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Archived Online Discussion
Topic: American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll
Date: 5-6 pm (ET)
on Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Bradley Birzer
Associate Professor of History
Discussion Moderator:
Tonight, the Knights of Columbus is pleased to welcome historian Bradley Birzer in a live discussion of his book, American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. In this praiseworthy work, Professor Birzer highlights the accomplishments and legacy of Charles Carroll, a leading Founding Father who was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.  At this time we'd like to begin the discussion by encouraging you to submit your questions for Professor Birzer if you haven't done so already.

Matthew Alou
Professor Birzer, what inspired you to write this book?
Bradley Birzer:

Matthew, thank you for the question.  I wish I could offer a profound answer, but I really can't.

A few years ago, I was at a conference on the presidency, war, and empire at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. A good friend of mine, Gleaves Whitney, runs the center. During the conference, back in October 2005, I had the chance to talk with a great man, Lt. General Si Bunting. We started talking about Catholicism and the founding. Before I knew it, he asked me to write a biography of Charles Carroll for a series he was just starting to edit for ISI Books. I said "yes" immediately. When I got home, I said something to my wife about being able to mix two of my greatest loves into one, the Founding and Catholicism. If I remember right, I also added a goofy "whoo-hoo".

Though I was working on some other projects and teaching a normal course load at Hillsdale College, I immersed myself in the Carroll project as soon as I could. The Maryland Historical Society has done a wonderful job of publishing primary materials from the period on their website as well as on microfilm (my poor eyes!).  Hillsdale College offered me a microfilm reader to use in my home office, and I went from there. The University of North Carolina has published the first three of six volumes of Carroll family papers as well. So, lots of great material is available.

Additionally, Matthew, almost all of my own research, scholarship, and writing has involved Christian humanism. Carroll fits perfectly into a Christian humanist lineage.

Stephen JJ
Pocatello ID
Professor Birzer: Thank you for reminding us of the great Catholic contribution to our nation. Why Cicero? Was Charles Carroll a great orator?
Bradley Birzer:

Thank you Stephen.
My family and I had the blessing of a three-week trip across the U.S. this summer. On our way to the Pacific we drove through central Idaho; we returned through southern Idaho and then up through Yellowstone. There are a few things in this world that VERY tangibly re-enforce my belief in our God: nectarines, cucumbers, Montana, and Idaho fit nicely into this category for me. There also used to be a really great pizza place in downtown Pocatello, but that was nearly 20 years ago.

But, to answer your question (you probably thought I wasn't going to stop going on about my family vacation). From my perspective, Cicero is a vital figure in the western tradition. I mean VITAL. He, to my mind, ranks up there with Socrates and St. Augustine and Aquinas and the like. He was the last of the great Pagans, in terms of his oratory, his Latin, his imagination, his thought, and his virtue. He also significantly influenced much after him. As my close friend and colleague in English here at Hillsdale, Steve Smith, says: "Every great renaissance in the West has had Cicero at the heart of it"; And, I think Steve is right. We can't imagine Augustine's City of God, More's Utopia, or the Founding of America without Cicero. 

As Jefferson wrote of the inspiration for the Declaration: these were the ideas of Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney. That was in 1825, a year before Jefferson died.  In 1774, John Adams had written: "These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason." Indeed, Cicero was a beloved figure during the founding period. 

Carroll considered Cicero a constant companion. That probably sounds very strange to modern ears. But, when in his 90s and asked if he got lonely after all of his friends had passed away, he replied that he talked with Cicero all of the time; he was never lonely. Of course, Carroll meant that Cicero books held him in conversation. So, from the moment Carroll encountered the Jesuits in France to the moment he died, Cicero stayed with him. Carroll was not the orator that Cicero was, and, of course, he did not suffer the beheading and the be-handing that Cicero did.  But, in his defense of a republic, he was Cicero equal.

Chris Gannon
Yardley, PA
Professor Birzer:

If Carroll had in fact attended and offered his input at the Constitutional Convention, what substantive differences do you think he would have opted for, if any?
Bradley Birzer:

Chris, thank you. Counterfactual history is always difficult, of course, and can only remain private speculation.  But we do know that Carroll stayed at home to prevent his fellow Marylander, Sam Chase, from causing mischief in his absence. All of this is fascinating.  The fears about Chase, Carroll's choice to prioritize his state rather than the larger republic, etc.

We do have Carroll's ideas regarding a constitution, and we do have a speech he wrote in favor of the constitution. He believed strongly in a balance of powers and a division of powers into the classic three parts: executive/monarchy; judicial/aristocratic; and deliberative/democratic. As in Maryland, he would have favored a very strong Senate, a Senate that would defend and preserve a virtuous executive. He would have had little use for a House of Representatives, though I'm sure he would've defended its existence. He would've just stripped it of power.

I think Carroll would have argued that a constitution must be based on more than a mere mechanism, a mere balance of powers. These things are critical, of course, but they mean nothing if those in government did not behave in a virtuous manner. I think Carroll would have stressed the importance of the soul of the constitution as much as others stressed the body of the constitution. The one cannot work without the other.

A few year ago, thanks to Winston Elliott Center for the American Idea in Houston and Indianapolis Liberty Fund, I had the opportunity to explore Madison notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  I was stunned at how little virtue was discussed.  Most of the founders talked in terms of power. They sounded VERY modern. I think Carroll would've been in the John Dickinson/virtue camp.

Rob Bennini
Queens NY
You talk a great deal about Charles Carroll's classical education in Latin, Greek, Etc., which was shared by many other leading men of letters at the time. Have we lost this classical perspective in education today? In other words, can we ever hope to create another Charles Carroll?
Bradley Birzer:

Thanks, Rob. Great question and one that all of us who love the liberal arts ask often. If what Carroll and the founders believed is TRUE, then it must always be true. Such truths can be forgotten, mocked, or ignored, but they can't be destroyed, as they're rooted in God's creation. I believe we in the West will come back to an understanding of this at some point. Education in the 18th century meant liberal education. To be liberal was to be free of the things of this world and to understand God wisdom, not man wisdom. Such education held true until sometime immediately following the American Civil War.

Great question, no easy answers, sadly.  Some schools -- both Universities of St. Thomas, U. Dallas, Thomas More, Thomas Aquinas, Hillsdale, and a few others still believe this way. Others -- such as Baylor in Texas -- are moving in the right direction. But, still too few, to my mind.

Julia Daniels
Bakersfield, CA
Mr. Birzer:

Thanks for your book. You mention only briefly Carroll's views on slavery. Was this opposition something unique to his own views of rights, or was this part of his Catholicism?
Bradley Birzer:

Yes, Julia, thank you. Carroll was weaker on slavery than probably any one of us who like and admire Carroll would want him to be. I intentionally ignored this question, right or wrong. Frankly, looking back on it, I should've dealt with the question more, as it a critical one. For his time, Carroll was pretty good.  From what we know, he treated his slaves relatively well, and he hoped to end the institution through gradual emancipation and re-colonization of Africa.

The founders -- Carroll included -- knew how deeply flawed and evil the institution was. Catholics, sadly, were no better on this issue than anyone else. While slavery remained illegal in the Catholic Church, it existed throughout Catholic and well as Protestant empires. Scholars in northern and southern Europe, though, debated its justness. It also important to note (as means of explanation, not justification) that slavery was a dying institution at the time of the American Revolution and founding.  Most Americans assumed it would eventually die, most likely due to God providence. No one, of course, expected the development of the Cotton Gin and the explosion in the demand for cotton and slaves after 1794.

Maria Alves
Scranton, PA
What most surpised you about Charles Carroll's life, and role as a founding Father, while researching and writing this book?
Bradley Birzer:
Thank you, Maria. I love these kind of questions. I ask them of my students all of the time! I was surprised at how humane Carroll was in his thinking (so much like John Paul II on so many things) and how coherent his thought was. I found a consistent strain of conservative thought in Carroll as a young man through his death. I think this was in large part due to the classical and Catholic education he received from the Jesuits in France.  Amazing training for any young person -- but especially when one is trying to create a republic! Great training and great timing.

Middletown, CT
Mr. Birzer, you point out that in some circles, Carroll's legacy is more about his being the last surviving signer of the Declaration, and less about his influence on our Republic. If you could get readers of this book to remember one thing about Carroll - one belief, one idea, one contribution - what would it be?
Bradley Birzer:

Matt, excellent. I would hope that the following be taken away from the book: That virtue is the most important thing for a well-functioning society and especially for a republic. Virtue has become one of those concepts we've dismissed, for the most part. Wee substituted "value" for virtue. But, a value is a specific cultural manifestation; a virtue is true and transcends time and place. Prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity -- All seven are equally true in 100ad and in 2010ad, in Greece as well as in Rome as well as in Dublin.

Or, if you try to talk about 'virtue' today, you're labeled a right-wing religious nut. If this is true, then Plato was a right-wing religious nut.  From the Platonic dialogues through the writings of the American founding, virtue reigned supreme.  Even for someone like Machiavelli, one had to at least appear virtuous (which, of course, meant he wasn't virtuous in the least).  Virtue for Carroll (and the greats of the western tradition) comes down to these two simple things: 1) love one another and give what you've been given to the community; and 2) have some self-restraint.  Each implies liberty and free will.  If you are forced to be virtuous, you are no longer virtuous; there was no choice.

I hope that Carroll and our reading of Carroll reminds of us of this.

Pasadena, Calif.
Do you think Americans today realize what a struggle Catholics had in the early years of our country? People like John Jay are also considered patriots today, but most would recoil from his religious intolerance today.
Bradley Birzer:

Hello, Tom. As I remind my students every year (in fact, every semester -- probably to their annoyance), the American colonies were founded by those who suffered through the Reformation and its continuing aftermath in the British isles. Of the first great waves of migrations to what would become the United States, the vast majority of free peoples (I'm excluding slaves here) who came here were Celtic-Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As JCD Clark (a wonderful scholar at the University of Kansas) has argued, these people weren't just Protestants, they were the Protestants of Protestants. When the men of Lexington stood their ground against British marines in April 1775, they did so, in large part, because the vital center of their community -- the Congregationalist pastor -- argued they had the duty as Christian men to stand when challenged, even to the point of death. They stood.

When New England patriots ran into battle in the American Revolution, they yelled: "no king, no pope." This sounds absurd to us, but Protestants were convinced that Catholics were not just corrupt, they were bent on subjecting the world to darkness and regression.

The Carrolls (well, Charles, John, and Daniel) and the Jesuits on the American frontier helped shift opinion not necessarily toward Catholics during the revolution but, very modestly, toward not hating Catholics. But, by the time America hits the 1830s, it in full anti-Catholic mode again. Lyman Beecher gives a sermon one Sunday around the evils of the Boston nunnery. The next day, a mob burns it to the ground.

Sadly, all too common. I would recommend an excellent book by Notre Dame John McGreevy on Catholicism in America. I believe it just called "American Catholicism."

Los Angeles, CA
What would you say has been the biggest help in bringing Catholics into the mainstream of the United States?
Bradley Birzer:
One of the things Carroll argued, and I think argued very well, was that Protestants believe that the ideas of natural rights and natural law are best expressed in the English tradition. Specifically through the development of the common law to the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Carroll made the point that the development/codification of the common law occurred under a Catholic kinging Alfred.  The Magna Carta was forced on a tyrannical king by bishops and noblemen, all Catholic.  The first right of the Magna Carta is the right of the English Roman Catholic church to be free from governmental interference. In other words, the development and understanding of natural rights and natural law came from the pagans through the Catholics. The Protestants might very well be a part of the process, but they remain just that: a part of a continuity.  At least this was Carroll argument.

Bradley Birzer:

To all the Knights of Columbus: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this discussion and for the kind honors you've bestowed upon Carroll and upon American Cicero.  He was a great, great man, and we, as Catholics, are blessed to count him among the founders of this republic.  I, too, am deeply honored to be a part of this.  The Knights are essential to a well-ordered and loving society.  My father (who died young) and, especially, my grandfathers were very involved in the KofC in Kansas.  Frankly, they were impressive men, and I know that the KofC shaped them significantly.

I've thoroughly enjoyed this chat. If anyone wishes to continue the conversation, please let me know.  I blog at

Discussion Moderator:
The Knights of Columbus would like to thank you for participating in this online discussion.  We hope you've enjoyed the conversation. We extend our heartfelt thanks to Professor Birzer for his insightful thoughts on the life of a frequently overlooked American Catholic hero. We encourage you to join us for next month's discussion on Sept. 23 at 5:00 PM when we host Monsignor Peter Vaghi who will be answering questions on his most recent book, The Sacraments We Celebrate, the second in a four-part series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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