on the Catholic Signer of Declaration of Independence
NASHVILLE, Tennessee, 1 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)
Charles Carroll made history as the lone Catholic signer of the
Declaration of Independence, but his legacy is all but ignored in
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" (Scepter).
McDermott shared with ZENIT how Carroll influenced America, and how its
Founding Fathers may have unknowingly reinvented the Catholic political
Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.
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
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
political tradition. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as the only Catholic
signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the obvious place to
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
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 this is what the Third Plenary Council of
Baltimore meant when it said in 1884 that the framers of the
Constitution were "'building better than they knew,' the Almighty's hand
The results were not perfect, but approximated Catholic political
thought in a number of important ways.
Q: How did Carroll use natural law and natural rights in arguing that
the colonies were justified in breaking from England?
McDermott: In his "First Citizen" papers of 1773, Carroll argued that it
was necessary to move back beyond the common law to the "clear and
fundamental" principles of the English constitution, namely the natural
Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence cites the "Laws of Nature
and of Nature's God" to justify the Revolution, and appeals to the
natural rights that derive from the natural law.
At the same time, Carroll was writing his own "Declaration of the
Delegates of Maryland" to explain Maryland's vote for independence.
Carroll's natural law thinking as expressed in this document complements
Jefferson's approach while correcting some of its distortions.
Carroll wrote: "We the Delegates of the People of Maryland in Convention
assembled do declare that the King of Great Britain has violated his
compact with this People, and that they owe no allegiance to him."
Then he went back and crossed out "of the People." Thus, in keeping with
Catholic corporatism, the "Delegates of Maryland" represent the whole
body of society, and not just the majority will. Popular sovereignty is
not a matter of ongoing revision of the Constitution by majorities, as
Also, Carroll's document stays with the traditional natural rights of
life, liberty and property. "Slaves, savages and foreign mercenaries
have been meanly hired to rob a People of their property, liberty [and]
lives, guilty of no other crime than deeming the last of no estimation
without the secure enjoyment of the two former."
Jefferson, of course, substitutes a right to the "pursuit of happiness"
for the right to property. By inventing this new right, Jefferson
distorted the concept of natural law, with dramatic consequences for the
rest of American history.
Maryland's Declaration appeals for its truth "to that Almighty Being,
who is emphatically styled the Searcher of hearts, & from whose
Omniscience nothing is concealed."
Jefferson's original draft described the natural law as a "sacred and
undeniable" truth. Franklin insisted on suppressing even this vague
reference to the divine, and so we have the phrase "we hold these truths
to be self-evident."
Well, they are self-evident, but they also come from a personal Divine
Lawgiver without whom natural law has no meaning. ZE05110103
Scott McDermott Also Offers Advice for a New Chief Justice
NASHVILLE, Tennessee, 2 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)
Modern-day Catholics owe more than a hat tip to Charles Carroll, who
helped turn public opinion in favor of Catholics as good citizens and
contributors in the public square.
So says Scott McDermott, a circulation librarian at Vanderbilt
University Divinity School and author of "Charles Carroll of Carrollton:
Faithful Revolutionary" (Scepter).
He shared with ZENIT how Carroll (1737-1832) influenced America through
his writings and actions, and how his work paved the way for
contemporary notable Catholics. Part 1 of this interview appeared
Q: How did Carroll help convince people that Catholics could be good
McDermott: First of all, through his brilliant "First Citizen" letters
of 1773, in which he argued for Catholic civil rights. Second, through
the crucial role he played in setting up the government of Maryland.
Lastly, by risking his huge fortune when he signed the Declaration of
There was an incredible shift in the American view of Catholics at the
time of the Revolution, one which has often gone unnoticed.
Prior to the Revolution, all Catholics were viewed as potential
traitors, and France was seen as a mortal enemy. A French alliance was
unthinkable to the colonial mind.
Suddenly, in 1775, John Adams was describing Carroll as "a Roman
Catholic, but an ardent patriot." Within a few years there was a
full-fledged alliance between the United States and two Catholic powers,
France and Spain.
This resulted partly from wartime necessity, but also had something to
do with Carroll's commitment to the American cause.
Q: Why was Carroll
quite an active politician
often left out of early history accounts?
McDermott: Everything that conflicted with the Whig
view of history started to disappear from histories of the Revolution in
the mid-19th century. Carroll's thought obviously did not fit this
mind-set, which is still unfortunately going strong.
During the 1960s, historians rediscovered the "ideology of the American
Revolution," but they saw this ideology as stemming almost exclusively
from the Puritan tradition and John Locke. The influence of Montesquieu
continues to be largely ignored, even though a 1984 study by Donald Lutz
in the American Political Science Review shows that the Founders quoted
Montesquieu more frequently than any other source except the Bible.
Montesquieu's vision of limited and mixed government was the crucial
prototype for the American system of checks and balances. Locke's
emphasis on Parliamentary supremacy had little to do with the government
the Founders devised.
Q: Who are some other important Catholics in American history that have
been all but forgotten in modern history books?
McDermott: Well, first of all, the Catholic explorers and settlers prior
to the settlement of Jamestown, beginning with Ponce de León in 1521.
Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana during the
Revolution, won the third-greatest victory of the war at Pensacola. Has
anyone ever heard of him?
Other Catholic heroes of the Revolution include Commodore John Barry,
Stephen Moylan, and of course Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Pulaski, de Kalb,
Other Catholic patriots, not just the famous names, also need to be
brought to light, including the 18th-century Irish immigrants who made
up the muster rolls of the Revolution.
We tend to think Irish immigration began with the potato famine, but
this is simply untrue; there was large-scale Irish immigration during
the colonial period. Many of these immigrants were Scots-Irish
Presbyterians, but an unknown number were Catholic.
Other Catholic soldiers of the Revolution include Gálvez's army of
Creoles, Germans, Irish, Cajuns, Mexicans, African-Americans and
Q: What was the significance of Americans not electing a Catholic to the
presidency until 1961? Why did it take so long? Did it pave the way for
other Catholics in the public square?
McDermott: Anti-Catholicism as a real force in politics was spent by the
end of the 19th century.
Al Smith and John F. Kennedy were hampered in their presidential
campaigns not so much by their Catholicism as by their association with
urban corruption and machine politics. Most Catholic politicians prior
to 1980 did, in fact, have these associations. That is no longer the
case, so I would expect that stigma to disappear for the next Catholic
On the other hand, he will be expected to follow in the footsteps of
President Kennedy by disavowing any direct papal influence on political
decisions. The candidate should perform this ritual, and should avoid
quoting, say, papal encyclicals or Doctors of the Church.
But he must, of course, let his conscience be formed by the social
teaching of the Church. In public he can speak in terms of natural law,
which is written on the heart of all people, whether Catholic or not.
Who knows, it might even work
or the strategy could provoke another period of anti-Catholic backlash
in public life. It's impossible to say at this point.
Q: America has now seen its second Catholic chief justice of the United
States. In what other high-profile positions are you seeing Catholics
McDermott: The career of Roger Taney, the first Catholic chief justice,
should be a cautionary tale for Chief Justice John Roberts.
Taney's Dred Scott decision uses natural law thinking to proclaim an
inalienable right to property in slaves. The Dred Scott decision did not
bolster the cause of natural law jurisprudence. And as part of
governmental centralization during Reconstruction, several states
removed social contract language from their state constitutions.
What Roberts should do is try to revive natural law jurisprudence, while
being careful to avoid its misuse. It is impossible to say at this point
whether he will have any interest in doing this.
Many conservative jurists, upset at abuses of natural rights logic in
past Supreme Court decisions, want to respect "legislative intent." But
this line of thinking, without a proper respect for legitimate natural
rights, could result in a tyranny of the majority.
Other jurists wish to honor the Founders' "original intent" rather than
but the mind of the Founders was saturated with natural law thinking.
Q: Have Catholics achieved greater acceptance and public influence at
the cost of losing their identity as Catholics?
McDermott: Alexis de Tocqueville noticed a strange phenomenon in
American Catholicism that is still operative today. He observed that
Americans raised in the Church tend to fall away. But on the other hand,
the Catholic Church in America tends to attract a large number of
Americans are a fundamentally religious people, and the unity, order and
stability that they see in the Catholic Church attracts many devout
I think the story of the Catholic Church in America is one of many
Catholics forfeiting their identity in order to gain social acceptance
but it is also one of vitality, as new Catholics replenish the stock.
I hope the Church will find some way to continue attracting converts,
while retaining the "cradle Catholics"; we converts sometimes lack the
rootedness, stability and deeply ingrained charity that faithful "cradle
Catholics" possess. ZE05110220