Books detail the young life of a Founding Father

Editor helped compile nearly 7,000 letters from early years of Charles Carroll of Carrollton


Tucked away on a bookshelf in Eleanor Darcy's home is a three-volume set of books about Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

The collection of books comprises correspondence between Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Carroll County's namesake, and his father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis.

The letters detail the life of the Maryland family during the 18th century.

Though there are nearly 700 letters published in the set, Darcy is familiar with all of them -- and the explanatory footnotes -- because she spent more than 25 years helping to research and edit the collection.

"It was always a fascinating project," said Darcy, a Westminster resident and associate editor of the collection. "It took me to Ireland a couple of times, and France and England. I've done research in a lot of foreign libraries."

Howard County and state officials are trying to find ways to preserve 892 acres of Doughoregan Manor, the 300-year-old estate of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. A 30-year historic easement on the land is set to expire next year.

Darcy said she got involved with her research project after her son went to college. Ronald Hoffman, the collection's editor, and Sally Mason, associate editor, were looking for someone to help prepare the letters for publication.

The American Historical Association recently recognized the three editors by presenting them with the 2005 J. Franklin Jameson Award. The award is given every five years to recognize a work of a scholarly historical nature for achievement in the editing of historical sources.

"It is the one award that recognizes the really intellectual rigor of documentary editing," said Hoffman, who is now the director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Virginia. He said editing documents is demanding and requires different skills from those needed to write a book.

The letters included in the set, which was published in 2001, begin when Carroll was a 10-year-old boy attending school in France and continue until his father's death in 1782.

"We tried to pick the more interesting letters," Darcy said.

The topics discussed in some of the letters are described by the book's lengthy title, Dear Papa, Dear Charley: The Peregrinations of a Revolutionary Aristocrat, as Told by Charles Carroll of Carrollton and His Father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, with Sundry Observations on Bastardy, Child-Rearing, Romance, Matrimony, Commerce, Tobacco, Slavery, and the Politics of Revolutionary America.

"There's all these letters he wrote as a small boy, and as he became older and better able to write letters, there's much discussion about the Seven Years War," Darcy said.

Hoffman said the Carroll letters are distinctive because they are an extensive collection of personal letters, unlike the generally official correspondence that exists from other early leaders.

"They are the most valuable personal papers we have for Maryland's history," Hoffman said. "They're unique for Maryland, and they are unique for the entire history of the early republic because they are so deeply intimate."

The Maryland Historical Society has been in possession of the letters since they were turned over by one of Carroll's granddaughters, said Hoffman, who is also a history professor at the College of William and Mary.

"The letters reveal not only the national and international currents and development in Maryland, but also chart the important personal history of this family. There's nothing else like it," Hoffman said.

Darcy said the first step in compiling the book was transcribing the letters.

"We had Xerox copies, and I typed them up. Then we set to work researching things," Darcy said.

A footnote was added whenever a letter referenced something that needed an explanation. Sometimes that just involved looking at a map, but at other times extensive research was necessary, Darcy said.

"It can be very frustrating at times if you can't find what you are looking for," Darcy said. "Sometimes months later, you will come upon the answer when you are looking at something else."

The work was tedious because the letters had to be reproduced exactly the way they were written, Darcy said.

"Because [the letters] were handwritten, there was always problems with them," Darcy said. "There were things you couldn't read or maybe the letter got wet and the ink blurred or maybe if the paper wasn't good, the ink bled right through it."

Darcy said she remembers spending time trying to double-check the name of an officer in the Revolutionary War.

"Finally, I went back to the original letter and realized that it was ... R. Lee, but [the name] looked like a B because the ink had bled through," Darcy said.

"You have to set up a system for dealing with these things and making it very clear to the reader where something is not in the printed page because we could not read it or because it was torn," Darcy said. "We proofread these things ... I don't know how many times."

Darcy said she knew little about the life of Charles Carroll or about the editing process when she got involved with the project.

"We learned as we went along," she said.

Hoffman said the editors also used the letters to reconstruct the genealogical framework of the estimated 400 slaves who lived and worked on the Carrolls' property. "We were able to see who were the matriarchs of [the 12 family lines] and how they descended down through time," he said.

With the help of a larger staff, Hoffman and Mason are working on another three-volume set of letters that detail the second half of Carroll's life, from the time of his father's death until his death, as the last surviving signer of the Declaration.

Dubbed with the working title, A Patriarch in the Early Republic: The Papers of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, 1782-1832, the second group of letters is primarily family correspondence between Carroll and his son, daughters and granddaughters, Hoffman said.

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