American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll
© 2010 Bradley Birzer
When Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence, he was risking the biggest fortune on the American mainland. But Carroll had yearned for independence for more than a decade before he put pen to paper, before strife ever disrupted the happy relationship between British America and Parliament. Whatever the risk, if the cause was right Carroll could have taken no other course; more than any other founder, he was steeped in the classical tradition and its traditions of civic virtue. When he died in 1832, having outlived all the other founders, he was hailed as the Last of the Romans. In American Cicero, Bradley Birzer presents a study of his life, the tale of a Roman in a nation of would-be Jacobins.
Many of the founding generations were besotted with the classical world; they studied the classics not as segregated and dusty literature to be discussed in clubs with other eccentrics, but as the fount of worldly knowledge. Metaphysics, politics, natural philosophy, and even farming wisdom were the gift of Greece and Rome to the American frontier, and a study of classical political constitutions would later inform the creation of the American bedrock. Educated for fourteen years in England and France, Carroll was even more formed by the classics than his contemporaries, who all adopted Latin pen names whenever they wrote in public forums. He considered the ancients to be not only teachers, but friends – especially Cicero, whose Stoicism would undergird Carroll’s political philosophy.
Though he is little remembered today, Carroll’s early career was accomplished; after creating a reputation as a champion-patriot in furious exchange of letters, he served as an emissary to Canada; later he attended the Second Constitutional Convention and signed both it and the Articles of Confederation; still later, when the Constitution supplanted the Articles, he was elected Maryland’s first Senator. This was, Birzer writes, utterly appropriate given how much ink Carroll had spilled in the service of creating a genuine Republic, especially concerned with the role that a Senate would play in maintaining an even keel amid populist furor. If he is forgotten today, it may owe to his well-deserved reputation as a critic of mass democracy: like John Adams, he regarded pure democracy as dangerously unstable, a threat to the liberty of minorities and the right of property.
Carroll was especially conscious of the threat of mobs given his status as a Catholic in a predominately Protestant world. In a list of the signers of the Declaration, Carroll is alone in his Roman devotion. Despite Maryland’s birth as a safe haven for Catholics fleeing the persecution of the Reformation, the state was heavily settled by Protestants and actually became one of the most hostile to Catholicism. In this age, hostility toward a man’s religion didn’t mean calling him names. Seizing his land and setting him on fire were more likely. The despoiling of Catholics had happened in England, and could very well happen in America were the Rule of Law not enthroned.
Carroll feared the rage of a mob, and he had a great deal of property to lose – but he was a man who lived in hope. His faith was more cosmopolitan than most, as he believed all those followed the moral laws of Jesus would see his face regardless of their doctrinal differences with the Church. This universal stance was not sheer pragmatism on Carroll’s part, though he could not expect to live in peace with his neighbors, let alone play a part in the public sphere, were he antagonistic toward his Protestant brethren. The Stoicism of Cicero also deeply informed Carroll’s beliefs, especially the belief that each man was imbued with a divine spark, a piece of the Cosmic logos, and that this made every man and woman kin in a fundamental way, and opened the possibility of a universal republic.
A genuine Republic was possible only if people conducted themselves with virtue, however, obeying the laws of Nature and its God; let passion reign, and the fruits of civilization will be felled under a barbarian storm. Carroll’s staunch belief in the need for virtue predisposed him to favor administration by a relatively small group of men, chosen for the strength of their character and themselves limited by government that kept the inherent abuses of government to a minimum. (The choosing of an American president by Congressionally-appointed Electors reflected the value other founders saw in a moderated national democracy.) He believed in genuine aristocracy, but not the arbitrary sort. Men’s characters were to be judged by their submission to law, both divine and civic. Before the law that bound the cosmos and the republic together, no man could stand superior.
Like Marcus Aurelius, Carroll is an easier man to admire from afar than to enjoy having supper with. John Adams thought him a marvelous specimen of humanity, but Mr. Adams had a moral severity of his own. Contemporaries marveled at his intelligence and devotion to the Patriot cause, arguing as he did against the abuses of the king and Parliament with respect to the common law, but his long education and affluent upbringing seemed to deny him that charismatic common touch that so endeared the public to men like Jefferson, or later Lincoln. He was highly esteemed by his peers, and sometimes admired by the people, but when he passed away he was mostly remembered as a historical curiosity, the last living signer of the declaration. Like Dickinson, he helped to shape popular rage against taxes and government meddling into a respectable cause, and is thus worth considering even if the cause took on a more incautious nature than either man cared for.