Charles Carroll was the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence although he had not yet arrived at the Second Continental Congress by July 2, 1776, when the resolution of independence had been approved nor by July 4, when the Declaration itself was approved. He was, however, among those who signed the parchment copy of the Declaration on August 2, 1776. Despite his not being present for either the vote of independence or the ratification of the Declaration, Carroll had, as McDermott shows, a profound influence both on the movement for independence and on the principles expounded in the Declaration. McDermott further contends that Carroll's Roman Catholicism played a major role in the development of Carroll's political philosophy and that American independence and its subsequent republican form of government were not only consistent with Catholic teaching but were even the logical extension of the Catholic Church's teachings and actions from earliest times. McDermott is effective in demonstrating Carroll's importance in the movement for independence and his influence in the formation of the early United States. He is much less effective in demonstrating influence of Catholic doctrine and precedent.
At the time of the American Revolution, Carroll, a descendent of Irish Catholic immigrants, was the wealthiest man in the colonies. Roman Catholics were barred from participation in public affairs in Maryland and many other colonies. They were not, however, barred from participation in colonial commerce and were not barred from holding property. Educated in Europe by the Jesuits, Carroll was well aware of his family's Irish history. The American colonies promised relief at least from the economic tyranny of the British in Ireland if not from the religious persecution. McDermott, however, insists that separation of church and state was a long-standing Catholic principle. In this assertion, McDermott ignores the history of the Catholic Church and the popes in Europe from Charlemagne through the Protestant Reformation and the Inquisition. He seems to ignore the burning of witches in medieval Europe and the condemnation to death of infidels and heretics by the Church or by Church-sanctioned rulers. Separation of church and state became a tenant of Catholic political philosophy and political action only when the domination of the Catholic Church in western Europe was waning. When the tables were turned and Protestants were disenfranchising Catholics in England, Germany and the rest of post-Reformation Europe, the Catholic Church turned its philosophical bent toward the social contract theory, rediscovering the Thomistic principle of the just ruler. McDermott himself notes the distinction between Protestant and Catholic countries in eighteenth century Europe frequently throughout the biography. Where the Catholic Church could claim dominance, it emphatically did so. Where it could not claim dominance, it preached separation of church and state and freedom from religious persecution.
While McDermott gives far too much credit to Catholic moral teaching for the eventual principles of independence and freedom of religion in the new republic, he masterfully demonstrates the importance of Carroll's Catholic heritage and his Catholic identify to Carroll's political philosophy and his political strategy. As members of the Catholic minority in Maryland and the larger world of the British colonies, Carroll and his predecessors had developed the ability to prosper economically while steering a cautious path through the political quagmire of the Anglican and Puritan colonies. Their success bred more success and even admiration, not at all inconsistent with the Protestant work ethic. McDermott even illustrates, perhaps unwittingly, the Carrolls' Protestant approach to father-son relationships. Love was not unconditional, it was, rather, a function of one's economic success.
Nonetheless, as McDermott illustrates, the Carrolls' familial experiences of expatriation from their native Ireland and of persecution and exclusion in the British colonies certainly strengthened Charles Carroll's resolve to foster independence and religious freedom. In the section of the biography addressing Carroll's life after the revolution and Carroll's subsequent political prominence, McDermott observes that Carroll had "at first . . . embraced religion largely for its social utility" and only later developed a strong religious piety and fervor (217-218).
McDermott's biography of Charles Carroll brilliantly addresses the political, social, religious, historical and personal dynamics operating in Carroll's life and in the political and social climate of the eighteenth century British colonies, as well as many of the same factors in western Europe. The biography points to the mostly unknown or at least overlooked importance of Charles Carroll in the movement and subsequent war for independence. Carroll predicted the eventuality of American independence long before Franklin, Jefferson and Adams expressed any such notions. He was instrumental in the development of the continental army and in the success of George Washington as the commander of that army. He may even have played a significant role in securing French support for the American revolutionary war. He was also the last surviving signer of the Declaration and provided a mythical continuity from the revolution through the end of the first third of the nineteenth century.
McDermott's biography of Charles Carroll is more than the biography of a man. It is also a biography of American political thought from early colonial days through almost the beginning of the Civil War. In this regard, however, McDermott's major shortcoming is his constant interjection of his own political and philosophical leanings. He decries the inclusion of the "pursuit of happiness" as one of the inalienable rights expressed in the declaration, especially since it resulted in the omission of "property," insisting that this decision led eventually to the declaration of what he deems false rights to abortion, divorce, and contraception. He decries the make-up of the Senate, insisting that the populist nature of a senate elected by the people without property requirements undermines the ability of the Senate to function independently of the House of Representatives. He decries the wording of the First Amendment, insisting that it is used today to attack and suppress religion. He even editorializes on Carroll's insistence to his son that he beat his slaves for wrong-doings. McDermott notes, "This may be offensive to us. But an orderly system of rational, predictable punishments was certainly preferable to a cycle of permissiveness followed by random violence" (222-223).
McDermott's biography is certainly valuable reading for students of history, political philosophy, and constitutional history. McDermott, however, would have done himself and his readers a great service by omitting his own philosophical and political musings.