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Scott McDermott on the Catholic Signer of Declaration of Independence

NASHVILLE, Tennessee, NOV. 2, 2005 (Zenit) - 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".

McDermott shared with us how Carroll influenced America, and how its Founding Fathers may have unknowingly reinvented the Catholic political tradition.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

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.

[Thursday: Modern Catholics' contributions]

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