A trip to Washington, D.C., especially around the time of Independence Day, is always a good way to get the history juices flowing. It’s also a good way to get story ideas if you’re an editor or reporter looking for a new angle to this annual holiday.
Walking around the nation’s capitol is also a reminder of how much religious faith and this nation’s founding are connected, in terms of personalities and big themes. God is everywhere in this country’s past and the monuments that populate this wonderful city are a reminder of it.
One statue that many often ignore or neglect to focus on is that of Charles Carroll located in the National Statuary Hall collection. Not only is his life an excuse to cover July 4th through a new lens, but also gives readers the chance to learn about our country’s religious origins.
Who was Carroll? It’s a question not too many people have asked, in recent decades. It is one that editors and reporters should be flocking to cover. If anything, it would allow for news coverage to get away from the standard tropes that include fireworks, grilling recipes and mattress sales. Carroll was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and its longest-living signer. That alone would be reason enough to focus some of the coverage on this man, especially in Maryland media — in the state where he lived and died.
Crux did a wonderful feature in 2016 on Carroll, complete with tons of history and interviews with experts who studied Carroll’s life. This is how the piece opens:
On July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — one of the most amazing coincidences in U.S. history unfolded. On that day, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s author, and John Adams, perhaps its greatest advocate, died within hours of each other.
David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams tells the poignant story of how the two patriots he called “the pen” and “the voice” of the Declaration, who had helped forge liberty in their new nation later became bitter political rivals but in their old age corresponded as friends.
But their rivalry even extended to their dying moments, as McCullough noted that Adams on his deathbed in Massachusetts whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Yet earlier that afternoon, Jefferson had died in Virginia.
And then there was one.
The deaths of those two Founding Fathers left just Charles Carroll of Carrollton — the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence — as the sole survivor of the 56 men who had boldly added their signatures to the charter dated July 4, 1776, and the Marylander used that national spotlight to promote religious freedom, which he said was a central message of the new nation’s founding document.
“I am now the last surviving signer,” Carroll wrote on Aug. 2, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the date when he signed the Declaration.
This is the type of journalism that should be championed, especially when editors order up pieces tied to an annual holiday. Being original is the key to such coverage. Without a specific news peg — say the erecting of a statue, or three days, the taking down of one — there needs to be some creativity at work here.
Are there other “religion angles” to covering July 4th? A simple Google search or a look through the online archives of major newspapers may yield an answer to what has already been done.
Another place to look is by walking around D.C, like I did, and stumbling by Carroll’s statue and plugging his name into my phone. At a time when journalism has become a sedentary, online activity — largely a result of smaller newsrooms and relying too much on the Internet — exploring can go a long way.
Another important piece here is your contact list. There should be historians on it.
When I first started out as a reporter at the New York Post, I made sure to have the phone number of every borough historian at my fingertips. Even a place as modern and dynamic as New York City has plenty of history. The city’s five historians — one representing Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx — are there to add context.
You don’t think history matters when doing journalism? Consider the recent case in San Francisco, where the school board voted to destroy a mural of George Washington by Russian immigrant Victor Arnautoff.
Why? The murals aren’t woke enough for our current times. It depicts Washington’s slaves picking cotton and a group of colonizers walking over the corpse of a Native American.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times this past Sunday, columnist Bari Weiss described as “progressive Puritans” the members of the school board. She writes, “In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.”
The board, in an Orwellian move, plans to spend $600,000 to paint over the mural, which was painted by Arnautoff, a noted Communist by the way, in the 1930s. Weiss goes on to point out:
Such appeals to reason and history failed to sway the school board. On Tuesday, it dismissed the option to pull an Ashcroft and simply cover the murals, instead voting unanimously to paint them over.
One of the commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” Thus he wanted “the murals to be painted down.” Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, later told me that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost, he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”
The backdrop to all this is how we look at our past.
Pride in the U.S. has hit its lowest point since Gallup started asking about it in 2001, according to a poll released this week, with less half of adults surveyed now saying they’re “extremely” proud to be Americans. At the same time, Nike nixed a new sneaker featuring a “Betsy Ross” flag after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, famous for taking a knee during the national anthem, expressed displeasure. He argued that the country’s first flag, featuring 13 stars, was a symbol of racism. These are all stories that may not necessarily involve religion, but they do need historical context.
These cases are all reasons why journalists need to cover stories that involve history. Issues of great importance to communities of faith — including abortion, immigration and religious freedom — need to include historical references and experts. This takes me to my next point. Does your city, town, village or county have a historian? It’s likely that they do. There’s no reason why a trip to your local library — a vital resource to any journalist starting out in a new place — can’t yield such answers. Even if there isn’t an official historian on the government payroll, a local university or college is often the other place to look for one.
That Carroll was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence isn’t news. After all, it’s not “new.” But it is something that few people know and a great way to find a new angle to an old story this week.
Editorial/op-ed pages are a good place to look, as Weiss’ piece illustrates. A look through the Baltimore Sun’s past editions reveals a 2016 editorial on Carroll. In it, the newspaper says the following:
Carroll's silence on matters of politics would change in 1773 when a feud between the Carrolls and Dulanys, a family of Protestants who held various government posts, would explode onto the pages of the Maryland Gazette. The issue was one that roils the public to this day: the salaries of public officials, which many in the public believed were too high. The old schedule of fees officials were allowed to charge for performing their duties expired in 1770, and the House of Delegates passed legislation lowering them, among other reforms. Governor Eden disagreed, and when the legislature was out of session, he unilaterally restored them to the higher levels.
The editorial concludes with this nugget:
Much would be heard of Carroll. After the revolution, he was instrumental in developing Maryland's first constitution and the state's Declaration of Rights. He was elected president of the state Senate and would serve as one of Maryland's first two U.S. senators. He would eventually even lay the cornerstone for the B&O railroad. Considered frail as a boy and young man, he proved as remarkably robust in health as he was in his contributions to his state. Carroll would live to the age of 95, the last remaining signer of the Declaration of Independence.
As you can see, lots of information to digest here. There are also lots of story leads to follow.
History is a wonderful way to see where we have been as a country. It’s also a great way to see where we may be going. Independence Day is an excuse to not only look at our country’s political past, but religious one as well. Historians, professors, researchers and librarians are there to help. Journalists should make sure they enlist it each time a major holiday rolls around.