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Published by EH.NET (January 2001)

Ronald Hoffman (in collaboration with Sally D. Mason), Princes of Ireland,

Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500-1782. Chapel Hill, NC:

University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xxvi + 429 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN

0-8078-2556-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Evan Haefeli, Department of History, Princeton

University.

This meticulous reconstruction of the rise of the Carroll family fortune has

the material elements of a great Jane Austen novel. But Ronald Hoffman, the

Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and

professor of history at the College of William and Mary, and Sally D. Mason,

the associate editor of the Charles Carroll of Carrollton Papers, are sober

scholars, unwilling to reach far beyond the evidence (primarily the rich

correspondence and accounts of the Carroll patriarchs). They keep their story

tightly focused on the efforts of several generations of Carrolls to

accumulate and preserve what was, by the time of the Revolution, one of the

great North American fortunes. Their story has the stuff of sensationalism:

fierce and proud Irish Jacobites defying the irresistible winds of Whiggish

change; a vast fortune built on the brutal exploitation of other humans as

slaves; a planter living out of wedlock with the mother of his son; an

opium-addicted wife; a flirtatious husband and (as befits the Chesapeake) a

regular round of morbidity. But the scandals and controversy do not overwhelm

this Carroll saga anymore than it did the Carrolls themselves.

The book ably reconstructs the business and political aspirations of three

generations of Carroll men named Charles: “The Settler,” “Papa,” and

“Charley.” The Settler was an unreconstructed Jacobite who fled to Maryland in

the dark days following the Glorious Revolution. Because of his unrelenting

adherence to the Catholic religion, his son was deprived of the active social

and political life he had once known. Instead, Papa focused obsessively and

quite successfully on maximizing the economic opportunities available to a

wealthy Chesapeake planter in order to pass on to his son, Charley, the

greatest possible estate. Charley, educated in France and England, returned to

Maryland full of Whiggish political ideas and Enlightenment philosophy.

Neither prompted him to give up his Catholic beliefs, which the Carrolls had

stubbornly clung to for centuries. But both equipped him to take on a leading

role in challenging British Imperial rule as a Maryland Senator and signer of

the Declaration of Independence (the only Catholic one to boot).

Given Catholicism’s powerful role in Carroll family history, it seems almost

ironic that Charley’s revolutionary activism had nothing to do with the

religion of his ancestors. The Carrolls, like all other Maryland Catholics,

had been excluded from the halls of power ever since Maryland’s proprietors

disavowed Catholics and Catholicism in the early eighteenth century. But the

extraordinary circumstances of the revolution rendered their religion

irrelevant if not a downright asset for negotiating with French allies. Highly

sympathetic to the Carrolls’ perspective, the bulk of the book thus confines

itself to the world as they knew it: tending their fields, marketing their

tobacco, lending money, investing in an ironworks, and passing on the legacy

to the next heir. The Carrolls’ marginal status led Papa to develop a

planter’s Platonic ideal: a self-sufficient system of interlocking plantations

and investment projects designed to generate profit from a diversity of

sources while providing insulation from the vagaries of markets and politics.

He succeeded admirably. One walks away from the book with much the same

impression as John Adams, when he first met Charley at the First Continental

Congress in Philadelphia in 1774: “a very sensible Gentleman, a Roman

catholic, and of the first Fortune in America” (p. 353).

There is more to this story than the steady and determined growth of the

Carroll family fortune. The author dissects the long and passionate

relationship between Papa and Charley with a perceptive analysis of its

psychological dynamics. Their roles as employers of overseers, as landlords

over tenants, as slaveholders and as husbands all receive attention. The

Carroll case illustrates the easy compatibility of diverse forms of

exploitation in colonial America. Slaves, indentured artisans, and tenants are

shown to coexist quite efficiently under the stern eye of their Carroll

masters. But therein lies the limitation of this expansive book. It reproduces

the Carroll point of view so effectively that merchants, tenants, slaves,

wives, ironworkers, overseers, even the American Revolution appear primarily

as threats to or challenges for the Carroll estate. One could imagine using

the Carrolls as a unique device (as disenfranchised but successful planters)

for getting at a broader context, of the Atlantic system, for example. But

that is not what the book sets out to do. In scope impressive, in depth

astounding, A Carroll Family Saga is an exemplary study of an ancient

preoccupation: the preservation of family and fortune in the face of

adversity.

Evan Haefeli is a Lecturer in Princeton University’s History Department. His

dissertation is a study of the politics of religious toleration in the middle

colonies.