Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis, was born in 1737 and died in November 1832. He was the lone Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and the last of the signers to die. Last year I interviewed Dr. Brad Birzer, Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College and author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI, 2010). Here is some of that interview:
Ignatius Insight: In what ways was Charles Carroll an "American Cicero"?
Dr. Birzer: Beginning sometime in his teenage years, Carroll fell in the love with the life, the ideas, and the writings of Cicero. From that point until his death in 1832, Carroll considered Cicero one of his closest friends and, as he put it, a constant companion in conversation. After the teachings of Christ and the Bible, he said toward the end of his life, give me the works of Cicero. Again, as Father Hanley has argued, Carroll truly was a Christian Humanist, blending the Judeo-Christian with the
Greco-Roman traditions of the West quite nicely in his person as well as in his intellectual life.
The founders, overall, greatly respected Cicero. Not only had he served as the last real bulwark against the encroachment of tyranny and empire in ancient Rome, but he represented the best a republic had to offer, then or now. Probably Carl J. Richard, author of The Founders and the Classics and Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts, has presented the most extensive and best work on this. Forrest McDonald, too, has done yeoman's work. Classicists Christian Kopff and Bruce Thornton have published excellent studies on this as well.
In many ways, Carroll resembled Cicero not at all. Certainly, no leader ever hunted down Carroll, as Marc Antony did to the great Roman senator. And, while Carroll could speak with force, dignity, and clarity, his oratorical skills could in no way match Cicero's.
But, like Cicero--and, indeed, inspired in large part by the example and words of Cicero--Carroll always put the needs of the res publica ahead of his own personal self interest. In fact, I couldn't find an instance in Carroll's public life where he did not always put the good of the republic ahead of his own good. He served as a model leader.
When I first sent the manuscript to ISI, I had wanted to name the book, "The Last of the Romans: The Life of Charles Carroll." The title, "Last of the Romans" was given to Carroll at his death. It's fitting. Jed Donahue, ISI's new editor, rightfully thought Carroll too obscure a figure to give such a title to his biography; an audience might justly believe the book to be about ancient history. My close friend and colleague, Dr. Mark Kalthoff, came up with the clever title "Papist Patriot." While Kalthoff's title is certainly catchy and edgy, I didn't want to have to explain to Catholic audiences why I was using a term usually associated with an insult.
In the end, American Cicero seemed fair and just, as it tied the founding to the ancient world without forgetting the medieval or the early modern worlds. As another close friend of mine, Thomas More and Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Smith, has argued in private conversation, "Cicero serves as a key to true reform and progress in the western world." And, of course, Smith is right. We can't even imagine St. Augustine, Petrarch, or Thomas More without the Ciceronian element. The same should be true of the American founding. To my mind, among the American founders, Charles Carroll best continued the Ciceronian legacy.
Ignatius Insight: In the Introduction, you describe Carroll as "an exemplar of Catholic and republican virtue." What are some examples of each?
Dr. Birzer: Just as figures (some mythical, some historical, most a combination of both) such as Cincinatus and Cicero served as exemplars for the American founders, so Carroll should serve as an exemplar for us. Carroll devoted his considerable resources and gifts to the common good.
We live, however, in an age of cynicism and scandal. Such men as Washington or Carroll seem like cardboard figures to us, mostly because we can no longer imagine what real service and sacrifice means, especially to something so "old fashioned" as the republic. All we have to do is give a sidelong glance toward Washington or Wall Street to see where our society as "progressed": deals, corruption, and the radical pursuit of self-interest infect, inundate, and adulterate almost every aspect of our institutions and so-called leadership. A figure who stands for right seems the fool, the buffoon, or the flighty romantic, merely positioned to be stepped upon or used.
And, of course, this isn't true for everyone in what remains of our constitutional republic. Just this past weekend, I learned that 13 of our roughly 280 graduates of the Hillsdale Class of 2010 have joined the Marines. At least one graduate is heading off to a Catholic monastery; another is off to Orthodox seminary to become a priest. So, a few good men and women remain.
Sadly, though, these Hillsdale students serve as exceptions in a larger culture that puts security and material comfort above eternal certainties.
Throughout his public career, Carroll defended the soul and nature of the republic. Like many of the founders, he believed that no people could enjoy the blessings of liberty without the virtue necessary to maintain it. If a man cannot order himself, how can we expect him to order his community?
For Carroll, republican virtue would have flowed neatly into a Catholic understanding of the world. Virtue--our English equivalent of "virtu" or "manly power"--animates a person as well as a society. During the revolution, Carroll used much of his own wealth to maintain armies as well as governments. Never did he expect to be paid back for any of this. As he saw it, God placed him in that time and that place. His material wealth, a blessing, could only be sanctified by using it for God's greater glory. In the providence of history, Carroll believed, the American revolution served not only to give an example of religious liberty to the world, but also a representation and manifestation of God's desire for man to reform, to purify, and to bring society back to first principles.