Charles Carroll and the Religious Republic

A new paperback edition of Brad Birzer’s American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll has recently been published by Regnery Gateway. It’s the best standard length biography of Charles Carroll of Carrollton I know of, and its spritely style and incisive commentary make it useful for anyone interested in perhaps the best known Roman Catholic Founding Father.

Carroll’s historical place as a prominent Roman Catholic acting with and among an overwhelmingly Protestant colonial population is important for several reasons. First, as Birzer shows, he was a testament to the durability of Whig and later republican ideas regarding religion’s place in the civil order in the United States. Certainly, there were entrenched Protestant prejudices against Roman Catholics. But in the same era there were Protestant prejudices against other groups typically denominated as Protestant: Baptists and Methodists.

What makes Carroll fascinating is that he managed to coax one of his major political opponents, Daniel Dulany the Younger, into articulating a clearer declaration of what constituted anti-Catholicism: a pronounced loyalty to not merely Protestantism, but also to established churches. Birzer’s treatment of what became a veritable journalistic and political duel between the Patriot Carroll and the Loyalist Dulany is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Dulany, who wrote under the pseudonym “Antillon,” opposed the Stamp Act and wanted to reform what he viewed as parliamentary excess in order to strengthen the British Empire. Carroll—“First Citizen” in his anonymous writings—and other Maryland Patriots wanted more wide-ranging changes than a mere reform of the imperial bureaucracy. For Dulany, reforms would have to be limited. He envisioned an order that was Protestant, and royalist. Dulany’s anti-Catholicism, Birzer notes, was never just a rhetorical strategy to court anti-Catholic voters. It went to the core of his understanding of the British Empire.

Even a reformed British Empire still potentially retained state churches and the imposing state apparatus Britain used to coerce imperial subjects, especially imperial subjects without parliamentary representation. Carroll, Birzer notes, led other Maryland Patriots in a defense of  “Whiggish, republican government, informed by a long tradition of classical and Roman” readings on the political and social orders. The Whiggish tradition, birthed in the Seventeenth Century, opposed the monarchy and found its political actuation in the Glorious Revolution. The paradox of course was that for the Whigs to triumph in England and subsequently Great Britain, the last Roman Catholic king of England—James II—had to be overthrown. Carroll’s greatness, and the greatness of the Founders in general, lay in their ability to conceive of a religious order shorn of establishmentarian and statist coercion. Carroll didn’t spend his time pining for a Catholic restoration. It was enough simply to no longer tithe to the Church of England.

Carroll helped create a disestablished republic, but that republic was still undeniably religious. Tocqueville traveled through the United States towards the end of Carroll’s long life in 1830 and commented on how strong religion in the American republic was precisely because it had been shorn established churches. English Protestant Whig theory opened the gateway to a free religious republic, but that gateway was never only for Protestants. Carroll might not have wanted a Protestant empire, but he gladly created a religious republic.


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