BALTIMORE, Md. (The Catholic Review) – Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, at the State House in Philadelphia, only one was a Catholic, who worked much of his life to win political and civil rights for American Catholics and helped establish democracy in the United States.
Charles Carroll, as the pre-eminent Catholic politician of his day and cousin of the Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the first U.S. bishop, was a member of the body of delegates, called the Continental Congress, which had formed two years earlier to speak and act for the people of the 13 British North American colonies which became the United States of America.
The Continental Congress had voted to declare the colonies “to be free and independent states,” no longer under the thumb of Great Britain. To announce this to the world, they wrote and printed the document, which measured approximately 30 x 24 inches.
Four Maryland representatives signed the declaration: Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone and William Paca. While elected to represent the state, he was excluded as an official delegate because of his faith.
"Carroll almost single-handedly obtained religious freedom and political rights for American Catholics, who formerly had suffered from oppressive penal laws which denied them the right to vote and to worship in public," said Scott McDermott of Nashville, the author of the 2003 book, Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary.
"He set a great example and, based on his contribution and that of the Catholic soldiers in the American Revolution, of whom there were many, Americans realized that you could be a Catholic and also a good citizen," McDermott said in a 2003 interview.
"Prior to that, Catholics were considered to be potential traitors, partly because of the number of infamous plots and rebellions when Catholics were involved. His example was crucial to what Catholics are today," he said.
Carroll was born 1737 into a wealthy Roman Catholic family in Annapolis, Md. He was sent to Belgium and attended a Jesuit academy there, where he studied the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Robert Bellarmine.
After Carroll's return to Maryland in 1765, he began lobbying for repeal of the Stamp Act.
"The irony of this is that Carroll was prohibited from voting on any political issue because he was Catholic, and though many immigrants had renounced their faith he remained steadfast to the church," McDermott said.
A refined gentleman with the education and experience expected of members of the finest courts in Europe, he cracked the ban on Catholics holding public office with his 1775 appointment to Maryland’s first Council of Safety.
“When he was elected to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, it was a profound victory for Catholic Americans, and was the beginning of religious tolerance on this continent," McDermott said.
Risking not only his fortune but his very life, Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence on Aug. 2, 1776.
He single-handedly ended decades of discrimination against Catholics and made himself one of the more important leaders of Maryland’s independence movement. In 1781, he was elected to the Maryland Senate.
Carroll’s Annapolis house was the site of Maryland’s official celebration for peace and independence in 1783.
"Had it not been for Carroll, all the new states might have created Protestant religious establishments," said McDermott. "This act exploded the theory that the United States had a Protestant identity."
After the Revolutionary War was over, Carroll had a seat in the first U.S. Senate, while working doggedly for Catholic emancipation as he supported the Bill of Rights with his cousin, Daniel Carroll, who was in the House of Representatives.
When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, Carroll became the only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. He spent his final years as a national hero, and died at the age of 95 in 1832.
According to the National Archives, this large piece of parchment paper was rolled up for storage. A notation was written on the back at the bottom, upside down: “Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776.” The original is exhibited in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington. Poor preservation techniques of the 19th century caused the document to fade badly.
Twenty-four copies are known to exist, two of which are in the Library of Congress. One of these was General George Washington’s personal copy, sent to him by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress with the instructions, “You will have it proclaimed at the head of the army.” Washington read the declaration to his troops on July 9, 1776, in New York where they awaited the combined British fleet and army.
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Catholic News Report contributed to this report.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of The Catholic Review, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Md. (www.catholicreview.org).