There was one solitary Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence: Charles Carroll. He arrived too late to Philadelphia to participate in the preparation of the document, or to vote to ratify it; nonetheless he was permitted to contribute his consent to the final product.
What a privilege! you might think. Such a signal moment in the development of the new nation! One for the history books! You will dine out on this for the rest of your life! Who would not jump at the chance? As it turns out, the Founding Fathers saw it with a bit more nuance. They realized that in committing to signing the Declaration of Independence, they were putting their names to a formal act of rebellion. Should the forces of King George III lay hold of them, they would be liable for the proper penalty: death.
Because of that, one of the other members of that august body complained that with a name as common as Charles Carroll’s, he was risking nothing, since if circumstances turned against their endeavor, he might disappear into the mists of a multitude.
Mr. Carroll wasted no time in clarifying his personal commitment: he leapt up, took the pen a second time, and modified his signature to read: Charles Carroll of Carrollton. This removed all doubt as to his unique identity and responsibility.
Often on national holidays we recall the cost of our freedom, paid in the lives sacrificed for her protection. However, at the same time we fail to call to mind the risk that our nation required, especially of those Founding Fathers and all who strove with them. Is it possible that her continuance require risk of us who are her citizens?
As we in our nation move toward another vote, Charles Carroll’s willingness to take a personal risk to obtain a political good draws my attention. In these days when one can obtain insurance for almost anything, what risks are we taking, not only corporately as a nation, but also individually?
Do any of our prospective leaders demonstrate a willingness to take personal risk, like Charles Carroll did? Or are they only offering “power” (or the illusion of it) to the people who embrace them? Do they assure their prospective supporters that all will be set right simply by “taking back” what has been wrongly obtained by some anonymous, amorphous someone “else” – the so-called “wealthy” or the ever-threatening foreigner?
I am always nervous when someone promises to make the “wealthy” pay what is needed for this or that. This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. By historical standards, we are all the “wealthy;” almost nobody is immune to that appellation. The only one who seems to be exempt from having to pay is the one advocating the program. Who, if anyone, bears the burden of risk for their politics? Who, if anyone, is risking more of himself personally than of the nation corporately?
Into a conversation oversaturated with mutually opposed assertions of rights, perhaps we need inject this question of risk. We all value our freedom, but has it become a freedom from responsibility? Ask a candidate for anything: by what measure do you claim to lead us? What, if anything, are you risking for the common good, for our good? Or will you fade back into privileged security when time comes to pay the costs of your failed endeavors?
To focus the mind of the delegates preparing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin reminded them, We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. On this day when we are so grateful that they did, we should be just as mindful that we must.