Charles Carroll was the grandson of an immigrant from Ireland. His grandfather — also named Charles Carroll — left Ireland during the tumultuous year of 1688 when James II, a Catholic, was driven from the throne. His successor, William of Orange, oversaw the imposition of the Penal Laws in the 1690s, which placed extreme limits on the civil, religious, and economic rights of Ireland’s Catholic majority.
Charles Carroll left Ireland while he had the chance and settled, not surprisingly, in Maryland, a colony with a longstanding tradition of tolerance toward Catholics. Well educated, Carroll went on to become the colony’s Attorney General and the owner of several large estates.
His grandson, Charles Carroll, was thus born into substantial wealth and privilege. One thing that had changed in Maryland between 1688 and 1737, however, was that Catholics had seen many of their legal and political rights curtailed. As a consequence, the Carrolls decided to send young Charles at the age of eleven to Europe for most of his education. He attended the Jesuit college at St. Omer in France where his cousin and future first bishop in America, John Carroll, was also enrolled. Six years of study at St. Omer was followed by six more in universities in Rheims, Bourges, Paris, and London.
Carroll returned to Maryland in 1765 at the age of 28. He was without question one of the best-educated men of his generation with unparalleled exposure to several Europe cultures. His father rewarded him with a 10,000-acre estate in Frederick County that Charles subsequently named “Carrollton.” Three years later he married his cousin Mary Darnell and together they raised seven children.
Almost from the moment he returned to Maryland, Carroll became a vocal figure in the emerging American resistance to Britain’s colonial policies. In 1773 he took a leading role in opposing colonial governor Robert Eden’s decision to raise government fees without the assent of the colonial legislature. Writing under a pseudonym in a newspaper, Carroll engaged in a spirited debate with Maryland’s secretary — an Irishman named Daniel Delany who supported the governor — offering a sharp critique of the governor’s undemocratic actions.
As popular resistance to British policy increased in 1775, especially after news of the first military clashes at Lexington and Concord, Carroll joined Maryland’s Committee of Safety and then won election to the extralegal Provincial Congress. In 1776, as pressure for a complete break with Britain mounted, the Continental Congress sent Carroll (along with Benjamin Franklin) to Canada to secure Canadian support.
The mission failed, but soon after his return Carroll was elected to represent Maryland in the Continental Congress as it finalized the Declaration of Independence. His election actually took place on July 4, so like many signers of the historic document, Carroll signed weeks later in August. Carroll knew, of course, that the British did not care about the timing — all signers were considered traitors and would be subject to execution and forfeiture of all family property. Few of the signers had as much to lose as Charles Carroll.
During the succeeding years of military struggle, Carroll served in the Continental Congress and on its all-important Board of War. The early years of the war also saw the former colonies create the first state governments and Carroll helped draft Maryland’s state constitution. In 1781 Carroll won election to the Maryland senate. Six years later he declined an offer to represent Maryland at the Constitutional Convention, but he labored hard to gain ratification of the new federal government. Elected to serve as senator in the first U.S. Congress, Carroll declined in favor of remaining in the Maryland senate.
Carroll lost his bid for reelection in 1800 and retired from public life to devote his time to business affairs, especially banking. In the late 1820s he recognized the great potential of the nascent railroad and became a principal stockholder in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. On July 4, 1828, Carroll appeared in the public for the last time, laying the cornerstone for the B & O’s new terminal. By that time he was not merely the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, but also the last living signer. Carroll died on November 14, 1832 at the age of 96.
Sources: Thomas O’Brien Hanley, Charles Carroll of Carrollton: The Making of a Revolutionary Gentleman (1970). Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
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