Skip to main content


How Charles Carroll Influenced U.S. Founding Fathers (Part 1 of 2)

11/2/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

Advertisment

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 ...

1 | 2  Next Page

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article

0 Comments

Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Revelation 14:14-19
Now in my vision I saw a white cloud and, sitting on it, one ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 96:10, 11-12, 13
Say among the nations, 'Yahweh is king.' The world is set firm, ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 21:5-11
When some were talking about the Temple, remarking how it was ... Read More

Saint of the Day

November 25 Saint of the Day

St. Catherine of Alexandria
November 25: St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr whose feast day ... Read More