PORT DEPOSIT — He may have been born in Annapolis, but Charles Carroll knew a good thing when he saw it. That skill may have helped him become one of the wealthiest men of his day. Indeed, he was considered the richest man in America at the time of his death.
School children in Maryland are often told of the Founding Fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence — with an emphasis on John Hancock signing his name with a bold hand to ensure the King of England could read it without his spectacles. Often they are also regaled with the tale of Maryland’s bold and brave signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who not only signed his name but gave what could be considered the colonial form of his address.
He actually signed his name in this manner to ensure the proper Charles Carroll from within his extensive family with numerous men named “Charles” would be identified, especially if the British came looking for the men who signed a document that was, indeed, treasonous at the time.
Though it is true Charles Carroll of Carrollton was born in Annapolis 278 years ago this Saturday, on Sept. 19, 1737, he was very much connected to Cecil County, which had been founded as a county 63 years before Carroll was born in 1674. He was born an illegitimate son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and Elizabeth Brooke. His parents were not married at the time of his birth due to technical reasons centering on the enormous wealth of the Carroll family estates, though they would eventually marry when Charles Carroll of Carrollton was 20 years old in 1757.
The couple sent their young son to be educated in Cecil County at the Jesuit preparatory school at St. Francis Xavier on Bohemia Manor, or Old Bohemia, in Warwick. It is believed his cousin, John Carroll, future Archbishop of Baltimore, went to school alongside him at Warwick. John Carroll would later claim only the proceeds from the plantation at St. Francis Xavier’s for payment of his vast and varied duties.
In any event, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was sent to France to finish his education upon reaching age 11. He attended the College of St. Omer and later the Louise the Great College in Paris, where he graduated in 1755. He continued studying in Europe and read law in London before coming home to Annapolis in 1765, where his father would grant him Carrollton Manor — thus giving his son the name for which he would become known and use to sign the Declaration.
As evidenced by his attendance of a Jesuit school, Charles Carroll, like his father, was a Catholic, which in Maryland barred the members of this wealthy and influential family from political office in the state. The Maryland statute also barred Catholics from practicing law and even from voting following the act of 1704. Despite this, he would become a powerful voice for independence. In 1772, he conducted an anonymous written letter campaign in newspapers stating his opposition to taxation of the colonies without due process. He penned his letters as “First Citizen” despite being denied many of the inalienable rights of citizens based upon his religious faith.
Charles Carroll was eventually outed as the letter writer and earned quite a bit of respect and notoriety for them, pushing him into the spotlight as a leading opponent of British rule and propelling him onto several committees of correspondence. He would even take part in the burning of the Peggy Stewart in Annapolis Harbor on Oct. 19, 1774, when it was learned the ship carried British tea for Maryland markets.
Despite the satisfaction he derived from his letter writing and the tea protest, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was one of the first to conclude that independence could only be won in war.
When Samuel Chase, another Maryland signer of the Declaration, stated there was nothing more the colonies could resort to than “writing Britain down” over taxation, Carroll strongly disagreed. Chase asked him, “What else can we resort to?”
“The bayonet,” was Carroll’s immediate reply. “Our arguments will only raise the feelings of the people to that pitch, when open war will be looked to as the arbiter of the dispute.”
Carroll would eventually serve on Maryland’s committee of correspondence in 1774 and represent Maryland in most pre-revolutionary groups. He was a member of the first Committee of Safety in Annapolis in 1775 and a delegate to the Annapolis Convention of 1774-1776, which operated as Maryland’s revolutionary government before the Declaration of Independence. Finally, in 1776 he was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He would even be sent in 1776 on a diplomatic mission to Canada to seek aid from French Canadians against the British, along with Chase, Benjamin Franklin and his cousin, John.
Perhaps his most well-known deed was signing the Declaration of Independence, especially since he was the only Catholic signer and the longest-lived signer when he passed away on Nov. 14, 1832, at age 95. What most people don’t realize, however, is that he never voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, though he did speak frequently in favor of independence. He didn’t vote simply because he arrived too late to do so.
After the war, he would become one of the original investors in what would become known as the Port Deposit Canal, or Old Maryland Canal, from the 1783 charter. He would retire from public life in 1801, but would come out of retirement in 1827 to help create the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with his last public act on July 4, 1828, being laying of the first stone for this mighty railroad.