure.[11]

Upon his return to Maryland, Carroll not only continued to engage with such literature, but also to carry out a vigorous correspondence with the friends in England with whom he had studied law, in which he debated points of liberty and constitutionality as they applied to current events confronting them, most notably the episodes surrounding the passage and repeal of the Stamp Act. In these debates, Carroll formulated arguments of the sort that mark a lawyer’s interest in the philosophy of jurisprudence and the nature of liberty, displaying sincerity in his commitments to such moral and intellectual pursuits as he engaged in them out of genuine passion. “There are certain known fundamental laws essential to and interwoven with ye English constitution which even a Parliament itself cannot abrogate: such I take to be that invaluable privilege from birth Englishmen [enjoy] of being taxed with their own consent,” Carroll wrote to his friend Edmund Jennings in 1765.[12] His private arguments remain consistent over time and across audiences. That same year, Carroll engaged another English friend, Henry Graves, on the same matter, writing “by law, ye most favourable to liberty, we claim the invaluable privilege, that distinguishing Characteristick of ye English constitution, of being taxed by our own representatives; to say that we are virtually represented is only adding to ye oppression ye cruel mockery of our understandings.”[13] Conjuring such eloquent private appeals to political philosophy for friends an ocean away, Carroll evinces a commitment to ideology that can only be assumed to have generated some part of his decision to support the American Revolution. “If [American] freedom and [English] power are res dissociabiles, incompatible, I am sorry for it, but let us retain our liberty whatever becomes of honor,” Carrollton wrote to Graves.[14] In an honor society like that of eighteenth century British North America, willingness to sacrifice one’s own honor for anything was a statement of incredible significance: if Carroll was willing to submit his honor to what he considered to be the higher value of liberty, the idea must have held inestimable importance to him.

Yet, Carroll’s interest in protecting his liberty cannot be fully distilled from his interest in preserving his own wealth in the face of Parliamentary overreach and tyrannical taxation. In one letter to Graves, Carroll writes: “Americans will never depart from the essential right of internal taxation, without which our property would be at ye mercy of every rapacious minister.”[15] While in that same letter he goes on to imply that affronts to general rights and liberties by Parliament are of paramount concern to him – scribbling that “the Stamp Act has taken away in part ye trial by Juries: has curtailed ye liberty of ye Press: petitions, altho’ the subject has an undoubted right to petition, were rejected with scorn on ye frivolous pretense” – it is ultimately the threat to property that caps his climactic construction as his chief concern, earning it the position of greatest emphasis.[16] Carroll ends his discourse on the Stamp Act by asking, as if in summary: “what security remains for our property?”[17]

Just as Charles Carroll of Doughoregan had instilled his son with his political ideology, he also impressed upon him at a young age a sense of status and station that came as a result of their material wealth, teaching him that by virtue of his affluence, he occupied a unique niche in society. As Carroll’s descendants remember in their family notes on their ancestors, “in these days it is said Maryland evinced some signs of aptitude for reproducing the manners and ways of the English nobility: Annapolis was a center of fashion where luxury abounded.”[18] Having grown wealthy “on the sale of ye Tobacco,” as Charles Carroll of Carrollton himself wrote, the whole family was employed in the effort to affect the air of nobility and condescension expected to attend those of their fortune and social graces. When Charles Carroll of Carrollton was newly arrived in France, his father would chide him from across the sea to see that his son represented the family well and impressed on locals the prestige of their name. “Since it is the Fashion, you should wear worked Ruffles,” the elder Carroll reminded his son.[19] Under such pressure to flaunt one’s wealth and, consequently, secure one’s social superiority, modesty was no virtue. “I understand you dress plainly,” Charles Carroll of Doughoregan wrote to his son while he was studying law in England, “I commend you for it, but I think you should have Clothes suitable to occasions.”[20] Throughout his childhood, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was made to feel that wealth bestowed on him a unique position in society, a space above it more than part of it, an exception to the rules that bind the commons.

Certainly, Carroll was aware of the superior social station his considerable wealth granted him and internalized his role as a genteel country patrician as one both social and political. He considered acting in his economic self interest a social service to those around him, writing “in these times of necessity and oppression it is a duty every man of fortune owes his country to set an example of frugality and industry to ye common people.”[21] Though the simple unconstitutionality of the Stamp Act was itself an injustice, that injustice could be magnified by its causation of economic distress. “It would be more oppressive than ye Stamp Act itself … to pay extravagant prices for the advantage of Great Britain,” he admitted.[22] To Carroll, the financial difficulty the Act imposed compounded its evil by orders of magnitude. An ideological purist would not care the slightest whether an illegal tax separated him from a penny or a pound: more than stealing his wealth, the tax stole his liberty. For an ideological purist of the country Commonwealth tradition, deprivation would have been the far more injurious – and far more important. Carroll himself was aware of that distinction, remarking to his English friend Jennings that “an American might say, if my money is to be taken from me without my consent, it is immaterial to me in what manner this is effected.”[23] By recognizing that that typical “American” response was not his own, Carroll separated and isolated himself from his countrymen in Maryland by virtue of his economic position.

Carroll was also flexible in his opposition to legislation on the grounds of its unconstitutionality alone and was willing to accept laws that overstepped the bounds of a strict interpretation of parliamentary power if it served a worthy end. Pertaining to an “embargo laid on wheat,” Carroll reasoned that “if [it] was on creation of the prerogative not strictly legal, yet the measure was confessedly necessary … no stretch of ye prerogative for ye general good will ever endanger our constitution.”[24] The economic effect of illegal legislation seemed to be of greater consequence than the mere fact of its illegality. Writing to Daniel Barrington, Carroll wondered with frustration: “Will ye solid advantages of a most profitable, extensive trade, be given up to an empty point of honour?”[25] Many of Carroll’s fellow patriots would likely be insulted by reference to the Stamp Act, that most abominable instrument of tyranny, as little more than an impediment to the lucrative export of tobacco across the Atlantic.

But if the mass of American patriots had reason to be critical of Carroll’s self-interested economic motivations to revolution, so too did he often express dissatisfaction with their actions, which he often considered inappropriate simply on account of the social standing of those who participated in them. Carroll was critical of the acts of resistance undertaken and executed by the masses. In at least one instance, Carroll’s privilege pitted him against the bulk of his fellow patriots: the fracture along class lines was not lost on him. “Men of some property were too sensible to carry [the masses’ plans] into execution,” he wrote to Daniel Barrington, exempting himself from a popularly anticipated political exercise on account of his class, alongside others of similar standing.[26]  On other occasions, his opinions of revolutionary activity dipped yet lower, as he associated the lower classes with contemptible qualities. In another letter to Barrington, Carrollton dismissed the whole revolutionary affair as the ill-founded work of the mob: “the clamour of the People,” he alleged, “proceeds from their ignorance, prejudice, and passion.”[27] At times, it seems, Carrollton’s interests as an elite compelled him to oppose the Revolution, though such instances were more the exception than the rule.

Given the findings of the previous analysis of Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s ideological and economic motivations to support the American Revolution, neither of the two aforementioned impetuses clearly overpowers the other, especially as they overlap and contradict each other. Not only do neither ideology nor self-interest step forward as an obvious primary reason for Carroll to have supported the Revolution, but neither are sufficient to explain his support of the Revolution at all. The example of Daniel Dulany, who shared Carroll’s ideological leanings and economic standing, highlights this important contingency.

As a youth in London, Carroll had studied law in the company of Lloyd Dulany, the son of Maryland Governor Daniel Dulany.[28] Daniel Dulany, like Carroll, appeared deeply dedicated to both the ideological ideals of liberty and his own economic interest, both of which pitted him against the English government. When Dulany published a pamphlet assaulting the Stamp Act as both unjust and imprudent, titled Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, Carroll was enamored. The pamphlet expressed both ideological convictions and economic concerns that Carroll recognized as his own, identifying Dulany’s words as the most cogent and complete encapsulation of his views on the imperial crisis. “If you are any ways serious or desirous to enter into ye merits of a cause, the most important, interesting, and of ye utmost consequence to the British Empire, I must recommend to you a Pamphlet lately published in this province entitled ‘Ye Claim of the colonies or an exemption of taxes all considered’,” he gushed to his friend Bradshaw.[29] Just two days later, he exhorted Jennings: “if you have a mind to see the claims of the Colonies for an exemption of taxes laid by Authority of Parliament, fairly stated, fully discussed, and asserted with great solidity and strength of argument, I must refer you to a Pamphlet of Dulany’s bearing much such a title.”[30]

Given the profound deference and admiration with which Carroll revered Dulany, it may be surprising that the former would make his name locked in a heated newspaper war with the latter, his former hero. Under the pseudonyms of “First Citizen” and “Antillon,” respectively, the two battled one another in column after column, as Carroll embraced American patriotism and Dulany became a leading Loyalist. If Dulany, who so closely resembled the outlook and pocketbook of Carroll, was to remain a Loyalist while expressing the same ideas and feeling the same financial anxieties, what accounts for the divergence of allegiance between the two men who in most every fashion so closely resembled one another? That responsible factor which, in turn, must be that which most compelled Carroll to commit to the Revolutionary cause, was Carroll’s Catholicism. While neither philosophical sympathy nor the interests of wealth could drive Dulany – or presumably Carroll, for that matter – to revolt against British colonial rule, Carroll’s identity as an oppressed religious minority in the Protestant colony of Maryland made all the difference in assuring that he would support the Revolution, when he saw in it the opportunity to improve his plight and that of his co-religionists.

Like so much else, Carroll inherited his devotion to Catholicism from his father, who himself inherited it from his. The Carrolls traced their origins to Ireland, where they were known as the O’Carrolls. Despite trying circumstances, they had remained proudly and publicly Catholic in the New World. Charles Carroll of Carrolton was sent to Catholic institutions at Rheims and the Temple to spend his childhood and adolescence in the company of his co-religionists. As the Carrolls remember in their family history, “it remained a traditional custom with the English student of the Catholic faith to frequent the foreign colleges his fathers had sought before him.”[31] The young Carroll demonstrated a sincere commitment to serve his faith dutifully, causing his father to praise him for “entering into ye world fully instructed as to your Duty to God and with a sincere disposition to comply with it.”[32]

As Roman Catholics, the Carroll family faced immense hardship on account of their religious identity that not even their great tobacco wealth could overcome. Though Maryland was originally founded as a proprietary colony to serve as a safe haven for England’s persecuted Catholics, the demographics of the colony quickly came to be dominated by Protestants, who deprived its Catholic proprietors of their control following Coode’s “Protestant Rebellion” of 1689, at which point they declared Catholicism illegal in the colony. The famous Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 was repealed. By the time Charles Carroll of Doughoregan was born, the O’Carrolls had dropped the telltale O’ from their surname, presumably to avoid the prejudice that came with the presentation of Irish heritage, a clear indication of Catholic predisposition. Even though the family was permitted to continue its tobacco plantation despite their open Catholicism, the Carroll family nonetheless faced penal laws in Maryland that subjected them and other adherents of their faith to numerous obstacles and degradations. Laws demanded they pay a church tax, as well as twice the land tax levied on Protestant Marylanders. Meanwhile, as Catholics, the Carrolls were disenfranchised from voting and prohibited from holding any kind of public office in the colony. Despite his civic-mindedness and considerable wealth, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan was, much to his chagrin, forbidden from ever casting a ballot or pursuing a government position. Until the American Revolution, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was forced into this plight as well, lacking any reason to expect a change.

As he studied law with no hope of ever becoming a lawyer, it should come as no surprise that the young Charles Carroll of Carrollton became frustrated not only by the apparently fruitless endeavor of his education, but with his position in society as a Catholic. Carroll’s angst earned him his father’s sympathetic chiding, as they shared “the talk” via written correspondence. “It is true,” Charles Carroll of Doughoregan admitted to his son, “as things now stand, you are shut out from ye Bar.”[33] While attempting to reassure his son of his self-worth, the elder Carroll was careful not to indulge him with any illusions. “I find you begin to think that neither Maryland or any of ye British Dominions are desirable Residence for a Roman Catholic; without a change in ye Scene, they certainly are not so,” he conceded.[34] The predicament of Catholics in Maryland was miserable even in the elder Carroll’s descriptions of it, as he slowly prepared his son to brace for the difficulties he would face upon returning from Europe to his home. “Laws which Double tax us oppress us,” [35] he complained in one letter, before turning his focus from economic inequities to the systematic injustices Catholics faced in the justice system, where “a Roman Catholic stands but a poor Chance for Justice, with our Juries in particular.”[36] So precarious was the predicament of Roman Catholics, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan insisted, that “if our House of Commons could have their way, such is their Malice that they would not only deprive us of our property, but our Lives.”[37] As a frightened Charles Carroll of Carrollton feared for his undervalued life while preparing to return to his birthplace, his father still refused to sugarcoat their situation: “Maryland [is] no desirable residence for a Roman Catholic,” he wrote, issuing a final warning as he implored him to consider settling elsewhere.[38]

Yet, as a young adult, Charles Carroll of Carrollton must have known that his options for a “somewhere else” were limited, as all over the world, including in Catholic nations like France, those of his faith seemed threatened with constant conspiracies, or so his father’s writing would imply. Charles Carroll of Doughoregan obsessed over the numerous blood libels and smears leveled against Roman Catholics, especially Jesuits. In particular, he fixated on what he considered a global conspiracy to tarnish the good name and snuff out the virtue of the Society of Jesus. “What has been ye real occasion of ye shocking Executions at Lisbon?” he asked his son, “ye lugging ye Jesuits into ye Plot makes me disbelieve what I see in our Papers. I know ye Envy of their superior Merit draws on them; they are not only too virtuous, but too wise to engage in Assassinations, however illy treated.”[39] In the Carrolls’ eyes, it was their virtue that targeted Jesuits for persecution, just as it must have caused the targeting of their family in Maryland. “I say it as my Sentiment, [the Jesuits’] eminent Merit and Virtue has provoked this persecution,” the elder Carroll argued.[40] Convinced of this, Charles Carroll of Carrollton would go on to associate closely with the Society of Jesus for the rest of his life, even when doing so in Maryland was illegal. The documentation of his marriage dispensation survives, indicating that he was married by a Jesuit, the Reverend John Lewis, in spite of the vicious claims leveled against the order by his countrymen.[41]

Not that vicious claims were not deployed against Catholics in Maryland with alarming frequency: when Charles Carroll of Carrollton returned home, he was forced to accustom himself to being the subject of conspiracy, an inevitable circumstance of life as a religious minority he learned to tackle with humor. For example, when a prominent English Protestant died at sea on Carroll’s second wedding day, rumors spread in Maryland that he had been assassinated as part of a Papist conspiracy. Writing to his friend Edmund Jennings of his marriage, Carroll joked, “No wonder that a bloody minded Papist should chuse for feasting and merriment a day which had like (if you believe ye story) to have proved so fatal to a Protestant.”[42] Here, Carroll demonstrated that he internalized his precarious position as “the Other.” Blood libel and rumors of the most egregious scandal were his lot in life as a Catholic in a formally Protestant society.

Yet, rarely, Carroll would offer glimpses into the mode by which he perceived himself and actualized his role as the despised “Papist” in his society, a struggle that, although he rarely expressed in writing, he must have grappled with often as it informed his thinking on the whole range of issues he confronted. “Having mentioned Protestants and Papists, I could wish … that ye unhappy differences and disputes on speculative points of Theology had been confined to divines,” he lamented: “the savage wars, ye cruel massacres, ye deliberate murders committed by law, under ye sanction of Religion, have not reformed ye morals of men.”[43] Carroll at times found himself unable to affect the façade of humor with which he otherwise strove to address the vulnerability that accompanied his “Other-ness.” One such case was in August 1767, when he could not hold back from expressing his extreme alarm by “ye Bishop of London’s shutting up some of ye Roman Catholic Chapels.”[44] The victim of constant religious oppression, Carroll possessed a unique appreciation for the futility of religious conflict and the legal posturing of one faith over another: he wished the iniquities arising from the interplay of religion and politics to a hasty end. In perhaps his most candid confession, Carroll wrote to his friend Jennings: “I am of the opinion, were an unlimited toleration allowed and men of all sects were to converse freely with each other, their aversion from a difference of religious principles would soon wear away.”[45] He must long have harbored hope that he might one day be free to put such a theory to real trial by experiment.

By necessity, Carroll developed a philosophy to mitigate his futile desires to gain public office, offering an explanation into his failure to publicly discuss either his Catholic faith or hopeless political ambitions prior to the American Revolution. “If none but those who professed ye established religion were admitted to posts of profit and trusts, and ye exclusion of all others made ye punishment of their dissenting from ye established mode of faith,” he wrote, describing the conditions that he himself faced as a dissenter in Maryland, “those against whom it is employed are apt to conclude that their opinions can not be confuted by other arguments.”[46] Regardless of his profound hopes, Carroll managed to persuade himself that those who barred him from public life were beyond persuasion. Yet, the American Revolution would offer him the opportunity to circumvent the statues, and many of the people, determined to keep him from realizing his dream.

When the Revolution began to brew and Carroll found himself emerging as one of its leaders in his native colony of Maryland, his hope that religious toleration for himself and his community might indeed be possible must have been powerfully triggered. As the American Revolution stirred resistance against colonial authorities, its participants, including its leaders, were often drawn from the ranks of those outside political authority. When Carroll created a name for himself in the Revolutionary movement, originally as “First Citizen” during his disputes with Daniel Dulany’s “Antillon,” he rose to prominence in a new, as-yet undefined power structure that developed free from the strictures and prejudices that had infested the structure of the colonial government. If the laws of the Royal Colony of Maryland had forbid the Catholic Carroll from fulfilling his aspiration to join Maryland’s royal government, no such regulations forbid him from serving on a shadow government created to organize against it. Charles Carroll of Carrollton did exactly that. In 1774, he was elected to sit as a representative on Maryland’s revolutionary Committee of Correspondence. Thereafter, the Maryland legislature could not stop him – or any other of the newly elected American patriots, for that matter – from taking a seat in Maryland’s actual colonial legislature. Breaking the law to rebel in the name of liberty for American independence, Carroll simultaneously broke the law to exercise his natural political rights in spite of his Roman Catholicism. When he was elected to represent Maryland as a delegate to the illegal Second Continental Congress, no established legal code could bar him from participating as a Catholic. By virtue of his presence, he would make sure that no such law would ever exist. As a founding father of a new, independent American nation, Carroll was able to finally execute – and what’s more, experience – his dream of religious toleration, which was finally officially enshrined in the Constitution of the new United States of America in 1789.[47]

When Carroll was a child, his father imputed on to him a lofty task, writing “I shall leave you to dispute many things of Consequence which ye present Injustice of ye times will not permit me in prudence to contest.”[48] While Carroll’s father certainly valued the ideology of liberty and the economic standing of his family and implored his son to pursue each of these goals, without doubt, chief in consequence amongst the injustices the Carrolls faced was their oppression as Roman Catholics. By the time he was selected by the legislature, which once refused to grant him and other Catholics basic political rights, to be one of its first two United States Senators, he had achieved the advancement his father had only dreamed of, finally reconciling his family’s political status with its economic one while holding fast to his ideology of liberty. Even though Carroll would be required to continue his pursuit of genuine religious toleration as a Senator – fighting, for example, against a statue passed by the Maryland legislature that prohibited Catholic couples from adopting orphan children – his support and participation in the American Revolution had earned him unprecedented success in the pursuit closest to heart.[49] Thus, in spite of the undoubtedly significant roles that ideology and economics played in motivating the American Revolution, for at least one founding father, above those common causes was one exalted principle: religious toleration. His name, though lacking it’s O’, can be found on the bottom of that piece of parchment that became America’s Declaration of Independence: Maryland’s Charles Carroll of Carrollton.


[1] Charles Carroll of Doughoregan to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, December 29, 1762, in Thomas Meagher Field, comp., The Unpublished Letters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and of His Father, Charles Carroll of Doughoregan (New York, NY: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1902). All further letters are from this source unless otherwise noted.

[2] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, April 16, 1759.

[3] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, September 3, 1763.

[4] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, April 8, 1762.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Carroll of Carrollton to Mr. Bradshaw, November 21, 1765.

[8] Robert Molesworth, An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692 (London, 1694),, accessed December 2, 2016.

[9] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, April 16, 1759.

[10] Carroll of Carrollton to Edmund Jennings, August 13, 1767.

[11] Carroll of Carrollton to Henry Graves. September 15, 1765

[12] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, November 23, 1765.

[13] Carroll of Carrollton to Graves, September 15, 1765.

[14] Carroll of Carrollton to Graves, August 27, 1767.

[15] Carroll of Carrollton to Graves, September 15, 1765.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Field, The Unpublished Letters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

[19] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, January 1, 1758.

[20] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, September 2, 1762.

[21] Carroll of Carrollton to Graves. September 15, 1765.

[22] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, March 9, 1767.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, March 9, 1767.

[25] Carroll of Carrollton to Daniel Barrington, March 17, 1766.

[26] Carroll of Carrollton to Barrington, December 22, 1765.

[27] Carroll of Carrollton to Barrington, March 17, 1766.

[28] Field, The Unpublished Letters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

[29] Carroll of Carrollton to Bradshaw, November 21, 1765.

[30] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, November 23, 1765

[31] Field, The Unpublished Letters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

[32] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, August 30, 1758.

[33] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, October 6, 1759.

[34] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, May 1, 1759.

[35] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, December 12, 1760.

[36] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, April 16, 1762.

[37] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, July 14, 1759.

[38] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, April 16, 1762.

[39] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, April 8, 1762.

[40] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, October 6, 1759.

[41] John, S. J. Lewis, Dispensation for the Marrying of Charles Carroll of Carrollton to His Cousin, Rachael Cooke, October 14, 1766.

[42] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, October 14, 1766.

[43] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, October 14, 1766.

[44] Carroll of Carrollton to Jennings, August 13, 1767

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] “Charles Carroll of Carrollton.” Architect of the Capitol. April 2011. Accessed December 2016,

[48] Carroll of Doughoregan to Carroll of Carrollton, January 9, 1759.

[49] Rev. Dr. Carroll to Carroll of Carrollton, November 11, 1783.

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Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Revolutionary Religious Toleration: The Making of a Founder

The prevailing academic theories that attempt to interpret the motivations of those...
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