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Charles Carroll of Carrollton – Longest Living Signer of Declaration of Independence

Updated on July 4, 2012

Signing Took Courage

According legend, when his turn came to sign the document on that hot August day in Philadelphia in 1776, Charles Carroll stepped forward briskly, signed Charles Carroll.

As Carroll returned to his seat another delegate, who didn't like Carroll, taunted that because there were many men in Maryland named Charles Carroll, Carroll risked nothing because it would be difficult to identify him as the signer.

At this, Carroll abruptly returned to the document and, picking up the quill pen again, added of Carrollton, two words that would uniquely identify him as the signer.

While a good story, it is not true as Charles Carroll had been signing documents as Charles Carroll of Carrollton since at least 1765.

However, despite the fictitious nature of this little bit of historical fiction, it does expose the harsh truth about the life threatening risks each signer took as they signed their names.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Charles Carroll of Carrollton

By Signing the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll Committed Treason Against King George III and the British Empire

Like his fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, signing his name to the document was an act of courage.

Today, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the beginning of our country as an independent nation.

However, if the fortunes of war had gone the other way and George Washington and his ill equipped Continental Army had lost, this document would have been a death warrant for Charles Carroll and the other fifty-five delegates who joined him in signing.

If the War of Independence had been lost, the actions of Charles Carroll and his fellow delegates would have been deemed an act of treason against king and country (country being Great Britain and the British Empire of which the American colonies were a part) rather than an act of patriotism as we view it today.

The penalty for treason was death and the penalty for prominent traitors, like Charles Carroll who was a wealthy and influential Maryland landowner, was more often than not, death by being hanged, drawn and quartered - the same fate that befell the Scottish patriot William Wallace some five hundred years before (and graphically depicted in the execution scene at the end of the movie Braveheart).

The addition of the title of Carrollton, was done by Carroll so that there could be no mistake as to which of the many Charles Carroll's had signed the Declaration of Independence. He took full responsibility for his action and left no escape in the event the Revolution failed.

Charles Carroll was by far the wealthiest person to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was also one of eight signers of Irish descent and the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration. Carroll's final distinction was that he was the longest surviving signer, living until 1832, over a half a century after that fateful August day in 1776.

Born into a Family Whose Irish Roots Were Transplanted to Lord Baltimor's Maryland Colony

Charles Carroll of Carrollton was born in Annapolis, Maryland on September 19,1737. Carroll's grandfather (more likely his great-grandfather), Daniel Carroll of Littemourna, Ireland was a clerk in the office of Lord Powis in London during the reign of King James II.

During this period he came to the attention of Lord Baltimore, an English nobleman who was a Roman Catholic in an era when it was illegal to practice the Roman Catholic faith in England.

At that time the laws against Catholicism were only sporadically enforced but discrimination against Catholics still existed and there was always the possibility that the laws would be strictly enforced.

Because of this threat of renewed Catholic persecution, Lord Baltimore was attempting to obtain a charter from King James II that would allow him to found a colony in the New World where Catholics could practice their faith freely.

Lord Baltimore was successful in obtaining his charter and induced Daniel Carroll to immigrate to the new colony in Maryland sometime around 1659. Being both an early settler as well as enjoying the patronage of Lord Baltimore, Daniel Carroll was able to acquire vast tracts of land in the colony which became the foundation of his and his descendant's wealth.

Charles Carroll's father, also, Charles Carroll was born in Maryland in 1702 and, like Daniel Carroll before him, and his son after him, Charles Carroll was a wealthy and prominent member of colonial Maryland society.

When Charles Carroll of Carrollton was eight years old his parents sent him to France along with his cousin, John Carroll, to be educated at the Jesuit College of St. Omar which, since the Catholic Church and its institutions were illegal in England, had been established in France to educate the children of English Catholics

Charles Carroll remained in Europe for twenty years and, having completed his studies in law in both Paris and London, he returned to Maryland in 1765.

His cousin John became a Jesuit priest and remained in Europe until shortly before the start of the American Revolution. Father John Carroll later became the first Roman Catholic Bishop in the United States (becoming Bishop of Baltimore in 1789) and first Roman Catholic Archbishop in the United States (Archbishop of Baltimore in 1808).

Debate Over Religion First Brought Carroll into Politics

Upon Charles Carroll's return, his father presented him with a gift of a 10,000 acre estate in Frederick County.

Following the receipt of the gift, Charles Carroll proceeded to build a manor house and named the estate Carrollton.

Three years after his return, Charles married Mary Darnell who bore him seven children before her death in 1782. Of the seven, four died in infancy and only Mary, Charles Jr, and Kitty survived to adulthood.

Charles Carroll first became actively involved with politics when, in 1771 the Governor of Maryland introduced a bill into the legislature seeking to increase taxes in order to provide pay increases for government officials and the Anglican clergy.

While Maryland had begun as a refuge for Catholics with a charter had that had called for religious tolerance for all faiths, it had over time enacted laws similar to those in the other colonies.

By 1771 the colony had made the Anglican Church the official church of the colony with taxpayer dollars paying its clergy and other expenses, and had also made it illegal for Catholics to vote, hold office or practice law.

Reacting to the governor's proposal, Carroll wrote a series of newspaper articles attacking this proposal and then he and some other prominent Catholics stood for election to the legislature and won. Despite the fact that they broke the law by running for election, the authorities backed down and allowed them to take their seats in the colonial legislature.

Failed Mission to Form an Alliance With Canada

Charles Carroll became a leading figure in Maryland political life and soon became active in the independence movement.

In the winter of 1776 he was appointed, along with his cousin Jesuit Father John Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase, to a commission charged with traveling to Canada for the purpose of getting the Canadians to join in the Revolution.

The mission failed but upon his return he was elected to the Maryland convention which voted to support independence and elected Charles Carroll as a Maryland delegate to the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.

Signing of the Declaration of Indpedence

Carroll's appointment came too late for him to be present when Congress met on July 4, 1776 to vote on the Declaration of Independence. While Congress voted to approve the declaration and declare our independence, only John Hancock, President of the Congress, signed the document that day.

Following the vote to accept the Declaration of Independence, the document was then sent to a printer for the official copies to be printed. Charles Carroll was present in Congress on August 2, 1776 when the time came to sign the Declaration and he boldly signed his name along with 55 of the other delegates.

Political and Private LIfe After American Revolution

Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence Carroll remained active in politics for a number of years.

In addition to being among the first to serve in the new Maryland Legislature he was also the choice of the Maryland Legislature to be one of first two United States Senators sent to represent Maryland in the first Congress that convened under the present U.S. Constitution (note - originally Senators were appointed by the state legislatures, rather than being elected to that office).

Following his service as a United States Senator, Carroll retired to private life so he could spend more time with his family.

Among his activities after retiring from public life was investing in and helping to start the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

In a ceremony on July 4, 1828 he laid the cornerstone for the new railroad.

Four years later, at the age of 95, on November 14, 1832 Charles Carroll died at the home of his daughter, Kitty and was buried in the family chapel at Doughoregan Manor in Maryland.

In addition to his many accomplishments, Charles Carroll of Carrollton has the distinction of being the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to die.

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