Book Review: American Cicero

American Cicero: The Life Of Charles Carroll, by Bradley J. Birzer

I must admit personally that the life and personal history of Charles Carroll was not one I was familiar with, even if I have heard of the name because of my reading about the period of the Revolutionary War. In this short book of a bit more than 200 pages, the author has done a good job at placing Carroll’s life within a larger context. This context includes the immense wealth of his family, wealth that included land and slaves from a variety of different plantations and estates. This context includes the fact of Charles’ illegitimacy, which was rectified when his father belatedly married his mother and recognized him as heir and provided for an education in France and England. This context also includes the fact that as Catholics, in the 18th century before the increased religious toleration of the American Republic, Carroll was barred from having a political life as a voter, despite his wealth and education, because of his faith. And yet he was upwardly mobile, like his cousin, the first American bishop of the Catholic Church, a sign of the increased respect that he had because of his political beliefs as a proud American and a sign that the religious conflicts of the English world of the 17th and 18th centuries were dying down into a greater degree of tolerance and mutual regard than had been the case previously. And that context also includes the Thomist education that Carroll had received in Europe that would equip him for the struggle over independence.

This short volume is divided into five chapters and a bit of other material as well. The book begins with an introduction that discusses Charles Carroll as an exemplar of Catholic and Republican virtue, and the author is careful to tie the two together, lest it be assumed that being a loyal Catholic meant that one was inimical to virtuous Republicanism, as has been thought by some periodically within American history. After that the author discusses the youth of Carroll as a liberally educated bastard whose education equipped him to handle the political tempests of the 1770’s and 1780’s with considerable aplomb (1). This leads to a discussion of Carroll’s role as the “First Citizen” (a rather bold claim in light of his lack of citizenship in pre-revolutionary Maryland) in debates about a particular local Maryland issue relating to the taxation for the established Anglican church (2). The author discusses the evolution of the state and national constitutions during the course of the revolutionary years that Carroll himself took part of on the state and federal level (3), as well as the goal that Carroll had of attenuating disorder by encouraging a balanced constitution rather than one that was overly populist in nature (4). The author then discusses the goal that Carroll had of encouraging a political order in Maryland and the United States that echoed the divine order he believed in (5), after which there is a conclusion about his Roman Republican nature, an appendix that discusses his political writing, as well as notes, a selected bibliography, acknowledgements, and index.

Indeed, in reading this book I was greatly struck by the author’s idea that it was Carroll’s Thomist education that provided him with a means to counteract the divine right theories of rulership, or the idea that a Parliament that was not elected by any of the voters of the colonies could provide a virtual representation for American colonists anymore than Maryland’s anti-Catholic pre-revolutionary assembly could provide virtual representation for a Catholic denied a political place because of his faith. In my readings about political philosophy I have seen it mentioned elsewhere that there was a strong degree of Catholic thinking provided by the Jesuits and others that was hostile to royal absolutism and that accounts for at least some of the hostility that the absolutists of the eighteenth century had towards the Jesuits even in the Catholic world. This is a subject about which I would like to know more, and hopefully there are some easily available sources that can provide some meat to this argument, one which I must admit I am not equipped to address because I have not read the anti-divine right writings of the early modern Jesuits that would have been among the teachers of Carroll in France, and part of that strain of French thinking that likely strongly influenced American thinking on the lack of legitimacy of power that was not accountable to the people. Obviously, this is a matter of contemporary relevance.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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