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Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832)

45 min

Students will:

  • appreciate Carroll’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
  • explain Carroll’s objections to the governor’s fee proclamation
  • understand the reasons for Carroll’s championing of religious tolerance
  • analyze what Carroll stood to gain and lose by supporting American independence

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Charles Carroll.

    Charles Carroll was a wealthy Maryland planter and a leader of the Revolution. He became famous in the colony in 1773 when he wrote the First Citizen letters. In these essays, Carroll criticized as illegal a fee that the governor had imposed on the people. He also defended his right as a Catholic to participate in public life in Maryland. As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, the only Catholic to do so. In that same year, he helped write a new constitution for Maryland, successfully including as part of that document a clause that guaranteed religious liberty for Christians. After the Revolutionary War, Carroll served in the Maryland legislature and United States Senate. He was the last signer of the Declaration to die.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton is primarily remembered today for his political leadership in Maryland during the Revolutionary era. A wealthy planter, Carroll became a major figure in the patriot movement in 1773 when he penned the First Citizen letters, attacking the governor’s unilateral imposition of a fee as an unjust tax upon the people. A member of the Continental Congress, Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence. He also helped to write Maryland’s Constitution of 1776. After American independence was achieved, he served in the United States Senate and the Maryland legislature.

Carroll’s role as a champion of religious liberty is less well known. Like many American Catholics at the time, he favored the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion, at least for Christians. These principles were a logical consequence of the minority status of Catholics in Maryland and the nation. In nearly every American colony, Catholics suffered legal disabilities of some kind. Catholics in Maryland, for example, were denied the vote and the right to hold office. In his First Citizen letters, Carroll defended his right—and by extension, the right of his co-religionists—to participate in public affairs. He successfully fought to have religious liberty for all Christians, including Catholics, guaranteed by the Maryland Constitution of 1776.

In his later years, Carroll became famous among his countrymen as the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. By the time of his death in 1832, American independence was assured, but the battle for tolerance in the United States for Catholics and other religious minorities was unfinished.

Ask the students to consider how Marylanders of Carroll’s day might have reacted to his dialogue with Dulany.

Answers will vary.

Students could compose a short essay (three to five paragraphs) in which they consider the following questions:

  1. When, if ever, can a group’s religious beliefs pose a threat to a free society?
  2. Should limits be placed on the freedom to practice religion in order to protect society?

  1. Students could research the history of religious liberty in their state.
  2. Students could research the extent of religious liberty currently allowed in other countries.
  3. Using the links below, students could research the extent of religious tolerance found in the earliest state constitutions, most of which were written at the time of the American Revolution. (Note that the present-day constitutions of Massachusetts and Rhode Island date to 1776 and 1843, respectively, though both have been amended.)

Student Handouts

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