American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll

By O'Donnell, Catherine | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll


O'Donnell, Catherine, The Catholic Historical Review


American American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. By Bradley J. Birzer. (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books. 2010. Pp. xviii, 286. $25.00. ISBN 978-1-93385989-7.)

In American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Bradley J. Birzer offers a sympathetic and engaging account of the man now best known as the only Catholic and the longest-lived among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Birzer 's intellectual and political biography focuses on the years during and immediately after the Revolutionary War. It persuasively argues that Carroll's contributions to revolutionary sentiment in Maryland, to the design of the Maryland and the federal Senates, and to the elevation of Catholics' status in the Revolutionary War era deserve admiration and attention.

In clear, graceful prose, Birzer introduces the reader to the factors that shaped Carroll's influential, if at times pained, republicanism. At the age of eleven, Carroll was sent to the College of St. Orner, a Jesuit institution in France attended by wealthy English Catholics as well as other members of Carroll's prominent Maryland clan; after studying law, he returned to the colonies in 1765. Throughout American Cicero, Birzer attends to Carroll's Catholicism while also exploring influences such as Enlightenment thought, great wealth, and the frustrations of colonial life. He cogently explores the neo-Thomist thought Carroll read at St. Omer.for example, and speculates that it may have bolstered Carroll's later commitment to American independence. Yet he scrupulously notes that Carroll never cited the Jesuit authors in his critiques of British rule, turning rather to Montesquieu as he articulated a theory of balanced government. Life as a Catholic did unmistakably shape Carroll's politics. He was moved by the vulnerability of his family in Maryland and of Catholics in England to mistrust both arbitrary governmental power and mob rule. Confiscation of property and loss of suffrage was not to him merely a theoretical proposition, and Carroll opposed each in a way that left him- as it did other founders- both a rebel and a conservative. …

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