How Charles Carroll Influenced U.S. Founding Fathers (Part 1)
Scott McDermott on the Catholic Signer of Declaration of Independence
NASHVILLE, Tennessee, NOV. 1, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Charles Carroll made history as the lone Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, but his legacy is all but ignored in today's classrooms.
Scott McDermott, a circulation librarian at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, writer and convert, began studying about Carroll after he came into the Church and wrote about his findings in "Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary" (Scepter).
McDermott shared with ZENIT how Carroll influenced America, and how its Founding Fathers may have unknowingly reinvented the Catholic political tradition.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.
Q: Why did you choose to do a biography on Charles Carroll?
McDermott: When I was an undergraduate, prior to my conversion to Catholicism, I studied the American Revolution quite a bit.
The conflict was described almost exclusively in terms of what has been called the "Whig view of history." In this view, all history is seen in terms of linear progress toward maximum personal freedom, of the sort enjoyed by Protestant Englishmen in the 19th century.
Now this is a rather antiquated point of view, which was denounced by such influential 20th-century historians as Sir Herbert Butterfield and Sir Karl Popper.
It was, however, alive and well in history departments in the 1980s, albeit in a different form: Instead of progress toward Anglo-American political institutions, history was interpreted as a gradual struggle for liberation of all peoples from oppressive "Western" truths and customs.
So, we were given the Whig school in postmodern dress, and the American Revolution was seen not as an affirmation of timeless laws of nature, but merely as an assertion of civil rights.
After my conversion, I became interested in knowing whether the Revolution could in fact be related to the older Christian -- and Catholic -- political tradition. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the obvious place to start.
Educated by Jesuits in France, Carroll was steeped in the Catholic political tradition: from St. Thomas, through St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suárez, all the way down to Montesquieu.
His thought clearly reflects Catholic political precepts such as the priority of the common good, corporatism, the liberty of the Church, popular sovereignty, the natural law, and what later came to be called subsidiarity.
But Carroll had to be careful about quoting any of the great Catholic doctors of the Church, because of the taboo against Catholicism in English political life. Carroll brought these ideas into the mix at the time of the Founding, without acknowledging their source.
I've been accused of saying that the American Revolution originated directly from Catholic political teaching. This is obviously not the case; the truth is more complex and interesting.
Catholic teaching was almost totally suppressed in the British Empire in the 18th century. The colonists thought they hated the Catholic political tradition, which they mistakenly identified with the Stuarts' doctrine of divine right. But the Founding Fathers really had no idea what the authentic tradition was.
When they began to resist the king in Parliament, they had to develop a new political science fast.
There was a radical political tradition in England coming from the Puritans, which included the idea of resistance to tyranny; but the Puritan tradition emphasized the supremacy of Parliament, the same Parliament that passed the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts and the Intolerable Acts. So the Americans had to dig deeper.
There was the common law, under which laws that violated the natural rights of Englishmen were theoretically null and void. But in spite of the lip service paid by Coke and Blackstone to this theory, the truth was that no judge in England was willing to throw out acts of Parliament, especially those relating to American colonists, on grounds of natural law.
So the colonists had to go back beyond common law, to its roots in the natural law, as proclaimed by Bracton and St. Germain and the courts of equity prior to the Reformation.
I argue that the Founding Fathers unknowingly reinvented the Catholic political tradition. If anyone had suggested to them at the time that that is what they were doing, the Founders would have been horrified. Paradoxically, they were able to revive several elements of Catholic thinking because they were totally ignorant of the authentic tradition.
They also had Charles Carroll in Congress and in the Maryland Senate, pushing them toward Catholic political practice without ever letting on what he was doing. And this is what the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore meant when it said in 1884 that the framers of the Constitution were "'building better than they knew,' the Almighty's hand guiding them."
The results were not perfect, but approximated Catholic political thought in a number of important ways.
Q: How did Carroll use natural law and natural rights in arguing that the colonies were justified in breaking from England?
McDermott: In his "First Citizen" papers of 1773, Carroll argued that it was necessary to move back beyond the common law to the "clear and fundamental" principles of the English constitution, namely the natural law.
Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence cites the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to justify the Revolution, and appeals to the natural rights that derive from the natural law.
At the same time, Carroll was writing his own "Declaration of the Delegates of Maryland" to explain Maryland's vote for independence. Carroll's natural law thinking as expressed in this document complements Jefferson's approach while correcting some of its distortions.
Carroll wrote: "We the Delegates of the People of Maryland in Convention assembled do declare that the King of Great Britain has violated his compact with this People, and that they owe no allegiance to him."
Then he went back and crossed out "of the People." Thus, in keeping with Catholic corporatism, the "Delegates of Maryland" represent the whole body of society, and not just the majority will. Popular sovereignty is not a matter of ongoing revision of the Constitution by majorities, as Jefferson supposed.
Also, Carroll's document stays with the traditional natural rights of life, liberty and property. "Slaves, savages and foreign mercenaries have been meanly hired to rob a People of their property, liberty [and] lives, guilty of no other crime than deeming the last of no estimation without the secure enjoyment of the two former."
Jefferson, of course, substitutes a right to the "pursuit of happiness" for the right to property. By inventing this new right, Jefferson distorted the concept of natural law, with dramatic consequences for the rest of American history.
Maryland's Declaration appeals for its truth "to that Almighty Being, who is emphatically styled the Searcher of hearts, & from whose Omniscience nothing is concealed."
Jefferson's original draft described the natural law as a "sacred and undeniable" truth. Franklin insisted on suppressing even this vague reference to the divine, and so we have the phrase "we hold these truths to be self-evident."
Well, they are self-evident, but they also come from a personal Divine Lawgiver without whom natural law has no meaning.
[Wednesday: Modern Catholics' contributions]
How Charles Carroll Influenced U.S. Founding Fathers (Part 2)
Scott McDermott Also Offers Advice for a New Chief Justice
NASHVILLE, Tennessee, NOV. 2, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Modern-day Catholics owe more than a hat tip to Charles Carroll, who helped turn public opinion in favor of Catholics as good citizens and contributors in the public square.
So says Scott McDermott, a circulation librarian at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and author of "Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary" (Scepter).
He shared with ZENIT how Carroll (1737-1832) influenced America through his writings and actions, and how his work paved the way for contemporary notable Catholics. Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday.
Q: How did Carroll help convince people that Catholics could be good citizens?
McDermott: First of all, through his brilliant "First Citizen" letters of 1773, in which he argued for Catholic civil rights. Second, through the crucial role he played in setting up the government of Maryland. Lastly, by risking his huge fortune when he signed the Declaration of Independence.
There was an incredible shift in the American view of Catholics at the time of the Revolution, one which has often gone unnoticed.
Prior to the Revolution, all Catholics were viewed as potential traitors, and France was seen as a mortal enemy. A French alliance was unthinkable to the colonial mind.
Suddenly, in 1775, John Adams was describing Carroll as "a Roman Catholic, but an ardent patriot." Within a few years there was a full-fledged alliance between the United States and two Catholic powers, France and Spain.
This resulted partly from wartime necessity, but also had something to do with Carroll's commitment to the American cause.
Q: Why was Carroll -- quite an active politician -- often left out of early history accounts?
McDermott: Everything that conflicted with the Whig -- a.k.a. WASP -- view of history started to disappear from histories of the Revolution in the mid-19th century. Carroll's thought obviously did not fit this mind-set, which is still unfortunately going strong.
During the 1960s, historians rediscovered the "ideology of the American Revolution," but they saw this ideology as stemming almost exclusively from the Puritan tradition and John Locke. The influence of Montesquieu continues to be largely ignored, even though a 1984 study by Donald Lutz in the American Political Science Review shows that the Founders quoted Montesquieu more frequently than any other source except the Bible.
Montesquieu's vision of limited and mixed government was the crucial prototype for the American system of checks and balances. Locke's emphasis on Parliamentary supremacy had little to do with the government the Founders devised.
Q: Who are some other important Catholics in American history that have been all but forgotten in modern history books?
McDermott: Well, first of all, the Catholic explorers and settlers prior to the settlement of Jamestown, beginning with Ponce de León in 1521.
Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana during the Revolution, won the third-greatest victory of the war at Pensacola. Has anyone ever heard of him?
Other Catholic heroes of the Revolution include Commodore John Barry, Stephen Moylan, and of course Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Pulaski, de Kalb, Steuben.
Other Catholic patriots, not just the famous names, also need to be brought to light, including the 18th-century Irish immigrants who made up the muster rolls of the Revolution.
We tend to think Irish immigration began with the potato famine, but this is simply untrue; there was large-scale Irish immigration during the colonial period. Many of these immigrants were Scots-Irish Presbyterians, but an unknown number were Catholic.
Other Catholic soldiers of the Revolution include Gálvez's army of Creoles, Germans, Irish, Cajuns, Mexicans, African-Americans and Spaniards.
Q: What was the significance of Americans not electing a Catholic to the presidency until 1961? Why did it take so long? Did it pave the way for other Catholics in the public square?
McDermott: Anti-Catholicism as a real force in politics was spent by the end of the 19th century.
Al Smith and John F. Kennedy were hampered in their presidential campaigns not so much by their Catholicism as by their association with urban corruption and machine politics. Most Catholic politicians prior to 1980 did, in fact, have these associations. That is no longer the case, so I would expect that stigma to disappear for the next Catholic presidential candidate.
On the other hand, he will be expected to follow in the footsteps of President Kennedy by disavowing any direct papal influence on political decisions. The candidate should perform this ritual, and should avoid quoting, say, papal encyclicals or Doctors of the Church.
But he must, of course, let his conscience be formed by the social teaching of the Church. In public he can speak in terms of natural law, which is written on the heart of all people, whether Catholic or not. Who knows, it might even work -- or the strategy could provoke another period of anti-Catholic backlash in public life. It's impossible to say at this point.
Q: America has now seen its second Catholic chief justice of the United States. In what other high-profile positions are you seeing Catholics these days?
McDermott: The career of Roger Taney, the first Catholic chief justice, should be a cautionary tale for Chief Justice John Roberts.
Taney's Dred Scott decision uses natural law thinking to proclaim an inalienable right to property in slaves. The Dred Scott decision did not bolster the cause of natural law jurisprudence. And as part of governmental centralization during Reconstruction, several states removed social contract language from their state constitutions.
What Roberts should do is try to revive natural law jurisprudence, while being careful to avoid its misuse. It is impossible to say at this point whether he will have any interest in doing this.
Many conservative jurists, upset at abuses of natural rights logic in past Supreme Court decisions, want to respect "legislative intent." But this line of thinking, without a proper respect for legitimate natural rights, could result in a tyranny of the majority.
Other jurists wish to honor the Founders' "original intent" rather than natural law -- but the mind of the Founders was saturated with natural law thinking.
Q: Have Catholics achieved greater acceptance and public influence at the cost of losing their identity as Catholics?
McDermott: Alexis de Tocqueville noticed a strange phenomenon in American Catholicism that is still operative today. He observed that Americans raised in the Church tend to fall away. But on the other hand, the Catholic Church in America tends to attract a large number of converts.
Americans are a fundamentally religious people, and the unity, order and stability that they see in the Catholic Church attracts many devout American Protestants.
I think the story of the Catholic Church in America is one of many Catholics forfeiting their identity in order to gain social acceptance -- but it is also one of vitality, as new Catholics replenish the stock.
I hope the Church will find some way to continue attracting converts, while retaining the "cradle Catholics"; we converts sometimes lack the rootedness, stability and deeply ingrained charity that faithful "cradle Catholics" possess.