American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll
By Bradley J. Birzer
ISI, 230 pages, $25
Bradley Birzer’s new book, American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, suggests that Hillsdale College realized their hopes in making Birzer the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies; it is hard to imagine a work more scrupulously faithful to Kirk’s spirit.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the toponymn distinguishes him from his father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis) is well worth remembering, remarkable equally for his longevity, wealth, learning, eloquence, public service, private virtue, and firm and pious Catholicism. And not just worth remembering: Birzer rightly presents Carroll as the proper object of deep interest and admiration.
Birzer loses no opportunity to remind us that the aristocratic republicanism that moved Carroll to support the American Revolution did not stem from a radically innovative modern idealism. Rather, it represented a refinement of the Western tradition of republican theory and practice, a tradition that—although stretching over thousands of years, countless circumstances and cultures, and including Greeks, Romans, Goths, Christians, Jews, Pagans, Protestants, and Catholics—formed an organic unity. Carroll, we are told more than once, spent most of his intellectual life in the company of the Greats, whose words shaped his expression and whose insights shaped his mind. Furthermore, although Carroll was unusually fluent in the work of the great figures of the West, his grounding in and continued reliance on classical authors did not make him exceptional among the Founders.
American Cicero, then, seems to have a decidedly Kirkian objective: to provide evidence in the life and opinions of Charles Carroll that the American Revolution was not very revolutionary. That is to say, the Founders, far from intending to destroy an established order and build a utopia on the basis of elevated abstractions, were “conservatives” rooted in history and tradition. Those who think rejecting Wilsonian idealism means betraying the Founders would do well to take note.