Catholic Founder, Catholic businessman
SAM GREGG writes that Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Like many other Signers, he was a true Renaissance man, but he also believed that the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. Gregg explains how Carroll’s life and writings have much to teach us today. . . .
by Sam Gregg
Charles Carroll of Carrollton is known to most Americans as the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, Carroll arguably put far more at risk than any other Signer.
In 1776, Carroll was most likely the wealthiest man in Britain’s American colonies. Indeed, after Carroll appended his signature to the Declaration, one bystander reportedly quipped, “There go a few millions.”
Both Carroll’s father and grandfather were successful merchants despite the anti-Catholic laws that prevailed in the Maryland colony throughout most of the 18th century. But Carroll turned out to be a successful entrepreneur in his own right. In fact, Carroll was so good at creating wealth that when George Washington thought of making Carroll ambassador to France in 1796, he eventually opted not to.
Carroll’s commercial interests extended far beyond those of the typical Marylander of his time. They ranged from grain products to livestock, small cloth factories, building crafts, cattle, mills, orchards, land speculation, and iron production. As well as investing in domestic and European markets, Carroll was in the business of making loans, charging market interest rates. He even authored a document defending the legality and morality of compound interest. And, it should be said, a portion of Carroll’s assets consisted of slaves.
Carroll’s commercial success did not mean, however, that what he often called the “habit of business” became suffocating for him. He would have thoroughly agreed with Calvin Coolidge that “the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.”
Like many other Signers, Carroll was a true Renaissance man.Though he worked incredibly hard at expanding his business ventures, he was heavily involved in revolutionary-era politics. And in the midst of all this, Carroll somehow found time before, during, and after the Revolution to read the works of prominent philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau — and to find their critiques of Christianity thoroughly unconvincing.
But Carroll also had a very strong sense that the life of business was itself one full of potential nobility and purpose that went beyond utility. For one thing, Carroll never ceased to emphasize to his own family and friends the order and discipline which business and trade can introduce into people’s lives.
Though he never used the word, Carroll understood the folly of consumerism. His father had never ceased to remind him that conspicuous consumption was the road to moral (and sometimes economic) ruin. Much of the Maryland high society in which he lived was marred by what Carroll sharply criticized as the vices that flowed from mindless spending and taking on debt for purposes of consumption. Carroll specified, however, that one check on such habits was a conscientious attention to business itself. By this, Carroll meant allocating specific amounts of time to organizing commercial affairs and developing work habits which themselves relied upon cultivating virtues such as prudence, fortitude, and temperance.
Carroll’s underlying attitude toward such matters was not driven by something akin to a Protestant work ethic. His approach flowed from his sense of responsibility to fulfill the expectations of those who had gone before him, to provide for one’s family, and to pass on something to forthcoming generations.
In these matters, Carroll may have been influenced by a book of Catholic spirituality that is a must-read for us: St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life (1609).
This 17th-century classic was in vogue among Maryland Catholics during Carroll’s lifetime and occupied a prominent place in his father’s library. Among other things, the book provides counsel on cultivating a prayer life and the necessary degree of detachment in the midst of material comfort so that people’s identity is not consumed by their wealth. In short, it seeks to teach Catholics living “in the world,” how to do so while remaining “not of the world.”
Charles Carroll’s life and writings have much to teach us today — as Catholics and Americans — especially regarding religious liberty and the other freedoms secured by the American Revolution. But for Catholics in business, there’s also much to learn from Carroll’s life about how to integrate the high moral calling that’s inseparable from Catholic faith into the world of commerce. To forget this is not only to overlook one Catholic’s peerless contribution to the American founding, it’s also to neglect a potential source of timeless wisdom for Catholics in business.
DR. SAMUEL GREGG is the Acton Institute’s research director. He has authored several books including “Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture and How American Can Avoid A European Future” and his forthcoming “Tea Party Catholic.”