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Charles Carroll, the Catholic Founder: An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, author of American Cicero:
The Life of Charles Carroll | Ignatius Insight | June 3, 2010
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is
Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College, and a Senior Fellow with
the Center for the American Idea in Houston. He is the author of Sanctifying
the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Christendom Press) and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth (ISI). He recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson,
editor of Ignatius Insight, about his new book, American Cicero: The Life
of Charles Carroll, published by Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Ignatius Insight: Why a
book about Charles Carroll? How did it come about?
Dr. Birzer: Thank you very
much, Carl, for wanting to talk about Charles Carroll of Carrollton and American
Cicero. Please know — as I
hope and assume is obvious — I always thoroughly enjoy working with you
and talking to you. Thanks, too, to Mark Brumley and Ignatius for providing
this forum as well as for all the excellent media promoting orthodox
Catholicism. The influence of Ignatius Press is clearly being felt in the
reforms in the Church over the last few decades.
I'm especially happy to
talk about Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a man I have come to admire deeply in
my study of him, the American Roman Catholic Church, and the American founding.
Though I've studied the
American founding throughout the entirety of my adult life, I'd never had the
chance (or, at least, I'd never taken the time) to study much about Carroll.
As an undergraduate at
Notre Dame, I studied the American founding as well as American expansion
(frontier and empire) with Walter Nugent and Greg Dowd (now at the University
As a graduate student, I
studied with David Edmunds (now at UT-Dallas) and Bernhard Sheehan at Indiana
University. While at IU, I chose the American founding (specifically the
ideas--republicanism/whiggery, liberalism, and Protestantism--that went into
shaping the minds of the founders) as one of my four fields of concentration
In the late 1990s, I had
the chance to listen to a number of lectures by Donald Lutz in Houston through
Winston Elliott's group, the Center for the American Idea. Lutz, armed with an
eye patch and a spectacular intellect, really provided me with a strong,
non-ideological grounding in the Founding. Though a Georgetown man, Lutz
taught me, significantly, that one could never consider the American founding
"one thing." Instead, it must be understood as an extremely complex era,
1763-1793, with fully developed human persons of like minds and common
educational backgrounds arguing over the need for reform and purification of
the English commonwealth.
In some instances, Lutz
taught me, the founders acted as historians. In others, as warriors; and,
still in others, as political philosophers. To narrow the founding to one
philosopher or, say, six important founders--maybe, Washington, Jefferson,
Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, and Wilson--with the rest as "pious dupes" was a
mistake of monumental proportions. While certain men stood above the rest, all
contributed, even if through disagreement and strife. When it comes to the
founding and our modern and post-modern claims upon it, Lutz provides a needed
dose of sanity.
Each of these men--Nugent,
Dowd, Edmunds, Sheehan, and Lutz--shaped my own views profoundly.
Winston Elliott (mentioned
above), by the way, has fundamentally influenced my ideas as well. Of course,
with the Center for the American Idea, he's not only creating immense networks
of scholars (where I met Gleaves Whitney, Bruce Frohnen, and Don Lutz, for
example) but he's also directly transmitting the ideas of the founding to
teachers and professors, thus connecting the generations. Moreover, Elliott
possesses not only a vast library of works on and about the founding, but,
equally impressive and uncannily supernatural, he's also a walking, living,
breathing bibliography of the period. I doubt if I know any one as well versed
in the literature of the founding period as is Winston.
This is all a rather long
way to explain that prior to the Carroll project, I had never studied
Catholicism and its presence or absence in the American founding directly. I
had studied the 1774 Quebec Act, perhaps, as J.C.D. Clark has argued, the
catalyst for war, and the blatant anti-Catholicism of the American colonials.
Prior to starting this project in 2005, I think I vaguely knew Carroll was
Roman Catholic, but I was more fascinated with his self-identification, "of
Carrollton," and his immense fortune, supposedly the largest in the colonies at
the time of the founding. Sadly, prior to my study of Carroll, I also probably
confused Charles with his cousin, Jacky (John), the first archbishop in the
Anyway, to make a very
long story somewhat short, I fell rather easily into conversation with the
intellectually and charismatically intimidating Lt. General Josiah Bunting at a
conference held by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in the fall
of 2005. My good friend, Gleaves Whitney, president of the Hauenstein Center,
had asked me to speak on the literary and journalistic reaction to President
Woodrow Wilson's progressive war policies. When Lt. General Bunting told me he
was editing a series on the "forgotten founders," we discussed what a shame it
was that Americans, by and large, remembered the names of several founders but
had almost completely forgotten the vast majority of them. As we walked into a
conference room, ready to begin the next session, Lt. General Bunting
graciously invited me to write the Carroll volume. I doubt many people say
"no" to Bunting, and I accepted immediately. As I told him jokingly, "I have a
feeling I would probably follow you into Hell and back. . . 'the back,' by the
way, is really important." Anyway, I accepted immediately, not just because
Bunting has a powerful charisma about him, but because I really wanted to write
I had just completed my
intellectual biography of the historian and English man of letters, Christopher
Dawson, and I was eager to continue pursuing themes of Christian Humanism. As
it turns out, Father Thomas O'Brien Hanley, S.J., had labeled Carroll as
nothing less than this than a Christian Humanist in his two-volume biography
published a few decades ago. So, what better thing could I do: a book about
Christian Humanism and the American founding. Too good to be true, frankly.
And, yet, there it was.
I have used some form of
"sanctifying" in my previous books: Sanctifying Myth and Sanctifying the World. My friend, John Miller of National Review--and now a well known novelist as well as a
journalist in great demand--said: "Brad, you have to leave "sanctifying" out of
the title of your next book. What could I have called it: "Sanctifying the
Revolution: Charles Carroll and the American Founding"?
So, I left out
And, just briefly, for
those readers who were like me before I started this project in the fall of
2005--Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only son of Charles Carroll of
Annapolis and a devout Roman Catholic, was born in 1737 and died in November
1832. He was the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to
die, outliving Jefferson and Adams by over six years. A driving force behind
Maryland's move toward independence, Carroll helped shape the fundamental
doctrines of rights and government in Maryland. His creation of the Maryland
Senate, as admitted in Madison's note on the Constitutional Convention and in Federalist
63, directly inspired the
creation of the U.S. Senate. A moderate Federalist, he defended the passage of
the U.S. Constitution of 1787 and served as a U.S. Senator for the first
several years of the Senate's existence. With the so-called "Revolution of
1800" and Jefferson's ascendence to the presidency, Carroll retired from all
active politics but continued to serve as a cultural and political critic
during the period of the early republic.
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
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
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
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.
Ignatius Insight: How
did Carroll's education in Jesuit schools in Europe shape his political thought
and guide his decisions regarding the American Revolution?
Dr. Birzer: Profoundly. He lived with or near the Jesuits
for most of his childhood, all of his teen years, and as a young adult.
Carroll, with his cousin, John, received a typical Jesuit liberal education,
then known as the "Ratio Studiorum." Over a six-year period, students learned
Greek and Latin, especially "the acquisition of a Ciceronian style." The
education, the Jesuits hoped, would harmonize "the various powers of faculties
of the soul--of memory, imagination, intellect, and will." After earning his
Bachelor of Arts degree, Carroll earned a M.A. in "universal philosophy." With
the M.A. in hand, he studied civil and common law.
Ultimately, he and John
Dickinson were the two most formally educated of all the founders. This is, by
no means, faint praise. One of the most interesting things to me, especially
as a historian, is how much we as an American people have forgotten the
educational climate of the colonial and founding eras. At that time, education
meant "liberal education." Anything else was considered "servile" or training.
Consequently, the founding
generation knew the classical world, inside and out. Perhaps historian and man
of letters Russell Kirk put this best in a number of writings. The patrimony
of four symbolic cities of western civilization—Jerusalem, Athens, Rome,
and London—culminated in a fifth iconographic city, Philadelphia in 1776
and 1787. "The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied,
educated. They read. And
what they read made it easer for them to become rebels because they did not see
rebels when they looked in the mirror," historian Trevor Colbourn has written.
"They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They
were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties."
Read Part Two of "Charles Carroll, the Catholic Founder"
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