When representatives of the British colonies signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have joked “we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” But despite the humor, the threat was real. Signing the declaration could easily be treated as an act of treason punishable by death. At the very least, every signer of the declaration risked having everything they owned confiscated by the British crown.
And no one had more to lose on that front than Charles Carroll of Carrolton. One of the wealthiest men in America at the time, Carroll made no secret of his leanings toward independence, though he risked his estate and the safety of his family in doing so. His gamble paid off, and he lived to a ripe old age. (He is best known to modern Americans for his presumably fictional appearance in the movie National Treasure as the old guy in the carriage who passes along the secret of the Templars.)
Charles Carroll also lived to see his three eldest granddaughters effectively mortgage their family fortunes so they could travel to England and attach themselves to the British aristocracy. What the “Dollar Princesses” were reviled for doing during the Victorian era, the Carroll granddaughters–Marianne, Bess, and Louisa–accomplished with finesse during the Regency period decades earlier.
Turning in his Grave
When I first learned the story of the Carroll granddaughters, I was visiting the B&O Railroad Museum of all places. My first thought was that if their patriot grandfather could only see what they were doing with his money, he would be rolling in his grave.
I was embarrassingly wrong. First, Charles Carroll was very much alive at the time they raised funds for the trip to England in 1816. While he might possibly have rolled in his bed, the grave was not in his future for another 16 years.
Moreover, he supported the trip, because he used his own agents to provide letters of credit and helped secure introductions for the girls abroad.
One Night at Almack’s
Soon after their arrival in London, Marianne, Bess, and Louisa were invited to dine with the Wellesely-Pole family, which included the Duke of Wellington. Moreover, after dinner, they accompanied this distinguished family to the famed Almack’s Assembly Rooms for the Wednesday ball. This venue was the place for all-important matchmaking among the aristocracy. Arriving in distinguished company after having had the honor of dining with such important people essentially secured their entrance into top British society.
Marianne—the only one of the three who was married—captured a great deal of attention for her beauty and due to the fact that the Duke of Wellington accompanied her for so much of the evening.
They danced and met all the right people until nearly 3 a.m.
Conceding Defeat or Conquering the British Again?
After that night, the three became the toast of London society. Less than a year later, Louisa married a baronet, Sir Felton Bathurst-Hervey. Not long after when her American husband passed away, Marianne married a marquess, Richard Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Bess traveled in society and speculated in the British stock market, making a fortune and turning down numerous marriage offers before finally deciding to settle down with the 8th Baron Stafford in 1836.
Was this their acknowledgement of the superiority of the British and their society? The girl’s were entranced by Europe and despite pleading by their parents and younger sister, they had no desire to return to the United States. It might seem like the American struggles for independence were useless in their eyes.
On the other hand, when the Carroll granddaughters married their titled husbands, they all took steps to secure their individual fortunes from the debts held by their husbands’ estates. They made investments and demonstrated financial acuity that many English heiresses found demeaning and unladylike. By keeping their fortunes while still acquiring those coveted titles, the girls could be said to conquer British society on their own terms.
Much of the information in this article comes from Jehanne Wake’s Sisters of Fortune (Simon & Shuster, 2010) and Charles Carroll of Carrollton: The Making of a Revolutionary Gentleman by Thomas O’Brien Hanley (Loyola University Press, 1982)
I will explore the girls’ opinions of Almack’s and other aspects of English society in a future post.
If you enjoy reading stories about Regency men and women making questionable matches and behaving unwisely in general, you might enjoy my Wayward Regency Romances, which tend to focus more on humor than on romance. In A Certain Want of Reason, for instance, Lord Edmund Rutherford embarks on a very foolish plan that involves pretending to be a dog.