How Charles Carroll Influenced U.S. Founding Fathers (Part 2)

Scott McDermott Also Offers Advice for a New Chief Justice

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee, NOV. 2, 2005 ( Modern-day Catholics owe more than a hat tip to Charles Carroll, who helped turn public opinion in favor of Catholics as good citizens and contributors in the public square.

So says Scott McDermott, a circulation librarian at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and author of «Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary» (Scepter).

He shared with ZENIT how Carroll (1737-1832) influenced America through his writings and actions, and how his work paved the way for contemporary notable Catholics. Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday.

Q: How did Carroll help convince people that Catholics could be good citizens?

McDermott: First of all, through his brilliant «First Citizen» letters of 1773, in which he argued for Catholic civil rights. Second, through the crucial role he played in setting up the government of Maryland. Lastly, by risking his huge fortune when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

There was an incredible shift in the American view of Catholics at the time of the Revolution, one which has often gone unnoticed.

Prior to the Revolution, all Catholics were viewed as potential traitors, and France was seen as a mortal enemy. A French alliance was unthinkable to the colonial mind.

Suddenly, in 1775, John Adams was describing Carroll as «a Roman Catholic, but an ardent patriot.» Within a few years there was a full-fledged alliance between the United States and two Catholic powers, France and Spain.

This resulted partly from wartime necessity, but also had something to do with Carroll’s commitment to the American cause.

Q: Why was Carroll — quite an active politician — often left out of early history accounts?

McDermott: Everything that conflicted with the Whig — a.k.a. WASP — view of history started to disappear from histories of the Revolution in the mid-19th century. Carroll’s thought obviously did not fit this mind-set, which is still unfortunately going strong.

During the 1960s, historians rediscovered the «ideology of the American Revolution,» but they saw this ideology as stemming almost exclusively from the Puritan tradition and John Locke. The influence of Montesquieu continues to be largely ignored, even though a 1984 study by Donald Lutz in the American Political Science Review shows that the Founders quoted Montesquieu more frequently than any other source except the Bible.

Montesquieu’s vision of limited and mixed government was the crucial prototype for the American system of checks and balances. Locke’s emphasis on Parliamentary supremacy had little to do with the government the Founders devised.

Q: Who are some other important Catholics in American history that have been all but forgotten in modern history books?

McDermott: Well, first of all, the Catholic explorers and settlers prior to the settlement of Jamestown, beginning with Ponce de León in 1521.

Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana during the Revolution, won the third-greatest victory of the war at Pensacola. Has anyone ever heard of him?

Other Catholic heroes of the Revolution include Commodore John Barry, Stephen Moylan, and of course Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Pulaski, de Kalb, Steuben.

Other Catholic patriots, not just the famous names, also need to be brought to light, including the 18th-century Irish immigrants who made up the muster rolls of the Revolution.

We tend to think Irish immigration began with the potato famine, but this is simply untrue; there was large-scale Irish immigration during the colonial period. Many of these immigrants were Scots-Irish Presbyterians, but an unknown number were Catholic.

Other Catholic soldiers of the Revolution include Gálvez’s army of Creoles, Germans, Irish, Cajuns, Mexicans, African-Americans and Spaniards.

Q: What was the significance of Americans not electing a Catholic to the presidency until 1961? Why did it take so long? Did it pave the way for other Catholics in the public square?

McDermott: Anti-Catholicism as a real force in politics was spent by the end of the 19th century.

Al Smith and John F. Kennedy were hampered in their presidential campaigns not so much by their Catholicism as by their association with urban corruption and machine politics. Most Catholic politicians prior to 1980 did, in fact, have these associations. That is no longer the case, so I would expect that stigma to disappear for the next Catholic presidential candidate.

On the other hand, he will be expected to follow in the footsteps of President Kennedy by disavowing any direct papal influence on political decisions. The candidate should perform this ritual, and should avoid quoting, say, papal encyclicals or Doctors of the Church.

But he must, of course, let his conscience be formed by the social teaching of the Church. In public he can speak in terms of natural law, which is written on the heart of all people, whether Catholic or not. Who knows, it might even work — or the strategy could provoke another period of anti-Catholic backlash in public life. It’s impossible to say at this point.

Q: America has now seen its second Catholic chief justice of the United States. In what other high-profile positions are you seeing Catholics these days?

McDermott: The career of Roger Taney, the first Catholic chief justice, should be a cautionary tale for Chief Justice John Roberts.

Taney’s Dred Scott decision uses natural law thinking to proclaim an inalienable right to property in slaves. The Dred Scott decision did not bolster the cause of natural law jurisprudence. And as part of governmental centralization during Reconstruction, several states removed social contract language from their state constitutions.

What Roberts should do is try to revive natural law jurisprudence, while being careful to avoid its misuse. It is impossible to say at this point whether he will have any interest in doing this.

Many conservative jurists, upset at abuses of natural rights logic in past Supreme Court decisions, want to respect «legislative intent.» But this line of thinking, without a proper respect for legitimate natural rights, could result in a tyranny of the majority.

Other jurists wish to honor the Founders’ «original intent» rather than natural law — but the mind of the Founders was saturated with natural law thinking.

Q: Have Catholics achieved greater acceptance and public influence at the cost of losing their identity as Catholics?

McDermott: Alexis de Tocqueville noticed a strange phenomenon in American Catholicism that is still operative today. He observed that Americans raised in the Church tend to fall away. But on the other hand, the Catholic Church in America tends to attract a large number of converts.

Americans are a fundamentally religious people, and the unity, order and stability that they see in the Catholic Church attracts many devout American Protestants.

I think the story of the Catholic Church in America is one of many Catholics forfeiting their identity in order to gain social acceptance — but it is also one of vitality, as new Catholics replenish the stock.

I hope the Church will find some way to continue attracting converts, while retaining the «cradle Catholics»; we converts sometimes lack the rootedness, stability and deeply ingrained charity that faithful «cradle Catholics» possess.

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