the imaginative conservative logo

John Carroll

John Carroll

In these United States our Religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary than our political one. –John Carroll, 1783

The angry thunderclaps that crashed in the darkness above Whitemarsh Plantation in Prince Georges County, Maryland, robbed Father John Carroll of any sleep his agitated mind might have allowed him on this May night of 1789. Before dawn of the next day, Carroll, bleary-eyed and still weary, rose from his bed, said his morning prayers, and fixed himself a small breakfast. Looking out the window of the priests’ residence that sat atop the hill overlooking the plantation, he peered through the morning mist at the little white chapel nearby. Though Carroll had long hoped for this day, its arrival caused him much trepidation. For on this morning, the American Catholic clergy—ex-Jesuits like Carroll himself—would conclude a week-long general meeting and elect the first bishop. The outcome of the election was in little doubt, for Carroll was the near-unanimous choice of his fellow clerics to lead the fledgling church in America. Nevertheless, the event did not lack drama, for Carroll’s reluctance to be bishop was widely known, and some of his priestly brethren doubted that Carroll would accept the position. Indeed, in the months leading up to the election, Carroll had repeatedly urged them to choose someone else.[1]

Though five years earlier Rome had appointed him Superior of the American Church, Carroll doubted his worthiness to be a successor to the Apostles, deeming himself “entirely unfit for a station in which I can have no hopes of rendering service.” He believed that “it would be better for our H.[oly] Religion & certainly to my greater ease of mind” if someone else were chosen.[2] Taking the post, Carroll feared, would entail the “sacrifice” of “every moment of peace and satisfaction.”[3] As he checked his pocket watch and awaited the inevitable hour when the priests would assemble at Whitemarsh, Carroll prayed for divine guidance.


Sacred Heart Chapel, where Carroll was elected

By mid-morning the clergy had gathered in the chapel-on-the-hill. After the celebration of Mass, the election was held. Only two votes were cast for someone other than Carroll, and one of those votes was Carroll’s. The voting finished and the result announced, all eyes turned to Carroll, whose unimpressive physical appearance—he was not tall, was somewhat plump, had a balding head, large nose, and a visage which radiated meekness—gave little indication of his strength of character. The chapel was silent as Carroll rose slowly from his pew, his face solemn and his soul burdened. His gaze met the eyes of the assembled elector-priests. Would he accept the nomination, they wondered. As the first rays of sunshine on that foggy morning began to break through the windows of the chapel, Carroll declared, in a soft but steady voice, that he would acquiesce in the decision. There was applause and a collective sigh of relief from the clergy.[4]

Despite his misgivings about his fitness for the job, Carroll believed that he was obliged to accept the episcopacy. He feared that if he declined the nomination, Rome would appoint a foreign bishop to the office; this, he was certain, would spell disaster. Indeed, Carroll viewed his election as the first crucial step in the realization of his dream of creating a national Church that was distinctively American in practice and independent of Rome in temporal matters. The Divine hand, he concluded, had surely guided the actions of his brother priests; therefore, he could not, as an obedient son, refuse to become the shepherd of the nascent American Church. Still it took Carroll some time to accommodate himself to the Divine will. “I am so stunned with the issue of this business,” he wrote just days after the meeting at Whitemarsh, “that I truly hate the hearing or mention of it.”[5]

* * * * *

The very fact that American Catholics were choosing a bishop in 1789 was an indication of a new-found boldness in the wake of the nation’s independence. Prior to the Revolution, followers of the Roman faith had realized that it was a risky proposition to establish an episcopate in a country dominated by Protestants. At the time, the American Catholic Church was a branch of the English Catholic Church. Because England was considered mission territory—the Church there having ceased to exist in the mid-sixteenth century upon Henry VIII’s break with Rome—the Church in both England and America was subject to the authority of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, or “Propaganda,” as it was commonly called.[6]  Propaganda had created the office of the Vicar Apostolic of London to be the immediate head of the English and American missions. But Richard Challoner, the Vicar Apostolic from 1758 to 1781, had little desire to exercise his authority over the American Church, and he suggested to Rome that a separate Vicar Apostolic be created in America.[7]

Challoner’s request alarmed many American Catholics, who were all too aware of the anti-Catholic sensibilities of the Protestant majority. In 1765, a group of 259 Catholic Maryland laymen petitioned Challoner, asking him to refrain from creating what amounted to an American bishopric. In the Laity Remonstrance of July 16, the Marylanders pointed out that the creation of such an office would constitute a dangerous innovation in a nation that lacked even a Protestant bishop. As Charles Carroll of Annapolis, one of the signers of the Remonstrance, reminded Challoner in an accompanying letter, the Anglican Church’s attempt to appoint a bishop in America was one complaint the colonists leveled against the mother country. “For many years past attempts have been made to establish a Protestant Bishop on this continent,” Carroll declared, “and yt such attempts have been as constantly opp’d thro the fixed avertion [sic] ye people of America in general have to a person of such a character.”[8] If the appointment of an American bishop by the Church of England was perceived by the colonists to be a manifestation of impending tyranny, how much more alarming would the creation of a Catholic bishop in America be. The Catholic laymen warned Challoner that a Catholic bishop in America would arouse the ire of Protestants “and consequently terminate in the utter extirpation of our holy religion.”[9]

Carroll’s admonition was credible, for Catholics had suffered discrimination and persecution in Maryland and the other colonies for more than a century. In Maryland, the end of the Catholic proprietorship of Lord Baltimore in the 1650s marked the end of that colony’s policy of religious toleration. First the Puritans, and then the Anglicans after 1688, enacted measures to deprive Catholics of their civil rights. In the 1690s, the Maryland Assembly passed legislation barring Catholics from practicing law and holding office. Catholics were deprived of the right to vote in 1718. In the 1740s, legislation was passed which made it treason for a priest to attempt to convert anyone. But because the Protestant proprietors needed the cooperation of the Catholic gentry to govern the colony, much of the penal legislation was not enforced; laws were often approved simply to appease the sentiments of the Protestant majority. Nevertheless, the anti-Catholic atmosphere that pervaded the colony demoralized even some members of the Catholic upper class. A particularly galling measure was the passage by the Maryland Assembly in 1756 of a bill that required Catholics to pay a double land tax for the support of the colony’s militia—the twisted logic of the act being that Catholics, because they were barred by law from serving in the militia, should be compelled to substitute money for service. In the wake of the militia act, a disgruntled Charles Carroll of Annapolis contemplated leaving his Maryland estate and moving his family to Louisiana. In a letter of 1760 to his son, Charles, who was in college in Europe, Carroll described the plight of Catholics in the colony and pondered the family’s prospects given the religious prejudice. “I leave you to judge whether Maryland be a tolerable residence for a Roman Catholic,” the elder Charles concluded. “Were I younger I would certainly quit it.”[10]

Young Charles might have discussed his father’s sentiments with his cousin John Carroll, who at the time was his schoolmate at the Jesuit school of St. Omer’s College in Flanders. Like his cousin’s family, John had felt the sting of religious bigotry in Maryland. John Carroll had been born on January 8, 1735, in Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County, to Daniel and Eleanor Carroll, the fourth of seven children. His father, an Irish immigrant, became a prominent merchant and married an heiress to one of Maryland’s wealthiest families. John—or “Jacky,” as he was known as a boy—received his elementary education at home before entering Bohemia Manor Academy near the Pennsylvania border. This school was one of several institutions quietly established by Catholics who wished to include religious instruction in the education of their young.[11] After spending a year at the Academy, John traveled with his cousin, Charles, to France, where they entered St. Omer’s College. The experience of journeying abroad was a common one for well-to-do Catholic boys in the eighteenth century, as the Continent provided opportunities for an education untainted by anti-Roman bigotry. John graduated from St. Omer’s in 1753 and, deciding that he was called to be a priest, entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in the nearby town of Watten. The training to become a Jesuit priest was rigorous and long; Carroll spent the next sixteen years studying and teaching until his ordination to the priesthood in 1769.[12] In 1774, he returned to an America that was on the brink of a Revolution that would produce a more tolerant religious spirit throughout the land. Carroll himself was even appointed to serve alongside his cousin Charles, Samuel Chase, and Benjamin Franklin, on a commission to win Canada’s support of the American cause.[13]

* * * * *


John Carroll

Carroll and his fellow clerics were determined that they and their coreligionists would do nothing to turn back the clock on the gains made by Catholics during the Revolution. To this end, they sought to placate suspicious Protestants by demonstrating the independence and Americanism of the Catholic Church. Carroll did not wish to sever the spiritual bond with Rome, but, believing that “a foreign temporal jurisdiction will never be tolerated here,” he sought to create an American Church that was independent of the Holy See in temporal matters.[14] Carroll’s desire to create a semi-autonomous American Church stemmed not only from a pragmatic assessment of what Protestant America would tolerate, but also from his own experience with Roman authority as a Jesuit priest. The seminal event in this respect was Pope Clement XIV’s suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773.

Before returning to America in 1774, Carroll had embarked on a two-year tour of Europe, arriving in Rome in the fall of 1772.[15] There Carroll learned that Church authorities were moving toward suppressing the Society of Jesus. Carroll termed the possibility a “catastrophe,” and his letters became gloomier over the next few months as he learned of the machinations of the Society’s enemies.[16] On August 16, 1773, the dreaded blow finally descended; Pope Clement XIV decreed, in Dominus ac Redemptor, that the Society of Jesus was to be suppressed. The Pope’s action was the result of a campaign against the Society orchestrated by its enemies in Portugal, France, and Spain.[17] The Society had been suppressed in these countries in, respectively, 1758, 1762, and 1767, and the rumor was that the new Pope had been elected on condition that he make the suppression universal.[18] Carroll was devastated by the Pope’s decree. “I am not, and perhaps never shall be, recovered from the shock of this dreadful intelligence,” he wrote soon afterward. “The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be immediate death.”[19] The Pope’s suppression of the Jesuits transformed Carroll’s attitude toward Rome for many years. “What a revolution of ideas do all these proceedings produce in a mind accustomed to regard this city as the seat of Religion,” the shaken priest declared, “and the bulwark against the incroachments [sic] of irreligion and impiety?”[20] For the rest of his life, Carroll would be mindful of the potentially pernicious ramifications of Roman interference in his work and that of his priestly brethren.

Suppression meant that the Jesuits would lose both their identity and the security that their constitution had provided them. Former Jesuit priests would have to attach themselves either to another order or be “secularized,” becoming diocesan priests in the see in which they resided. America, however, was mission territory; no diocesan organization existed there, and no order besides the Jesuits was established there. Suppression for Jesuits in America, therefore, meant that the priests would become subject individually to the authority of the Vicar Apostolic of London, who was answerable directly to Propaganda in Rome. Lacking ties to a powerful and international order, the American priests lost any chance of recourse if Rome issued orders they found unpalatable. Though, like all Jesuits, the Americans had taken a special vow of obedience to the Pope, they had, as a group under their Superior, become accustomed to a policy of salutary neglect. They were a small group of missionaries in a remote wilderness, and Rome had little inclination—or ability—to bother with them. Now the possibility loomed that the freedom of the American priests would be curtailed. John Carroll and his fellow Jesuits were resolved not to let that happen.

The first step in ensuring autonomy was to loosen Rome’s grip on the American Church. War and independence had already, for all practical purposes, severed ties between the American and English churches. Moreover, the Vicars Apostolic of London during this period readily acquiesced in American religious independence; where Richard Challoner had been simply reluctant to assert his authority over the colonies during the Revolutionary crisis, the man who succeeded him, James Talbot, openly professed his unwillingness to head the Church in the United States.[21]

The American clergy, however, wished to make official the independence of the American Church from England. At the time, Father John Lewis held the title of Vicar General and was subject to the authority of the Vicar Apostolic of London. Lewis called a meeting of the General Chapter of the Clergy in 1783 to determine a new form of government for the American mission. The Chapter appointed a committee of five to write to the Pope, expressing the desire of the American clerics to break with the English Church. The committee, which included John Carroll, informed Pope Pius VI “that we, placed under the recent supreme dominion of the United States, can no longer have recourse, as formerly, for necessary spiritual jurisdiction to the Bishops and Vicars-Apostolic residing in different and foreign States (for this has very frequently been intimated to us in very positive terms by the rulers of this Republic), nor recognize any one of them as our ecclesiastical Superior, without open offense of this supreme civil magistracy and political government.” The Committee of Five asked the Pontiff to confirm Father John Lewis as the American Superior and to invest him with the power to bless chalices and altar stones and to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation.[22]


Charles Borromeo

Though forwarded to Rome, the petition, once disseminated, was deemed unsatisfactory by some American clerics, and thus a second committee, of which John Carroll was also a member, was appointed to draft a revised petition.[23] This second appeal included an important modification: the clergy asked to be allowed to choose the American Superior. Carroll stated this flatly the petition’s cover letter, which was addressed to the Roman cardinal, Vitaliano Borromeo. Carroll told Borromeo that it was time “to solicit the Holy See to place the Episcopal powers at least such as recommended are most essential, in the hands of one amongst us, whose recognized virtue, knowledge, and integrity of faith, shall be certified by ourselves.” Father John Lewis, Carroll added, was the choice. The American priests also warned the Pope in the revised petition that the United States government would never countenance the presence of a Catholic bishop in the country.”[24]

In the letter to Borromeo, Carroll again emphasized the necessity of the break with the English Church. “You know that we of the Clergy have heretofore resorted to the Vicar Apostolick of the London District for the exercise of spiritual powers,” he wrote, “but being well acquainted with the temper of Congress, of our assemblies and the people at large, we are firmly of the opinion, that we shall not be suffered to continue under such a jurisdiction, whenever it becomes known to the publick.” The Anglican Church in America, Carroll pointed out, had been forced by public opinion to sever its ties of obedience to the Bishop of London, and the Catholic Church had to follow that example.[25]

Unbeknownst to Carroll, Rome had been thinking along the same lines. The Prefect of Propaganda, Cardinal Leonardo Antonelli, recognized that the independence of the United States meant that English authority over the American Church must end. In a letter of January 1783, Antonelli proposed that “a Vicar-Apostolic, with episcopal character” be created in one of America’s major cities. Antonelli was, however, conscious of the democratic sensibilities of the American people. He suggested that this Vicar-Apostolic, who would have the power to administer the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders, should, if possible, be selected from the body of the American clergy: “National jealousy would thus be obviated, by not constraining these new republicans to receive those sacraments from foreign bishops.” Though native Americans were to be preferred, Antonelli reserved the right of Rome to appoint foreigners, “always, however, from among the most impartial and acceptable to the government.”[26] Antonelli was willing to appoint a Prefect Apostolic—who would have similar powers but would lack episcopal title—if the American government were unwilling to tolerate what amounted to a Catholic bishop in the country.[27] But John Carroll’s vision for the American Church was bolder than Antonelli realized. Spiritual independence from England was the first step in building a national church independent of Rome in temporal matters.

* * * * *

Carroll staked his claim for the American Church’s independence in the area of property rights. A crucial issue in the wake of the suppression of the Jesuits was the disposition of land previously owned by the order. Most of the Jesuits’ property had been donated to the Order by its benefactors, and the incomes of the estates were used to support the clergy. The question of what was to become of the land was particularly important in Maryland, where the Jesuits owned seven plantations—worked by black slaves—totaling almost 13,000 acres.[28] Carroll feared that unless the American clergy devised a new system of government soon, the land would be put to use for selfish purposes by future priests, who would “in all probability be infected much more strongly with interested and private views.”[29] And so, in 1782, Carroll outlined a “Plan of Organization” that provided for common administration of the land, the revenues of which Carroll endeavored to ensure would be used to promote the faith and support the clergy.

Carroll’s plan was nothing less than an exercise in constitution-making. Without the safeguards of the defunct Jesuit order, Carroll worried that the estates would be misused. “It was the advantage of the government of the Society,” Carroll declared, “that in the administration of its temporal effects, the managers of them were under the controul of checks, one rising above the other, and calculated to prevent alienations, or the abuses of waste, appropriation, and a partial application of the yearly income.”[30] Carroll therefore proposed that a system of checks similar to that of the Jesuit constitution be established; he proposed, for instance, that the managers of the estates be investigated periodically by a committee of priests.

Even more worrisome to Carroll was the danger of usurpation of the estates by European church authorities. This concern was well-founded: in the wake of Pope Clement’s suppression of the Society of Jesus, the holdings of European Jesuits had been appropriated by Rome. Carroll, determined not to allow this fate to befall the Americans, insisted that “the property is absolutely our own” because it “did not belong at any period of time to the Society at large; but only to that portion of it residing here, or at most to the English province.”[31]

Carroll’s plan served as the basis for discussion among the Maryland clergy, who assembled at Whitemarsh Plantation in June of 1783 to formulate a new constitution that would govern the former members of the Society. Carroll’s idea of a self-governing clergy independent of Rome in temporal matters was enthusiastically endorsed by his peers, and the Constitution of the Clergy that was approved on October 11, 1784, was largely the fruit of Carroll’s plan of 1782.[32] The document outlined a system of plantation management that carefully guarded against abuse and waste; for example, it encouraged each manager to run his plantation frugally by stipulating that each estate was responsible for its own debts and would not be bailed out by the others.

The constitution strove to enshrine the property rights of the ex-Jesuits. Clause Ten of the Form of Government stated that “the Chapter shall at all times have the power of judging of and finally determining the necessary measures for securing the publick Estates from all danger of alienation.”[33] The constitution also created the post of “Procurator General,” to be elected by the majority of the clergy, but it explicitly circumscribed his power over the clergy’s estates: “Neither the Procurator Genl. nor any other Person shall have power to sell, dispose of, remove or anywise alienate the property of any plantation, without the consent of the General Chapter for real property, or of the District for personal Property.”[34] These provisions were indicative of Carroll’s fear that somehow the ex-Jesuits’ land might fall into Roman hands. Propaganda, Carroll pledged, “will never get possession of a sixpence of our property here.”[35]

The sanctity of property was thus at the heart of Carroll’s theory of the American clergy’s autonomy. In the approaching debate about who was to choose a bishop for the new nation, Carroll returned to the notion that the possession of property gave the American clergy certain rights. Though he never made this argument directly to Roman authorities, Carroll believed that the fact that a bishop would be supported by the incomes of the ex-Jesuits’ estates—he would in effect be the Procurator General described in the Constitution of the Clergy—of right entitled the clergy to have a shepherd of its own choosing. As he told John Ashton in a letter of 1790, “I am & ever shall be opposed . . .to the popes having the nomination of the Bishop, whilst he is supported by our estates here.”[36]  The centrality of property to Carroll’s thought about the relationship between the American clergy and the Holy See mirrored the recent struggle between America and the mother country.[37] The American Revolution, it has been argued, was at its heart a debate about the meaning of the English Constitution, specifically in regard to taxation and rights, both of which were fundamentally issues of property.[38]

vaticanMore broadly, the question of the American clergy’s relationship to Rome showed the influence of republican political theory on Carroll’s thought, particularly as that body of thought had been adopted and perfected by eighteenth-century English  “country” politicians and writers—the “Oppositionists,” such as the Viscount Bolingbroke—who distrusted the ministerial power of the “court.” John Carroll and the Catholic clergy could not help but be swept up in the enthusiasm of the American struggle for independence and the zeitgeist of republicanism. The Carroll family had, after all, played an important role in political affairs during the colonial crisis; Charles of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence, and Daniel, John’s brother, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Though John had been abroad for twenty-five years when he returned to America in 1773, he had nevertheless received a very English education at St. Omer’s and had been in contact with friends and family at home during the crisis with the mother country. Upon his arrival back in the colonies, he quickly caught the patriotic spirit, evidenced by his letter of 1778 to Benjamin Franklin, in which he expressed his hope that the ambassador would one day return from France to visit America: “If you do, there will then be here a new order of things, a new combination of ideas & pursuits; indeed it will be truly the new world.”[39]

Carroll’s enthusiasm for the American experiment was coupled with an aversion to European mores and systems of government. In a letter of 1782 to his confidante Charles Plowden, an English ex-Jesuit, Carroll denounced “the spirit of irreligion” and “innovation” that prevailed in European governments. The rulers of Europe, Carroll held, were “plunderers,” possessed by “a spirit of concentrating all jurisdiction within themselves, that they may be uncontroulable [sic] in the exercise of every act of despotism.” Carroll declared “that one of my strongest inducements to leave Europe, was to be removed not only out of sight, but even out of the hearing of those scenes of iniquity, duplicity and depredation, of which I had seen and heard so much.”[40] After denouncing monarchy as being nearly synonymous with injustice, Carroll paused and smiled to himself. “You see,” he confessed to his friend, “I have contracted the language of a Republican.”[41]

Carroll applied the republican worldview to the American clergy’s relationship to Rome. The Holy See’s suppression of the Society of Jesus, which, as noted above, was such a formative influence on his thought, indicated to Carroll that corrupt forces were at work in the Vatican. He was convinced at the time that the Pope himself was “entirely governed” by a “junto” bent on the destruction of the Jesuits. In a letter written from Rome in the year of the suppression, Carroll referred to a certain Roman cardinal who “foamed with wrath” against the Jesuits and who “violently” promoted their suppression. To Carroll, the Society of Jesus was the embodiment of “oppressed innocence” whereas its enemies were “malicious” rogues who connived to promote their own interests.[42]

Upon returning to America, Carroll found the court-country dichotomy a fitting model for the American clergy’s relationship with Rome. The Holy See became the corrupt court, and the virtuous farmer-priests took on the role of the country opposition. Propaganda, Carroll charged, was composed of greedy prelates whose minds were obsessed with “the grasping of power, & the commanding of wealth.” The battle between the Roman cardinals and the American clergy over the Jesuit estates, Carroll held, was a conflict between “unjust pretensions on one hand, and . . . undoubted rights on the other.”[43] As late as 1787, Carroll referred darkly to “the secret history of the court of Rome.”[44]

After their suppression, the American ex-Jesuits even styled themselves and addressed each other as “Gentlemen,” a self-characterization pregnant with meaning.[45] In the eighteenth century, the term “gentlemen” was typically adopted by those landed aristocrats who saw themselves as independent, virtuous yeomen farmers—bulwarks against the tyranny of centralized power. And the ex-Jesuits were indeed among the wealthiest landholders in the state; at a time when the typical Maryland plantation totaled some 200 acres, five of the Jesuit plantations exceeded 1,100 acres, the largest encompassing 4,400 acres.[46] Thus it was not surprising that Carroll and his fellow clergy began to identify with this set, which, like the American priests themselves, was largely southern and slaveholding in its outlook.

1156121Carroll went so far as to echo arguments that would be made by apologists for slavery into the next century. The Catholic Church countenanced the institution of slavery, holding that it was not inconsistent with the divine and natural law, provided that masters treat their slaves with Christian kindness.[47] Carroll himself warned his flock that abuse of slaves constituted a serious sin.[48] But Carroll, who personally owned at least one slave, was also quick to defend the institution as it was practiced on the Jesuit plantations.[49] In a 1789 essay, written to rebut charges of the clergy’s cruelty as masters, the Marylander insisted that the American priests “treat their negroes with great mildness and are attentive to guard them from the evils of hunger and nakedness.” The priests’ paternalistic care meant that the slaves “work less and are much better fed, lodged, and clothed, than labouring men in almost any part of Europe.” This latter claim, especially, would become a mainstay of the southern pro-slavery argument. “A priest’s negro, Carroll concluded, “is almost proverbial for one, who is allowed to act without control.”[50] Though never quite claiming that slavery was a positive good—after all, such a view would have been in conflict with the church’s teaching—Carroll defended the institution as morally superior in practice, at least in some instances, to free labor.[51]

Carroll’s thought thus must be understood in the context of southern political ideology. Like southerners in general, Carroll and the Maryland priests viewed their property—which included both land and slaves—as the foundation of their autonomy and were resentful of encroachments upon their independence.The Catholic clergy, like American patriots in the eighteenth century and southern Fire-eaters in the nineteenth, found in republicanism’s dread of power a theory that was conducive to their intellectual and psychological needs. Republicanism proved to be a malleable theory, which Carroll and his fellow clergy were able to embrace while rejecting its anti-Catholic elements. In so doing, they made republicanism a viable theory for a multicultural America.

Next: An Extraordinary Revolution:  The Creation of the Catholic Church in America

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. Carroll to Charles Plowden, July 12, 1789, in Thomas O’Brien Hanley, ed., The John Carroll Papers (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 1:369.

2. Carroll to Plowden, May 8, 1789, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:369-370.

3. Carroll to Plowden, May 8, 1789, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:362.

4. Details of the election are based on the accounts in John Gilmary Shea, Life and Times of the Most Reverend John Carroll, Bishop and First Archbishop of Baltimore (New York, 1888); Peter Guilday, The Life and Times of John Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1735-1815 (Westminster, Maryland, 1954); Annabelle M. Melville, John Carroll of Baltimore: Founder of the American Catholic Hierarchy (New York, 1955). The present author has added a few literary touches of his own to the story. These three works are the standard biographies of Carroll and have served as an invaluable guide in the writing of this chapter.  In addition to them, there have been two other full-length works written about Carroll: Joseph Agonito’s excellent 1972 dissertation was an immense help and is cited often below; Theodore Bracco’s 1990 dissertation, on the other hand, was of almost no use as it added little and was poorly-written. See Joseph Agonito, The Building of an American Catholic Church: The Episcopacy of John Carroll (New York, 1988); Theodore Bracco, The Pastoral Problems, Theology, and Practice of John Carroll, First Catholic Bishop of the United States, as Related in His Letters to Rome (Ph.D thesis, St. Louis Univesity, 1990). The physical description of Carroll is based largely on the extant portraits that date from this period, specifically those by Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart.

5. Carroll to Plowden, May 8, 1789, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:362.

6. The American Church would be classified as a mission until the meeting of the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1884.

7. See Shea, John Carroll, 51-57; Guilday, John Carroll, chap 11. A Vicar Apostolic in the Catholic Church exercised episcopal powers but was dependent on Rome for his power; a bishop derived his power from his office and had certain rights as shepherd of his diocese, though he was under Rome’s authority.

8. Charles Carroll of Annapolis to Richard Challoner, July 16, 1765, quoted in Guilday, John Carroll, 155-156.

9. Laity Remonstrance, July 16, 1765, quoted in Guilday, John Carroll, 154.

10. Charles Carroll of Annapolis to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, July 4, 1760, quoted in Guilday, John Carroll, 11.

11. On the difficulties encountered by Maryland Catholics in setting up their own schools, see Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism, 159-162.

12. The year of Carroll’s ordination is disputed by biographers. Guilday, however, makes a convincing case for 1769. See Guilday, John Carroll, 31.

13. Carroll, however, doubted the wisdom of his being selected for the job, deeming himself “a very unfit person to be employed in negotiations.” More broadly, the priest worried that “when ministers of Religion leave their duties of their profession to take a busy part in political matters, they generally fall into contempt; & sometimes even bring discredit to the cause, in whose service they are engaged.” In addition, he doubted that the Canadians could be persuaded to go beyond simple neutrality and actively support the American effort: “They have not the same motives for taking up arms against England, which render theresistance of the other colonies so justifiable.” See Carroll to [?], 1776 [?], in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:46.

14. Carroll to Plowden, September 26, 1783, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:78.

15. Carroll wrote a rather mundane account of his European travels. See “Journal of European Tour,” [1771-1772], in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:6-25.

16. See Carroll’s letters of October 26, 1772-June 23, 1773, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:26-31.

17. The Jesuits had made powerful enemies in the Bourbon courts of Spain and France on both the left and right—the former resented their opposition to Jansenism, while the latter disliked their adoption of some aspects of Enlightenment thought.

18. Guilday, John Carroll, 46.

19. Carroll to Eleanor Darnall Carroll [?], September 11, 1773, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:32.

20. Carroll to Thomas Ellerker, February 3, 1773, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:29.

21. Talbot even refused to ordain American priests. See Guilday, John Carroll, 163-164.

22. “Petition of November, 1783,” quoted in Guilday, John Carroll, 170.

23. Guilday suggests that the reason for the objection to the first petition was that some of the clergy judged it not to be “sufficiently respectful in tone.” See Guilday, John Carroll, 171. The modifications of the second petition suggest that, to the contrary, the objecting priests thought the first petition to be insufficiently bold.

24. Carroll to Vitaliano Borromeo, November 10, 1783, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:81.

25. Carroll to Vitaliano Borromeo, November 10, 1783, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:81. See also Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 12-13.

26. Antonelli quoted in Agonito, Building of an American Catholic Church, 15-17. The letter was written to Archbishop Giuseppe Doria-Pamphili, the Apostolic Nuncio at Paris.

27. It was not unusual for the Catholic Church to seek the approval of governments in the appointment of local bishops.

28. Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (New York, 1985), 87.

29. Carroll to Plowden, February 20, 1782, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:66.

30. Carroll, “Plan of Clergy Organization,” 1782, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:60.

31. Carroll et al. to “The Gentlemen of the Southern District,” [1787], ibid., 1:227.

32. See “Constitution of the Clergy,” 1783-1784, ibid., 1:71-76.

33. Ibid., 1:72.

34. Ibid., 1:73.

35. Carroll to Plowden, September 26, 1783, ibid., 1:78.

36. It ought to be noted that by 1790 Carroll had gone so far as to believe that Rome was not entitled to select an American bishop “even if the pope himself should be at the sole charge of making provision for him.” See the same letter of Carroll to John Ashton, April 18, 1790, ibid., 1:436.

37. Gerald P. Fogarty makes the interesting argument that property rights played a crucial role in the Catholic struggle for liberty both in the political and religious spheres. See Gerald P. Fogarty, “Property and Religious Liberty in Maryland Catholic Thought,” Catholic Historical Review 71 (1986): 573-600.

38. This argument is formulated most convincingly by John Phillip Reid. See his Constitutional History of the American Revolution (Madison, Wisconsin, 1995).

39. Carroll to Franklin, January 18, 1778, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:51.

40. Carroll to Plowden, February 20, 1782, ibid., 1:64.

41. Carroll to Plowden, February 20, 1782, ibid., 1:65.

42. Carroll to Thomas Ellerker, October 26, 1772; January 23, 1773; June 23, 1773, ibid., 1:26, 28, 31.

43. Carroll to Plowden, September 26, 1783, ibid., 1:78.

44. Carroll to Plowden, January 22/February 28, 1787, ibid., 1:245. For more on the court-country dichotomy in both England and America, see, for example, John M. Murrin, “The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolution Settlements in England (1688-1721) and America (1776-1816),” in Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Princeton, NJ, 1980); Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, NY, 1978); Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS, 1985), 74-79.

45. It is true that Carroll at times used the term “gentleman” to refer to priests in general; nevertheless, the formal use of this title in correspondence —as in Carroll’s letters addressed to “The Gentlemen of the Southern District”—certainly suggests that the term was not adopted casually and was something more than a polite form of address.

46. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience, 87.

47. The Church also repeatedly condemned the slave trade as evil. See John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism (Chicago, 1969), 89.

48. Carroll to John Thayer, July 15, 1794, in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 2:122-123.

49. In spite of his avowal in 1813 that he was not “the holder of one single slave,” Carroll provided for the eventual manumission of his “black servant Charles” in his will. See John Carroll to John Grassi, November 3, [1813], John Carroll, “Last Will and Testament,” [November 22, 1815], in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 3:239, 3:371.

50. Carroll, “Response to Patrick Smyth,” in Hanley, John Carroll Papers, 1:343.

51. Carroll’s defense was, therefore, only a small step away from the “positive good” argument that has typically been associated with the southern rights case of the antebellum era. Historian William Freehling has been influential in arguing that southern planters created this argument in the 1830s as they were put on the defensive by northern abolitionists. But Larry E. Tise has suggested that the positive good argument used by the South was an old one and not a specifically southern creation. Tise argues that this thesis had been used by American conservatives of both North and South since the eighteenth century. Carroll’s defense of the ex-Jesuits’ treatment of their slaves was perhaps influenced by early formulations of the positive good thesis. See William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York, 1966); Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens, Georgia, 1987), especially chap. 5.


Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply