When the signatories of the Declaration of Independence pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor,” few men had more to lose than Charles Carroll of Carrollton. A wealthy landowner, businessman, and member of a prominent Maryland family, Carroll risked the confiscation of his estate and the loss of his life if the British had prevailed. Yet when asked if he would sign or not, he replied, “Most willingly,“ and ratified what he called ”this record of glory.” Reflecting on that act fifty years later, Carroll–by then the last surviving signer–concluded that the civil and religious liberties secured by the Declaration and enjoyed by that present generation were “the best earthly inheritance their ancestors could bequeath to them.”
As a Roman Catholic–the only one to sign the Declaration–Carroll also had much to gain. Though many American colonists harbored intense suspicion toward Catholics (it was widely believed that Catholic doctrine was incompatible with republicanism), Carroll and his contemporary co-religionists presciently perceived that the American understanding of liberty entailed not only political and economic freedom but religious freedom as well. Carroll himself held the hope that among sects in the new regime, “no one would be so predominant as to become the religion of the State.” As he continued, “that hope was thus early entertained because all of them joined in the same cause with few exceptions of individuals.” Father John Carroll, Charles’s cousin and the first bishop of the United States, agreed: “In 1776, American Independence was declared and a revolution effected, not only in political affairs but also in those relating to Religion. For while the thirteen provinces of North America rejected the yoke of England, they proclaimed, at the same time, freedom of conscience and the right of worshipping the Almighty according to the spirit of the religion to which each one should belong.”
In such a context of freedom, Charles Carroll become one of the early Republic’s most prominent and respected statesmen. Early in 1776, he joined Samuel Chase, Benjamin Franklin, and Father John Carroll on a diplomatic mission to Catholic Quebec to ask for its aid in the Revolution. Carroll also served in the Continental Congress (1776—1778), the Maryland state senate (1777-1800), and the United States senate (1789—1792).
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Michael Laty (died 1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons