Charles Carroll of Carrollton — The Last Living Signer of the Declaration of Independence

1737–1832

Charles Carroll of Carrollton was a planter and politician from Maryland who is most famous for being the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last living signer. Carroll was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in America during his lifetime.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Last Living Signer of the Declaration of Independence, 1763, Reynolds

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, circa 1763. Image Source: Google Arts & Culture.

Who was Charles Carroll of Carrollton?

Charles Carroll was a planter and politician from Maryland who rose to prominence during the American Revolution. He received his education in France and continued to study in Europe until the time of the Stamp Act Crisis, returning to America in 1764. Near the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, he was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. He was elected to serve on the Committee of Correspondence, in the Annapolis Convention — Maryland’s Provincial Congress — and the Maryland Committee of Safety. On July 4, 1776, he was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and went to Philadelphia where he signed the Declaration of Independence. During the Canada Campaign, he traveled to Quebec with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase to win the support of French Canadians. He also served on the Board of War. When the war ended, he returned to Maryland, where he continued to participate in Maryland politics and helped establish the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He enjoyed a successful career in politics and died as the last living Signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Carroll Quick Facts

  • Also Known As — Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Charles Carroll III.
  • Born — September 19, 1737, in Annapolis, Province of Maryland.
  • Parents — Charles Carroll and Elizabeth Brooke.
  • Spouse — Mary “Molly” Darnall.
  • Died — November 14, 1832, in Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of 95.
  • Buried — Immanuel Episcopal Churchyard in New Castle.
  • Famous For — Being the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Founding Father, c 1828, Harding
This portrait of Charles Carroll was painted circa 1828 by Chester Harding. Image Source: Archive.org.

Charles Carroll Overview and History of His Life and Career

This overview of Carroll’s life and career is adapted from the following:

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing,  1870.
  2. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Charles Goodrich, 1836.
  3. The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Nathaniel Dwight, 1851.

Charles Carroll the Settler

Charles Carroll was descended from Irish ancestry. His grandfather, Charles Carroll — known as “Charles Carroll the Settler” — was a native of Littemourna, in Ireland, and was a clerk in the office of Lord Powis, in the reign of James the Second. 

In 1659, under the patronage of Lord Baltimore, the principal proprietor of Maryland, Charles Carroll the Settler emigrated to the Province of Marland and became the possessor of a large plantation.  He also received the appointment of judge and register of the land office and became an agent for Lord Baltimore. Carroll moved to Maryland in hopes of finding freedom from persecution because he was Catholic.

Charles Carroll of Annapolis

His son Charles Caroll II — known as Charles Carroll of Annapolis — was born in 1702 and lived to the age of 80.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Finally, Charles Carroll III — Charles Carroll of Carrollton — was born on September 19, 1737, in Annapolis, Maryland. When Carroll II died at the age of 80, he left his estate to Charles III, who was 25 years old at the time.

Education in Europe and Early Life

When Charles Carroll of Carrollton was eight years old, his father took him to France and enrolled him as a student in the Jesuit College at St, Omer’s. Carroll studied there for six years and then went to another Jesuit seminary, at Rheims. 

Carroll spent a year at Rheims and then enrolled in the College of Louis le Grand. When he graduated, he was 17 years old. From there, he studied the law at Bourges for a year. Afterward, he moved to Paris and stayed there until 1757. From there, he went to London and continued his study of the law at the Inner Temple.

No Taxation Without Representation

Although Charles Carroll had lived abroad, and might naturally be thought to have favored the monarchy and upper-class institutions of Europe, he entered into the controversy between the colonies and Great Britain over “No Taxation Without Representation.” 

As early as November 1763, when Prime Minister George Grenville started enforcing the Molasses Act and ended Salutary Neglect, Carroll wrote that Maryland “will and must be independent.”

Soon after, Carroll started sending his father copies of the laws, including the Sugar Act, that Parliament was considering. He also sent copies of laws that were intended to restrict the rights of Catholics.

George Grenville, Prime Minister, Portrait
George Grenville. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Carroll Aligns with the Patriot Cause in Maryland

In late 1764, Charles Carroll returned to Maryland as a well-educated gentleman. Despite his family’s social status, he was not allowed to hold public office because he was Catholic. Carroll supported the Patriot Cause and became associated with prominent leaders like Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, and the Annapolis Sons of Liberty, who were associated with the larger Sons of Liberty movement in the Colonies. 

Marriage to Mary Darnall

On June 5, 1768, Charles Carroll married Mary Darnall, a cousin. They had seven children together, but only three lived past infancy — Mary, Kitty, and Charles Carroll of Homewood.

Following the repeal of the Stamp Act, the crisis in Maryland calmed down but was followed by more controversy just a few years later. 

The Fee Bill Controversy and the Carroll-Dulaney Debates

In 1770, the government of Maryland consisted of:

  1. Lord Baltimore, the proprietor and Governor, who lived in England.
  2. Robert Eden, the Lieutenant Governor, who was appointed by Lord Baltimore, and lived in Maryland.
  3. The Maryland Governor’s Council, which was appointed by Lord Baltimore.
  4. The Maryland General Assembly, which was elected by the people.

That year, a law expired that set the fees of colonial officers. The Council wanted to continue the fees at the same rates, but the Assembly wanted to reduce the fees. This led to controversy and the Assembly refused to continue business until the issue was decided in their favor. Governor Eden suspended the Assembly and issued a proclamation that established the fees for officers.

In Annapolis, William Paca and Samuel Chase organized a protest against Eden’s action. They led a procession that hung the proclamation on a gallows and then buried it in a grave under the gallows.

Samuel Chase, Founding Father, Illustration
Samuel Chase. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In 1773, Carroll joined the protest by writing a series of essays that criticized Governor Eden. Each of Carroll’s essays was signed “The First Citizen,” and the Secretary of Maryland, Daniel Dulaney the Younger, responded to them with essays that supported the Governor. However, Carroll’s essays, which argued the Governor had exceeded his authority, were more popular. Carroll’s father was told his son was “a most flaming patriot.”

The people of Maryland were so grateful for the noble defense of their rights that they instructed the Assembly to return their thanks to the unknown writer, through public prints. This was done by William Paca and Matthew Hammond. 

When it was revealed that Carroll was the writer, large numbers of people went to him and expressed their thanks personally, and he at once stood among the highest in popular confidence and favor. Carroll’s popularity spread and his name was known throughout the other 13 Colonies.

Carroll and the Annapolis Tea Party

On May 22, 1774, the Maryland Assembly responded to the Tea Act by prohibiting the landing of the tea in Maryland. When a ship carrying British East India Company tea arrived at Annapolis in October, a mob assembled to prevent the crew from unloading the tea chests and the captain of the ship feared for his safety.

Some friends of the captain appealed to Carroll, who had a reputation for being level-headed. They asked Carroll to try to calm the mob, but it was too late, so Carroll recommended the best course of action to ensure the captain’s safety was to burn the ship with the tea chests still on board.

On October 19, 1774, the ship was burned, the tea was destroyed, and the captain was saved.

Carroll and the Maryland Convention

Meanwhile, the Patriots in Maryland formed a convention to decide how to respond to the Boston Port Act and the call for delegates to the First Continental Congress. At the first session of the Maryland Convention (June 22–25, 1774), resolutions were passed in support of Boston and the delegates were elected for Congress. Despite his popularity, Carroll was not chosen as a delegate, but he remained active in the Patriot Cause. While the Maryland Convention opposed independence for the Colonies, Carroll is believed to have been in favor of it.

Early on, Carroll saw the Colonies would have to resort to the use of arms to defend their rights. He was appointed a member of the first Committee of Safety of Maryland. In 1775, he was elected a member of the Maryland Provincial Congress. In early 1776 he traveled to Philadephia and became acquainted with the members of the Second Continental Congress.

Carroll’s Mission to Canada

Following the disastrous Battle of Quebec (December 31, 1775) Congress assembled a commission to travel to Canada to review the state of the army and try to convince the Province of Quebec to become the 14th Colony aligned with the Patriot Cause. Carroll was chosen for the commission, along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase.

Carroll and the others were not successful. The defeat and death of General Richard Montgomery, together with the retreat of American forces, made it impossible to gain the support needed for Quebec to pull away from Great Britain.

Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

The commissioners issued proclamations to the people of Canada, but the people there were not as outraged as Americans were over British policies and were not anxious about war. Catholic priests in Quebec, who were happy with their state of affairs after the passage of the Quebec Act, also worked to undermine the efforts of Carroll and the commission. Eventually, the commissioners decided to abandon the mission.

Carroll and the Question of Independence

By the time Carroll returned, the issue of independence had been raised in Congress by Richard Henry Lee and the Mayland Convention was debating the measure. Carroll traveled to Maryland and took his place in the Maryland Convention, where he worked to convince the delegates to vote in favor of independence. The Convention eventually decided in favor of the Lee Resolution. A message to the Mayland Delegation in Philadelphia, instructing them to vote in favor of independence. Then the Convention chose Carroll as a delegate to Congress and he returned to Philadelphia.

By the time Carroll arrived on July 8, the momentous vote approving the Declaration of Independence (July 2, 1776) had already taken place.

Congressional Board of War

Ten days after he took his seat in Congress, Carroll was placed on the Board of War and served in 1776 and 1777. Meanwhile, he was a member of the Maryland Assembly, and all the time that he could spare from his duties at Philadelphia, he spent in the active service of the state.

Signer of the Declaration of Independence

On July 19, Congress adopted a resolution for the Declaration of Independence to be printed on parchment and signed by its members. On August 2, the members of Congress, including Carroll, assembled to sign the document.

A signature to the declaration was a bold step for every member of Congress who signed it. It exposed them to the confiscation of their estates, and the loss of life, if the British won the war. Few men had more at stake than Carroll, who was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in the Colonies.

At the time of the signing, British forces were assembling on Staten Island and preparing to attack the Continental Army on Long Island. The outcome of the war was very much in doubt.

When Carroll was asked whether he would sign his name, he replied, “Most willingly,” and seizing a pen, instantly subscribed what he called “this record of glory.”

According to legend, Carroll initially signed his name as “Charles Caroll.” Then John Hancock questioned his commitment to independence, saying it was unclear which Charles Carroll had signed because it was a common name. Carroll then finished his signature with “of Carollton.” It is said that someone remarked, “There go a few millions.”

Carroll returned to Mayland and helped draft the new state constitution. After it was approved, he was elected as a member of the Maryland Senate.

Carroll the Federalist 

Carroll continued as a member of the Mayland Senate and the Continental Congress until 1788, when he relinquished his seat, and devoted himself to the interests of his state. Following the ratification of the United States Constitution, Carroll was elected to the first United States Congress as a Senator.

In 1792, Carroll chose to resign from the U.S. Senate so he could serve in Maryland. A Federalist, Carroll was defeated in the Election of 1800, which saw the Democratic-Republicans gain favor, and he retired from politics.

The Last Living Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Carroll spent the remaining years of his life in peace, enjoying the comforts of his home and family. He was celebrated as the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, and died in Baltimore on November 14, 1832, at the age of 96.

Before he died, Alexis de Tocqueville met with him. When he returned to France, Tocqueville published Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. Writing about Carroll, Tocqueville said, “…this race of men is disappearing after having provided America with her greatest spirits.”

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, c 1830, Portrait
This portrait of Charles Carroll was painted circa 1830. Image Source: Archive.org.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton Interesting Facts

  • Charles Carroll of Carrollton and his father were members of the Maryland Convention, also known as the Annapolis Convention.
  • As a U.S. Senator, Carroll helped finalize the wording of the Bill of Rights.
  • Carroll donated a significant portion of his land for the establishment of Washington, D.C.
  • Carroll was involved in the establishment of the First Bank of the United States and the Second Bank of the United States, which were important to Henry Clay’s American System.
  • Carroll was a significant investor in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, drove the last nail into place when the railroad opened, and was a member of the first Board of Directors.
  • Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Carroll was the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence.