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A Catholic Revolutionary

This article is excerpted from Tea Party Catholic by Samuel Gregg. The new book draws upon Catholic teaching, natural law theory, and the thought of the only Catholic Signer of America's Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton—the first "Tea Party Catholic"—to develop a Catholic case for the values and institutions associated with the free economy, limited government, and America's experiment in ordered liberty.

On October 15, 1774, the ship Peggy Stewart owned by the Annapolis mercantile company of Dick and Stewart sailed into the harbor of Annapolis in the colony of Maryland, carrying with it a cargo of tea. On arriving, the ship's owner paid the tax then applied by Britain to importations of tea to its American colonies in accordance with the Tea Act of May 1773.

This law was intended to avert bankruptcy of the East India Company which had lobbied the British Parliament to exempt it from the tea import duties which its colonial competitors were required to pay. As if this was not enough, the Company was also granted the privilege of being allowed to ship its tea directly to agents in America instead of placing its tea on open auction in Britain. The Company was thus able to undercut American merchants who were required to purchase tea by the regular process of passing through the higher-taxed British controls.

Leaving aside the inherent injustice of using state power to privilege one commercial enterprise over others, the political point of this exercise was to elicit the American colonists' implicit agreement to the British Parliament's right to tax the American colonies.

Opposition to what many Americans viewed as the British government's latest arbitrary act was fierce in Maryland. Few were more outspoken in their opposition than one of its leading public figures, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. "It will not do," Carroll insisted, "to export the tea to Europe or the West Indies. Its importation is an offense for which the people will not be so easily satisfied."

Carroll was no man of violence. Such qualms did not, however, prevent Carroll from proposing that the owner of the Peggy Stewart, Anthony Stewart, make amends—and save his own skin—by burning not just the tea but also his ship!

Even some of Carroll's equally angry contemporaries were taken aback by the strength of Carroll's convictions on this matter. They would have been less surprised had they known that after Britain's imposition of the Stamp Act seven years earlier, Carroll had warned his English friends that the Americans "are not yet corrupt enough to undervalue Liberty, they are truly sensible of its blessings, and not only talk of them as they do somewhere else, but really wish their continuance."

Though most often remembered as the last Signer of the Declaration of Independence to depart this world, Charles Carroll was also distinguished by the fact that he was its sole Roman Catholic signatory. But long before most of the other Founders, Carroll had concluded America should be free. "In time," he said in 1763, "it will and must be independent."

In signing the Declaration, Carroll arguably put more at risk, at least materially, than any other member of the Revolutionary generation. At the time, he was probably the richest man in America.

Nevertheless the cause of liberty meant so much to Carroll that he was willing to back what must have seemed a forlorn endeavor to many at the time. But Carroll had always embraced the deeper meaning of his family's motto: Ubicumque cum libertate: "Anywhere so long as There Be Freedom." This devotion to freedom was noticed by many of Carroll's fellow revolutionaries. Speaking of Carroll, John Adams remarked: "In the cause of American liberty, his zeal, fortitude and perseverance have been so conspicuous that he is said to be marked out for particular vengeance by the friends of Administration; but he continues to hazard his all, his immense fortune, the largest in America, and his life."

Unlike the other signers, however, Carroll and his family knew in a particular way what it meant to have one's liberty violated. Until the 1770s, Carroll was formally barred from voting or holding public office in Maryland because of his Catholic faith. Carroll also knew that, unlike the other revolutionary leaders, his Catholicism made him especially suspect to the British government (and more than a few of his fellow revolutionaries).

Another feature distinguishing Carroll from his fellow patriots was his reasons for making his stand for freedom. All of Carroll's biographers affirm that his political and economic thought was influenced by his Catholicism. Carroll was quite aware that the Catholic Church had always insisted that the state had certain legitimate functions. Yet the same Church also maintained—and continues to do so—that there were bounds beyond which governments cannot go.

The limits of state power vis-à-vis the rights of individuals and communities were central to the events leading to the American Revolution. The sources to which America's Founders turned in explaining their choice to embark upon a new experiment in ordered liberty were diverse. They ranged from classical figures associated with the Roman Republic, to philosophers such as John Locke. The language and ideas employed by many of these figures when discussing questions of liberty, property, and the nature of government was not, however, completely dissimilar from that of the Catholic tradition. All belong, after all, to the Western canon of ideas.

Notwithstanding these similarities, the Catholic position in favor of limited government and the free economy does differ in important ways from pre-Christian and post-Enlightenment thought. These disparities owe much to Catholicism's specific understanding of the nature of human freedom. For Catholics, human freedom is grounded in what man is—an individual, sinful, and social being graced with reason and free will—and directed to what some Catholic thinkers describe as "integral human flourishing."