Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Without Morals A Republic Cannot Subsist Any Length of Time

Sunday, July 3, AD 2011



And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

                                           George Washington, Farewell Address

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as he signed his name when he added his signature to the Declaration of Independence, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  When he died at the age of 95, he was the last of the Signers to depart this vale of tears.

The scion of perhaps the richest family in the colonies, Charles Carroll was initially uninterested in politics and, in any case, was debarred by his religion from participating in politics in his native Maryland by his religion.  However, in his thirties he became a passionate advocate of American independence from Great Britain and quickly became one of the chief leaders of the Patriot cause in his home colony.  It was only natural as a result that he was sent to Congress, in spite of his religion, where he was one of the chief spokesmen for independence and happily placed his signature on the Declaration even though by doing so he risked not only his fortune but his life if the British had prevailed.  By the end of 1776 the revolutionary government of Maryland had issued an act of religious freedom, and Carroll and his fellow Catholics in Maryland enjoyed the same civil rights as Protestants.

In 1778 he returned to Maryland and helped draft the state constitution and in setting up the new state government, serving in the State Senate until 1800, and briefly in the United States Senate.

A slaveholder, throughout his career Carroll spoke and wrote of slavery as an evil that must come to an end as soon as possible.  He attempted, but failed, to have Maryland implement a plan of gradual emancipation.  At the age of 91 he took on the task of being president of the Auxiliary State Colonization Society of Maryland, part of  a national movement to have free blacks voluntarily colonize what would become Liberia in Africa.

Something of a Renaissance man, he had a strong interest in science and in his nineties helped set up the B&O Railroad, lending his prestige to this new technology in his native Maryland.

Throughout his life his two main passions were the American Revolution and his Faith.   Like most of the Founding Fathers he regarded the idea of political liberty divorced from sound morality, derived from religion, as an absurdity.  He set forth his ideas on this subject in a letter to Secretary of War James McHenry in 1800 in which he lamented the then current American political scene:

These events will be hastened by the pretended philosophy of France; divine revelation has been scoffed at by the Philosophers of the present day, the immortality of the soul treated as the dreams of fools, or the invention of knaves, & death has been declared by public authority an eternal sleep; these opinions are gaining ground amongst us & silently saping the foundations of religion & encouragement of good, the terror of evildoers and the consolation of the poor, the miserable, and the distressed. Remove the hope & dread of future reward & punishment, the most powerful restraint on wicked action, & ye strongest inducement to virtuous ones is done away. Virtue, it may be said, is its own reward; I believe it to be so, and even in this life the only source of happiness, and this intimate & necessary connection between virtue & happiness here, & between vice & misery, is to my mind one of the surest pledge of happiness or misery in a future state of existence. But how few practice virtue merely for its own reward? Some of happy dispositon & temperament, calm reflecting men, exempt in a great degree from the turbulance of passions may be virtuous for vitrtue’s sake. Small however is the number who are guided by reason alone, & who can always subject their passions to its dictates. He can thust act may be said to be virtuous, but reason is often inlisted on the side of the passions, or at best, when most wanted, is weakest. Hence the necessity of a superior motive for acting virtuously; Now, what motive can be stronger than ye belief, founded on revelation, that a virtuous life will be rewarded by a happy immortality? Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore, who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, & insures to the good eternal happiness are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free government.

Carroll didn’t think much of John Adams as President, but Adams had precisely the same views on this subject as he stated in an address on October 11, 1798 to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the militia of Massachusetts:  “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Most of the Founding Fathers left similar sentiments in their writings.  Something to ponder as we celebrate the Fourth tomorrow.  Here is the full text of the letter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton to James McHenry: 

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14 Responses to Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Without Morals A Republic Cannot Subsist Any Length of Time

  • Chesterton said morality consists in drawing the line somewhere. The problem in America is that the line keeps moving. And, Don, your old pal Thoreau said, “Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.”

    Does one need to have religion to be moral? An old question that defies an answer. As the resident troll, let me aver that as an agnostic or an atheist can still know the difference between right and wrong.

    Enjoy the holiday!

  • The basis of all morality Joe is religion. Without that basis one merely has opinion which does sway with the times. A great Fourth to you Joe!

  • ‘The basis of all morality Joe is religion.’

    Don, the defense will stipulate if the prosecution will stipulate that the definition of ‘religion’ is open to interpretation.

  • Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
    Priest: “No, not if you did not know.”
    Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?”

  • Oh there have been many religions Joe. Today the two main schools of thought tend to be that they are equally true or equally false. I of course adhere to the belief that Catholicism is true with elements of that truth contained in some other religions.

    Western man, particularly in Europe, is living off the capital of Christianity when it comes to a common moral code. As that capital wanes over time, so does the common moral code. Winston Churchill, a believer in God but probably not a Christian, once said that something was as impossible as a law legalizing sodomy. We see in regard to homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia and contraception how quickly morality shifts once the religious basis of a moral code fades away. That is also why Europeans, most of them, have such a difficult time standing up to challenges from Islamic immigrants to what were once thought to be bedrock Western ideas such as tolerance, freedom of speech, etc. Quite a few people are willing to die in defense of something that they view as eternally true; very few over a difference of opinion that might cause them to risk physical harm.

  • Albert Camus, as conflicted a man as there ever was, considered himself an atheist but wrote: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t and die to find out there is.”

    So it’s always good to leave oneself a little spirtual wiggle room. 😆

  • Pascal’s wager in modern dress. A shame that such a promising work in progress as Camus came to an untimely end in a car crash.

  • One can safely say that a society that abandons its religion-based moral code often loses its civilized state. Compare the French, American, and Russian Revolutions. The US was the only country to emerge healthier. The other two descended into chaos. So, on the macro level, I think that Carroll is right.

    What about the micro level – can individuals be moral without religion? Well, that depends what you mean by “moral”. If you’re referring to objective standards, well, some people without religion deny that objective standards exist. Those people may act morally, but it’d be difficult to say that they are moral. As for those who deny religion but claim that morality consists of objective standards, how are we to judge their actions? By our shared standards, by those that they hold that we don’t, or by those that we hold but they don’t?

    Take a simple case – non-religious people commit a sin every Sunday that they don’t go to church. If we criticize them for it, we’re judging ther actions on our standards. If we accept their standards in assessing their morality, we lose the ability to judge a murderer’s actions by our code. And lest this seem like a trivial matter, recall that Aquinas found religion to be connected to justice, a natural virtue. Natural law and human experience tell us that it is morally good to recognize and worship the divine to the extent that you understand it. So on this basis one can argue that the irreligious are immoral.

    Just a first crack at the question.

  • Don – I’m hoping that this thread hasn’t dried up. I read this article this morning, and I haven’t been able to shake this particular sentence all day:

    If our country should continue to be the sport of parties, if the mass of the people should be exasperated & roused to pillage the more wealthy, social order will be subverted, anarchy will follow, succeeded by despotism; these changes have in that order of succession taken place in France.

    Do you know what he means? I can imagine he’s thinking about the overthrow of property rights in France, but he seems to be implying that he sees the parties of his day pushing in the same direction. The idea that a Founder was worried about pillaging of the wealthy intrigues me, given what we’ve seen in the US since the Great Society. Any insight you can provide would be most welcome.

  • Pinky, Federalists like Carroll were concerned that the followers of Mr. Jefferson would replicate in America the French Revolution. Their concerns were overblown on that score to say the least, although the vitriol of some Jefferson’s fiercer acolytes in the press gave adequate reasons for the fear of the Federalists.

    When demagogues decide to engage in class warfare rantings there is always the possibility that liberty will be diminished by the use of governmental power to seize private wealth and bring it under government control. The Communist states of the last century were the prime examples of what disasters resulted from these policies. I do not fear such an outcome in this nation. What I do fear, and what I think is coming to pass, is that the use of deficit spending to pay government benefits by churning the money out of thin air, is having a devastating impact on the ability of our economy to be productive. This simply cannot go on much longer, and whenever the benefits cease or are greatly devalued, I would not bet against significant civil unrest.

  • What I do fear, and what I think is coming to pass, is that the use of deficit spending to pay government benefits by churning the money out of thin air,

    Although there has been some currency erosion, the resources have not been ‘churned out of the air’ but borrowed from other components of the public and (since 1982 or therabouts) from the sovereign wealth funds and such in the Far East (where income routinely exceeds consumption).

    Congress and the President have been for months playing chicken games which may lead to either a sovereign default or to a government shut down far more consequential than we have seen to date. All of this is in the service of public posturing, gamesmanship, and certain idees fixes. Morals figures into this in the deficit of civic virtue amongst our political class, sometimes manifest quite brazenly and sometimes intermediated through a tendency to see reality as optional.

  • “churned out of the air’ but borrowed from other components of the public and (since 1982 or therabouts) from the sovereign wealth funds and such in the Far East (where income routinely exceeds consumption).”

    And which we have little expectation of paying Art in the absence of a severe bout of inflation lasting years, or currency devaluation. This is all heading towards debt repudiation although I am certain that a prettier term will be used to conceal the reality.

  • The ratio of public debt to domestic product has been as high as 119% in living memory. Were the debt to rise to 90% of domestic product (as it is expected to ‘ere too many years), service charges given common and garden interest rates on Treasury securities might be 4% of domestic product. (IIRC, service charges during the Reagan Administration were as high as 3.2% of domestic product). Devoting around 1% of domestic product to debt retirement would allow the serviced debt of 90% of domestic product domestic product to be liquidated within four decades. (Given normal growth rates of nominal domestic product). We can service and retire this debt, but it would require concerted action to balance our books over the next four or five years and a general policy of running small surpluses over the course of the business cycle for decades thereafter. ‘Tis possible, but ’tis not what our (federal) politicians are the least inclined to do (and Obama, Reid, and Boehner are alike in this regard).