Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Signer at the Resignation

It’s almost the Fourth of July and what better way for the Old Senate Chamber to celebrate American Independence than to honor the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence? Charles Carroll of Carrollton, apart from his contributions to the national cause, was deeply interested in the politics of his own state, and spent perhaps an unequaled amount of time in the Old Senate Chamber.

Portrait of Charles Carroll of Carrollton by Thomas Sully, 1834. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1114.

The only son of a well-to-do Maryland family, Carroll received a classical education in France and read for the bar in London, before returning to Maryland in 1765. Though a Roman Catholic, who were at the time forbidden to hold public office, Charles Carroll of Carrollton first garnered attention on the colonial political stage in 1773 when he engaged Daniel Dulaney in a public debate through a series of letters that were published in the Maryland Gazette. During this correspondence, Carroll wrote under the name First Citizen, prompting the Senate’s First Citizen Award today, which honors Maryland citizens who have held the interests of the public in their work with the government.

The debate argued passionately over new taxes in the Maryland colony and the rights of the colonial government, with Carroll attracting attention as a voice for the patriot cause. His revolutionary fervor earned him a spot on several Maryland committees, and, on July 4, 1776, Carroll was elected to Continental Congress, and traveled immediately to Philadelphia. Though he was too late to vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence, he did arrive in time to sign the document. While oral tradition says that Carroll added the “of Carrollton” to his name upon the signing of the Declaration, to ensure the king knew which Charles Carroll had committed the treason, Carroll had actually been using the title (taken from Carrollton Manor in Frederick County, Maryland) since 1765.

Carroll was a strong voice in Congress, where he served on various committees including the Board of War. During this time, he joined a war expedition into Canada in 1776 and garnered a close friendship with Benjamin Franklin. The usually practical and politically-minded Carroll could not help but feel nostalgic in one letter to Franklin. “I shall never forget,” he wrote, “the pleasing hours we passed together on our way to Canada.”[1] In November 1778, however, Carroll resigned his seat in Congress, feeling that his time could be more valuably used in the Maryland Senate.

An excerpt of attendance at the beginning of session. Perhaps due to the short distance between his Annapolis home and the State House, Carroll was frequently the first in attendance at the beginning of Senate sessions. Votes and Proceedings of the Senate, April 1783, Archives of Maryland Online, MSA SC M 3185, p.574.

In Maryland, Carroll was a prominent figure, serving in public office until 1800. Between 1789 and 1792, he even served jointly in both the Maryland and United States Senates. Even after his retirement, Carroll remained in the public eye. Visitors frequently sought him out to see one of the last surviving signers of the Declaration, and in 1827, he briefly came out of retirement to support the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, for which he laid the first cornerstone.

In November 1783, the Maryland Senate had relocated upstairs to allow Congress the use of the Old Senate Chamber. At the time, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was serving as President of the Senate, and, on December 23, held session as normal in the morning in the State House. Afterwards, Carroll and many other senators crowded onto the floor of the Old Senate Chamber where they witnessed Washington resign his commission as commander-in-chief. Along with several other prominent Maryland political figures, Carroll was joined by the other three Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Stone, Samuel Chase, and William Paca, who was serving as governor at the time.

Depictions of Charles Carroll of Carrollton in Edwin White (on left) and John Trumbull's (on right) Washington Resigning His Commission. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1112. Detail of the Trumbull painting courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

In both John Trumbull and Edwin White’s depictions of the resignation, Charles Carroll is featured in the crowd, standing with his two daughters. Though only two of a select few women among the crowd in both paintings, there is actually no record of the Carroll daughters attending the resignation. Had they been, they certainly would not have been on the floor with their father, but rather in the ladies’ gallery alongside Molly Ridout. The eldest daughter, Mary, later achieved fame in Washington society for her manners and three of her daughters married British nobility, earning them the nickname of the three American graces.[2]

With the memory of one of Maryland’s four signers in mind, we wish everyone a happy Independence Day! Don’t forget that there are plenty of opportunities to get your dose of signers history by visiting the Charles Carroll and William Paca Houses in Annapolis, the Thomas Stone National Historic Site in Charles County, and Carroll Mansion in Baltimore.

[1] To Benjamin Franklin from Charles Carroll of Carrollton, 7 May 1781, Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 35,May 1 through October 31, 1781, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 37–39.
[2] “The American Graces,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1880.

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