An open letter to the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence
Dear Mr. Charles Carroll:
As I only know you through the pages of history, I feel that I must address you rather formally on this, the 243rd anniversary of American independence from Great Britain. You are an interesting historical figure, given that you were the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776 and that you outlived all the other signers—by the time of your death at 95, you lived to see the new nation established. For this and other reasons, I wanted to write to you about that liberty you and the other founders fought to attain.
A few years back, I wrote a similar letter to King George III, but for some reason never received a response from His Majesty. I surmised that he could not be bothered writing to an obscure assistant editor from a “popish” periodical from the former colonies. But I am sure that you are well acquainted with Jesuit periodicals and, given your extensive Jesuit education, well versed in current events. Your cousin, John Carroll, was equally notable in that he was a Jesuit and had the distinction of being the first Catholic bishop in the United States, as well as being the founder of Georgetown University. In any event, when I wrote to the king, I wanted to explore how it all came about. I now propose to do the same with you.
You—like many in your time—believed slavery was “tolerable.”
You signed the Declaration of Independence as “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” and that is how you are known to history. There are differing versions of how that happened: In one, after you initially signed, a fellow delegate sneered that there were many men in the colonies with the same name as yours and that the king could not possibly recognize you as the Carroll of the parchment. Thereupon, you walked back up to the table where the document lay and added: “of Carrollton.” In another version, a delegate seated near you, recognizing you as one of the colonies’ richest men and one of those who had the most to lose if found out as a revolutionary, remarked as you strode up to “Hancock” your name: “There goes another million.”
You were a firm believer in religious freedom and a zealous defender of the separation of church and state. But there is another aspect about you that is not so well known, one that has a great bearing on what we are as a country today and an even greater bearing on the kind of society we have become.
The White House and a Jesuit university, Georgetown, would be built by the blood, sweat and tears of black men, women and children.
You—like many in your time—believed slavery was “tolerable.” Your cousin, the bishop, thought so, too, and you both had slaves. At the time when our founding documents were being written, the founders did without a declarative statement against slavery, believing it would alienate Southerners and the American experiment would flounder before it ever began. Therein lies a tragedy.
Your colleague, John Adams, wrote in his diary that Independence Day should forever be commemorated as a “national festival,” with all kinds of celebrations; that we have done for two-plus centuries. But nations—like their citizens—evolve and mature. With that maturity comes reflection and examination, a not-always-pleasant exercise. Sometimes, history is airbrushed in order to present an idealistic picture, and we Americans have not been immune to that temptation.
To your credit, you tried later to have Maryland pass an anti-slavery bill, an effort that fell lamentably short. You and your cousin the bishop averred that the slaves should be kindly treated, yet your livelihood depended on those who were not considered your “equal.” You favored gradual abolition, but you did not free your slaves. In time, the White House and a Jesuit university, Georgetown, would be built by the blood, sweat and tears of black men, women and children. It would take a Civil War to reduce the fever of slavery, and it would take another century for black Americans to secure basic human rights.
Battles are still being fought against injustice, discrimination and disenfranchisement—even though the United States elected an African-American president not that long ago. It seems we have never been able to eliminate that fever.
Our 33rd president, Harry S. Truman—no stranger to racial divides and attitudes—ruminated about our founding fathers and this conundrum. He once speculated that the reason for Thomas Jefferson’s famous migraine headaches was that Jefferson could never reconcile the conflict between his heart and his mind over this subject, knowing that slavery was incompatible with the American ideal. (This is included in Samuel Gallu’s one-man play “Give ’Em Hell, Harry!” You can see James Whitmore perform this section about 20 minutes into this video on YouTube.) Yet we are still dealing with this in the 21st century.
For the founders, the toleration of slavery was a failure of the greatest magnitude. The talk now is of reparations. How can that be accomplished? Students at present-day Georgetown University have suggested a slight tuition increase to reimburse the descendants of slaves sold by the Jesuits of Georgetown in 1838 to ensure the financial stability of the university. But reparations must mean more than financial remuneration. It must also mean penance and a willingness to admit to the truth before fellow children of God.
Mr. Carroll, you and the founders dared greatly when you declared for independence, yet that independence has not been completely realized. You must know by now that those who built your society have been toiling ever since for an American dream to be owned by us all. The striving to be better is ever being done, but it requires constant vigilance. It is the work of all of us—all Americans.