Tuesday, March 30, 2010

American Cicero

Charles Carroll of Carolltown. (Via Joshua) I was confirmed in the parish church on what had been his country estate, built by his daughter. To quote:
The ascent of Carroll was surprisingly strenuous. Although he was the scion of a super-rich landowning family (later in his life Charles Carroll was regarded variously as the richest man in America or as the greatest landowner in America) and had the benefit of serious studies on the “Continent,” he had to struggle against suspicions and even discriminatory attacks against his religion. He did so by bringing in play his Jesuit and classical education at Louis-le-Grand in Paris and Saint-Omer in northern France, where many of the surviving British Catholics used to send their children. (Charles’s cousin John was to become the first Roman Catholic archbishop in the newly independent United States.) Significantly, Carroll also read meticulously and with enthusiasm Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois, in my view the most prestigious study of politics after Aristotle’s Politics, and an outstanding example of moderate Enlightenment. He was equally influenced by the great Coxe and Blackstone (pillars of British juridical science), by the great Jesuits Bellarmine and Suarez, by Burke (whom he knew personally), by Addison, by David Hume’s historical/political writings, and by those of the great proto-conservative Bolingbroke.

Once returned to Maryland, Charles Carroll engaged in successful public and journalistic polemics in which he supported in sophisticated ways the idea of American independence and of human and local rights. He argued (as did others at the time, but perhaps less articulately) that any action of physical opposition and resistance was justified by the innovative, progressive, and thus distorting initiatives of the London authorities, by the fact that said authorities were illegally modifying the “original Constitution” of the Commonwealth. Thus, an American Revolution would be inevitably a conservative revolution, a return to the normality of customs, laws, and regulations, as they had always existed.

Carroll’s position on religious issues was equally moderate: he merely requested freedom of faith and general equality between Christian denominations. He was among those Founders who thought that the new nation ought to use democracy as one of the three key ingredients for its present and future evolution. Even on slavery, he took a middle-of the-road stance: in theory slavery was wrong, but it ought to be abolished gradually and voluntarily, with the return to Africa of the descendants of those brought by force on another continent; he himself provided manumission for a number of his slaves. (One wishes Birzer would have offered more details in this respect.)

In any case, Carroll’s prestige grew rapidly as many embraced his arguments. He held or was considered for high diplomatic functions. He signed the Declaration of Independence and other important documents. (He was the only Catholic among the original signatories.) Soon (1788) he became a U.S. senator. As such, he worked closely and supportively for and with George Washington and later John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. He was suspicious, even afraid, of Thomas Jefferson, even (almost amusingly) of James Madison. Carroll, who originally had a relatively approving position toward the French Revolution, soon came to abhor its excesses and to fear its possible influence on America.


1 comment:

GameCzar said...

Thank you for your well written and thoughtful treatment of Charles Carroll. More Americans need to learn about the forgotten Founders.


The GameCzar
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