Catholic History, Misconstrued

February 2001By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500-1782.  By Ronald Hoffman. University of North Carolina Press. 429 pages. $39.95.



In 1829 Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832) declared that, as the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, he had struck a blow not just for political independence, but for liberty of conscience — for “equal rights” and “the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion.” Ronald Hoffman, however, wonders why he waited so long to say it. As editor of the Carroll papers, Hoffman is well-positioned to provide a family history of this Catholic founding father, his father Charles Carroll of Annapolis (1702-1782), and his grandfather Charles Carroll the Settler (1661-1720). Yet anyone hoping to read about these men as Catholic figures will be disappointed. Although Hoffman amply documents how the Carrolls got rich in Maryland, he fails to place them in a Catholic context. Their kinsman John Carroll (1735-1815), the first Catholic bishop in the U.S., is scarcely mentioned.

Hoffman begins with the O’Carroll princes of medieval Ireland, for tellingly, the Carrolls of Maryland named their various plantations after the castles of their lost Irish patrimony. By marriage and military alliance but never by religious compromise, the Gaelic O’Carrolls had long preserved their midland baronies against English challenges, even regaining an estate in the 1660s through the efforts of their Cavalier kinsman Richard Grace. After 1690 their struggle was over, for the land held by Catholics in Ireland dwindled from 59 percent in 1641 to 22 percent in 1688, and from 14 percent in 1703 to 5 percent in 1776.

Charles the Settler arrived in Maryland in 1688 with a commission to serve as Attorney General, but was soon removed from office for his religion. In the wake of the English revolution, anti-Catholic laws were passed, such as the Test requiring everyone seeking public employment to take an oath against Transubstantiation. Hoffman fails to note that this is the Test denounced in Article Six of our Constitution. In Maryland, Catholics were now deprived of the right to worship publicly, give their children a religious education, and practice law. Yet formerly, the ruling Catholics had given liberty of conscience and civil rights to Protestants, which Hoffman also ignores.

Carroll the Settler was twice incarcerated for speaking defiantly against this legalized bigotry. He single-handedly provoked anti-Catholic legislation when he tried to exercise a commission from Lord Baltimore in 1716 and the Maryland Assembly declared anew that all men must qualify for public employment by publicly denying the doctrine of Transubstantiation. In 1718 this Assembly stripped Maryland’s Catholic minority of its right to vote only because Carroll had tried to elect a representative sympathetic to Catholics. They would not regain the vote till 1774. Hoffman notes in passing that Catholics claimed they had received, under the original charter of Maryland, equal privileges with Protestants, but he does not examine that claim.

In spite of such obstacles, the Settler went on to marry into Lord Baltimore’s family and became rich from proprietary offices, land acquisitions, mercantile activities, agriculture, the loan market, and the practice of law. At his death, his estate was the largest ever probated in Maryland. Hoffman mentions, but only in passing, that he had a “well-furnished chapel that probably served Annapolis Catholics of all social ranks.”

Now Charles Carroll of Annapolis came home from France and in turn increased the family wealth through banking, ironworks, and agriculture. In 1737 a son was born to this second Carroll and his cousin Elizabeth Brooke. However, their marriage seems not to have been formalized by a priest until 1757, the same year Carroll started preparing to move to Louisiana. Hoffman hastily dismisses the idea of an earlier clandestine marriage between the two cousins. He does not engage in any study of Irish Catholics under persecution to see if there might be a pattern of secret marriages among them. Instead, he argues that Carroll cohabited with Elizabeth Brooke until their only son proved himself, after twenty years, worthy of his vast inheritance. This heartless scenario does not ring true when one considers Elizabeth’s lineage as the granddaughter of Major Nicholas Sewall (1655-1737), stepson to Lord Baltimore, and the younger Carroll’s treatment as the cherished scion of the family — nothing was spared to give him a first-rate Catholic education. At the time, it was illegal to raise an heir in a “popish academy” abroad, but, even so, the younger Carroll, at age 11, sailed to France to receive the same Jesuit education his father and grandfather had received, and then to London to study law, along with other arts and skills. As the elder Carroll warned in 1760, a Catholic needed a superior education to thrive among men of such “malice that they would not only deprive us of our Property but our lives.”

The elder Carroll wrote a stream of letters full of advice to his son “Charley,” assuring him that if he did as the Jesuits taught, he would be happy here and hereafter. Hoffman misconstrues these letters as veiled threats to cut Charley off should he not measure up. He also misconstrues the elder Carroll’s advice to follow “reason,” for he imagines that this means “Papa” accepted the Enlightenment along with Catholicism. Had Hoffman researched the Catholic tradition, especially the Jesuit system of education, he would have seen that Catholics had been emphasizing “reason” long before the so-called Enlightenment. When the Jesuits were persecuted in France, Papa defended them in letters, insisting they suffered for their merit and virtue.

When Carroll, the future Signer, was in London from 1760 to 1764, he presented, at his father’s urging, the grievances of Maryland’s Catholics to the proprietor Lord Baltimore, asking him to appoint officials sympathetic to their religion. But nothing came of it. He returned to Maryland in 1765, married his cousin Molly, and began to administer the family’s banking operations, plantations, and ironworks. In addition to producing tobacco, potatoes, and other crops, the Carrolls had livestock and a vineyard tended by French vignerons. Their workforce ca. 1770 included 386 slaves, 13 percent skilled in trades, who were inherited from various kinsmen and were grouped into 14 families. Indeed, “even those children who did not reside with a parent usually stayed with a sibling or godparent, so that virtually none of the young slaves lived without kin.” With respect to these slaves, Hoffman finds “no evidence” that the Carrolls “ever sought to encourage Catholic conversion or Christian morality in any form,” declaring that this lack of interest in proselytizing separates the Carrolls from other Catholics. But how does a lack of evidence prove anything? In times of persecution, religious activity is covert. Hoffman gives no details about what other wealthy Maryland Catholics did in this regard. Later, he notes in passing that the elder Carroll had a library of Catholic works of controversy against Protestantism and maintained chapels, one in Annapolis and one at his manor, for monthly Mass.

It appears that the Catholics of Maryland were 10 percent of the population in 1760 and that the wealthiest among them made up half of the 20 richest families in the province. But Catholic wealth afforded no political leverage — from 1720 to the Revolution they were unable to repeal a single law against their civil and religious liberties. Indeed, new discriminatory laws were passed, as in 1744, when Catholics were ordered to stop serving in the militia. From the time of the Seven Years’ War against France and Spain, they were so often accused of disloyalty and threatened with new penal laws that, until the mid-1760s, they feared for their lives and property. It was only thanks to legislative wrangling over who would profit from forfeited Catholic estates that the bill which would have made the “conversion of a Protestant to Catholicism…

punishable as high treason” failed to pass both houses. In 1756 a double tax fell on Catholic-owned land. No wonder, then, that the elder Carroll was getting ready, in the late 1750s, to emigrate to Louisiana!

In 1763 the vicar-apostolic Richard Challoner of London urged Rome to send a bishop to North America, but Maryland’s Catholics petitioned Challoner against it in 1765, with the elder Carroll’s name leading a list of 259 signatories. To send a bishop, they said, would “give a handle to our enemies to endeavour at the total suppression of the exercise of our Religion, and otherways most grievously to molest us.”

And so, it seems like nothing short of a miracle that only eight years after this petition the younger Carroll should suddenly win great popularity by writing a series of articles in the Maryland Gazette under the pseudonym “First Citizen.” This joust of 1773 lasted five months, and despite his adversary’s use of anti-Catholic invective, Carroll came out the clear winner. Immediately he found new avenues to political action opened to him. In 1776 he was chosen by the Continental Congress to go on a diplomatic mission to Canada, being seen as well suited by his religion and fluency in French for this delicate task. Soon after, he helped compose Maryland’s Declaration of Independence and was selected by the convention to be a delegate at the Second Continental Congress. In 1776 he published two more public letters signed “CX,” placing himself at the forefront of the struggle for independence by urging the formation of a new government in three branches — executive, legislative, and judicial. His ardent campaigning for independence even helped turn the tide of sentiment in Maryland.

When his father objected that men of property were being made to shoulder disproportionate taxes for the war and, as creditors, to accept devalued currency in payment of debt, the younger Carroll stood his ground and said the sacrifice was called for. In 1779 the Carrolls paid nearly double the taxes they paid in 1778. Having thus bravely risked his vast inheritance for the sake of liberty, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was naturally summoned to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.

The last part of the book deals with the younger Carroll’s family life. Hoffman depicts him as an emotionally aloof husband whose coldness derived from the elder Carroll’s supposed 20-year test of his merit. That Charley wrote more often to his father than his wife when he was away on political affairs is no proof of coldness, since this was probably typical of men of affairs who had uneducated wives. Anyway, nearly all the letters Charley exchanged with his wife are lost, making his emotional temperature difficult to gauge. That Molly became addicted to opium after having lost five children to early childhood diseases surely cannot be laid at his door, for this drug was then freely prescribed. After her early death, Carroll the Signer remained a widower for fifty years, until his death.

Hoffman’s book is especially useful because of its extensive documentation, genealogical charts, and index. The style is relaxed, not academic. On the other hand, the book illustrates the problem that arises when someone unfamiliar with Catholic history composes a study of eminent Catholics who lived under persecution. In Hoffman’s account, the first two Carrolls emerge as a pair of near-Scrooges deeply embittered by the sufferings of old Ireland. In the Preface, Hoffman likens the Carrolls to the Jews carrying the burden of their past. Thus, he misconstrues the Carroll’s fidelity to Catholicism as loyalty to an ethnic heritage, at one point in the introduction even calling the second Carroll’s Catholic piety “atavistic.” He seems not to grasp that the Carrolls embraced Catholicism as the universal form of Christianity. Indeed, in the midst of all the anti-Catholic hysteria of the 1750s, the elder Carroll heroically tried to assist 900 French-Canadian refugees who had been deported from Nova Scotia for their religion and had arrived destitute in Maryland. He was prevented only by the provincial government from carrying out his generous plans.

The evidence provided in these pages often lends itself to a different interpretation from the one Hoffman gives, for the simple reason that the Catholic faith and Maryland’s Catholic history are not factored in. Thus we see how necessary it is for us Catholics to study our own history and how important that history is for Catholics like the Carrolls of Maryland, who acted impressively, even heroically, in the long struggle for civil rights and liberty of conscience.



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