.- The founding of the United States by mostly Protestant Enlightenment-educated thinkers was subtly influenced by Catholic political thought, claims Scott McDermott of Vanderbilt University.
While colonial leaders did not consciously draw on Catholic political thought, "it is fair to say that they unwittingly reinvented the medieval ideas of popular sovereignty and the natural law tradition, and that they also structured their new governments in a way consistent with Catholic political thought," said McDermott during a recent conference at the University of Dallas.
In fact, McDermott claims that the only Catholic to sign the Declaration, Charles Carroll, brought this Catholic influence to the table, reported the University of Dallas news bulletin.
Since Catholic education was illegal in his home state of Maryland, Carroll received a Catholic education in France from the Jesuits, who influenced Carroll’s political thought in their teaching that man had a right to resist tyranny, McDermott pointed out.
Before the Reformation, people understood common law to be based on natural law, McDermott explained. St. Thomas taught that if a law “conflicts with the law of nature it will no longer be law but rather a perversion of law.” As well, St. Thomas taught that when a ruler becomes a tyrant and forces his citizens to act contrary to natural law sovereignty reverts to the people who must delegate a new sovereign.
Carroll returned to the United States and entered politics after participating in a 1773 newspaper debate on common law, arguing that one must look beyond it to the "clear and fundamental" principles of the English constitution.
His arguments got him noticed by John Adams, who identified Carroll as part of the pre-revolutionary "mental revolution", during which colonists began to assert their natural rights as human beings rather than as Englishmen.
"The culmination of the American rediscovery of natural law and natural rights is, of course, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, with its appeal to the ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,’ and its listing of the self-evident natural rights to justify resistance to tyranny," McDermott was quoted as saying.
In 1776, Carroll sent a letter to John Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin, Fr. John Carroll and Samuel Chase, highlighting the need for independence.
Back in Maryland, when Carroll wrote the state’s declaration, he drew on Catholic corporatism, maintained the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, and appealed to God for the declaration's truth, McDermott said.
McDermott added that Carroll's election to congress on July 4, 1776 also helped convince the body politic that Catholics could be patriots, too.
"The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God, still inscribed in our republican institutions, and still clearly legible on American hearts is the best earthly inheritance our ancestors left us," he was quoted as saying.