As you enter the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol from the East Front, you come upon an oil painting by John Trumbull, “Washington Resigning His Commission,” which celebrates in many ways the beginnings of the American Republic. However, if you look closely you see a man behind General Washington with his hand on a chair covered by red robes. Who is this man? It is Charles Carroll of Carrolton – a man who was arguably the most brilliant of all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the only Roman Catholic. Unfortunately, Charles Carroll has been largely forgotten by the general population-at-large.
In American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Hillsdale College history professor Bradley Birzer attempts to argue the importance Charles Carroll played as a founding father. Carroll, an Annapolis native, had a very different philosophical inspiration than some of his contemporaries. He did not look to John Locke and Enlightenment thinkers as cause to break from Great Britain. In fact, he was inspired by the great philosophers of Antiquity and the medieval period. Men such as Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero and Aquinas were his guides in interpreting ideas about freedom from the British. Additionally, he looked to the great British thinkers of his age, primarily Edmund Burke, a man who saw the importance of a strong legislative body to counter the despotic leanings of an untethered executive. Carroll, unlike some of his co-signers, did not see the American Revolution as a revolt from the British system, but more of a reform. Carroll spent the majority of his formative years in Europe and was also greatly influenced by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). As a pupil of Jesuit priests at St. Omer in London and Louisle-Grand in Paris, he was taught that one must resist immoral and unjust governments.
Birzer does a fine job in describing the discrimination that Roman Catholics, like Carroll, felt in Maryland prior to the Revolution. Catholics in the state were not allowed to hold public office, vote, or hold religious services until 1774. (Laws were passed in the state of Maryland relegating Catholics to second class citizens by the early 18th Century). Carroll had much to gain from a break from Great Britain – primarily religious freedom. His articulation of toleration for persecuted Catholics, as well as his idea of liberty, both verbally and in writing, allowed him to become a leading champion of freedom for the state of Maryland and a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776.
A weakness of the biography remains its length. It is too short. Birzer briefly mentions the importance of Carroll moving the Federal City to the Potomac with a quote from the second President John Adams, but does not offer further elaboration.
American Cicero is a must-read for anyone interested in philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution. Charles Carroll remains unique in that experiment in that he did not necessarily look to contemporary thinkers of the Enlightenment period for inspiration, such as Thomas Jefferson, but to the philosophers who pervaded Catholic thought during the time, and still today. When Carroll passed away in 1832 at the age of 95, he was last of the signers to die. Upon his death he was heralded as the last of the Romans, a patriot, and an American Cicero. Congress received a statue of Charles Carroll in 1903 as one of Maryland’s two state statues. The statue is positioned in the Crypt representing Maryland as one of the original 13 states. As tour groups walk through the Rotunda and the Crypt, let them be reminded that Charles Carroll of Carrolton was one of the great intellectuals who helped shape a nation that is still strong more than 200 years later.