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This Day in History: The longest living signer of the Declaration of Independence

On this day in 1776, future President John Adams writes a letter to his wife, Abigail. He wrote of a man tapped by Congress for a special task. Little could he know that Charles Carroll would ultimately become the last living signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Carroll would also be the only Catholic person to sign. He suffered immensely because of this last fact.

For years, Carroll was mistreated because of his faith. As a young boy, he attended a religious private school in secret. When he got older, he traveled overseas to complete his education. When he returned to America, he was unable to run for office because he was Catholic.

All in all, perhaps it would have been understandable if he’d chosen to remain loyal to the Crown during the Revolution? He was a wealthy man with *a lot* to lose. And he surely had bad memories of being mistreated by the American colonists early on.

Carroll, however, was a fervent Patriot. When the conflict with Great Britain started, he wrote many anonymous letters defending the cause of liberty—and of religious freedom. People eventually discovered who had been writing the letters, and his name became more well-known.

During these years, Carroll served the Patriot cause in various ways, but the real achievement came in 1774 when he was elected to the 2nd Maryland Convention. His election finally put an end to the ban on Catholics running for office.

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed Carroll to a special committee, along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. The delegation would travel to Canada and attempt to recruit support for the Patriot cause. Canada was largely Catholic, so Carroll would have been a natural selection for that committee.

When Carroll returned from that (unfortunately unsuccessful) trip, he was appointed to serve in the Continental Congress. He arrived in Philadelphia after the vote on independence, but before congressional delegates had signed the document. When the Maryland delegation signed their names, Carroll added his with a big flourish: Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

There were many Carrolls in the colonies in those days, and he didn’t have to add the “of Carrollton.” The addition served as an extra identifying mark—a mark that would also make him easier to find and punish for treason.

Carroll would later help to organize the Maryland state government, and he would eventually serve as a United States Senator. He was a slaveholder who became uncomfortable with the institution and began working to end it. But perhaps he is most remembered for how long he lived! On July 4, 1826, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams passed away. That event left Carroll as the only living signatory of the Declaration of Independence for quite some time. Carroll did not pass away until 1832.

Perhaps, with all this background, you’ll understand the description that John Adams gave of Carroll in his letter to Abigail on February 18, 1776:

Carroll, Adams told his wife, was “a Gentleman of independant Fortune . . . educated in some University in France, tho a Native of America, of great Abilities and Learning, compleat Master of French Language and a Professor of the Roman catholic Religion, yet a warm, a firm, a zealous Supporter of the Rights of America, in whose Cause he has hazarded his all.”

In other words, an American Patriot who deserves to be remembered.

Primary Sources:

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