National treasure, family pride

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 4, 2010

For Americans, the Declaration of Independence is something very special: this is the document that officially solidified the revolt against English rule and precipitated the fight for American Independence.

One Ironton man could understandably have a more personal view of the Declaration: it bears his ancestor’s signature.

Dale Smith is the descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, of the 56 men who put their names at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was Smith’s maternal grandmother’s great grandfather.

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“The first I knew of him was when I was young and someone said to me, ‘you have a relative that signed the Declaration of Independence’ and I was like, yeah, right,” Smith said. But then in 1976 when the Freedom Train rolled through the Tri-State, a distant cousin, Carol Carroll, of Huntington, W.Va., called Smith to let him know a spade used in the groundbreaking for the B&O Railroad was one of the items on display on the train.

Carol Carroll recounted the story of the famous forefather who not only signed the Declaration of Independence, this ancestor was also at the groundbreaking for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. An ardent train enthusiast, Smith was hooked.

It was then he began to see the family connection through new eyes and began to research who Charles Carroll of Carrollton was and how his bravery and the bravery of others like him helped shape the United States of America we know today.

“It was very humbling to say the least,” Smith said.

Who was Charles?

Charles Carroll was born Sept. 20, 1737 in Annapolis, Md., the son of Irish immigrants.

“There is a story in my family that the original family named was McCarroll and the McCarroll married a MacCarroll and the families got together to discuss what the name of the new couple would be and there was a half-a-day meeting between the two families. It was decided they would drop the Mc and Mac and move to the New World and be known as Carroll,” Smith recounted.

From a wealthy family, Charles Carroll was first educated at the Jesuits College of Omar in France and later studied law abroad as well.

“From what I have hear, he was a quiet man, small in stature,” Smith said. “He was probably one of the wealthiest men in America.”

Upon returning to the United States, the 28-year-old Carroll was given a 10,000-acre estate by his father, also named Charles Carroll. The younger Charles named his estate Carrollton, and forever after referred to himself as Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

“There were so many Carrolls,” Ohio University Southern Instructor of History, Bob Leith explained, “they began putting their estate names after their names so people wouldn’t confuse them.”

Leith said other Carrolls also distinguished themselves. Daniel Carroll, a relative of Charles Carroll, signed the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. His brother, John Carroll, was America’s first Roman Catholic bishop and founded Georgetown University. He also oversaw the construction of the first Catholic cathedral in the colonies.

Charles Carroll came back to America in 1764 and became involved in politics. He was 28 years old. Carroll opposed the British Stamp Act and wrote a series of articles in the Maryland Gazette opposing British taxation without representation under the name “First Citizen.”

He was also vocal in his support of the Boston Tea Party. According to the book “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” by Della Gray Barthelmas, when the second shipment of British tea arrived in Chesapeake Bay, after the now historic incident in Massachusetts, Carroll was asked what he thought should be done. Carroll replied, “Gentlemen, set fire to the vessel and burn her with her cargo to the water’s edge.”

He was one of the representatives from Maryland sent to Philadelphia to approve the Declaration of Independence and although he arrived too late to vote it, he signed it anyway on Aug. 2, 1776.

His signature is just a few below that of John Hancock. Leith said Carroll was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Carroll was 39 years old, a man in the prime of his life with literally everything to lose, including his life and Leith said the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had good reason to fear for their lives.

“When they signed their name on that, it was like signing a warrant for their arrest. Those 56 men were going against the British Empire,” Leith said.

Leith said some of the signers were constantly on the run after they made their historic move; some of their wives and children were captured by the British. Others had their homes confiscated. Of the 56 signers, Leith said 17 suffered catastrophic property loss.

But the desire for independence was clearly more important to him and to the other 55 signers that their own wealth and safety took second place to the good of the colonies that wanted to be a free and separate nation. In his obit, it was recounted how Carroll told a member of the English parliament,

“If we are beaten in the plains we will retreat to our mountains and defy them. Our resources will increase with our difficulties…”

Later years

Leith said while the nation may credit him for his business acumen and his signature on the Declaration of Independence, fellow Marylanders know him as a true champion of their state. Carroll helped fashion the Maryland Constitution. In 1788 he was elected the first U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. He was later elected to the Maryland State Senate.

“He so loved Maryland he preferred to work in state government,” Leith said. Even in his later years, Carroll remained active not only in government but also in business and industry. He was a member of the first board of directors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In the B&O museum in Baltimore, there is a mural that depicts the day the cornerstone of the railroad was laid. There in the photo, his brim hat in place, his hand resting on a spade, was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, by then 91 years of age.

Carroll lived to be 95 in an era when the average man’s life span was four or five decades, not nine. And in his nine decades, he had managed to amass a fortune.

“He started out with 10,000 acres and had 80,000 when he died,” Leith said.

Carroll died Nov. 14, 1932 and even in death, he was notable.

“He was the last surviving signer (of the Declaration of Independence),” Leith said. Carroll’s death merited a lengthy obit in the National Gazette when he passed away.

To honor him, his statue was one of two Marylanders to be placed in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.