- Historic Sites
Maryland Their Maryland
For over a century the colony was the feudal property of the Lords Baltimore. It turned out to be a fee of troubles.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Beneath a picture of dancing Negroes in a Maryland Schoolbook are the words of a song that slaves of the tidewater country sang at Christmas and on other feast days:
Husks, crusts, and skins may well be what Maryland’s school children are reminded of when they turn from this textbook to their geography lesson and study the map of their state. All but impossible to bound, it is a schoolboy’s nightmare, as shapeless as scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
But Maryland is not the assemblage of leftovers from other states that it appears to be; it is, rather, the surviving center of a once much larger area, reduced by a series of amputations and squeezes that began in the year of its founding and continued intermittently into the present century, when the Supreme Court fixed the northwest corner of the state in 1912. In all but the last of these territorial losses Maryland was a victim of the nature of its colonial government, a feudalistic absentee landlordism unique in American history and already archaic at its inception.
That early form of government accounts not only for the shape of Maryland today but also for the fact that much of its history was apart from the main current of American development. Largely because of its landlord’s protests, for example, the colony refused to participate in the French and Indian War; and because of the nature of its charter its road to the Revolution was quite separate from that taken by the other colonies. Until 1851, echoes of Maryland’s seventeenth-century conception of religious tolerance rang through a provision of the state constitution that read, “All persons professing the Christian religion are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty,” thus implying that all others were excluded from such protection. Today in Baltimore a system of “ground rents,” a relic of the original colonial charter, still permits a man to own the land on which another builds his home and to charge the home owner in perpetuity an annual fee therefor.
In colonial times there were indeed other proprietary governments—such as Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Carolina, and Pennsylvania. But those of Ferdinando Gorges in Maine and John Mason in New Hampshire failed soon after they were started; New Jersey and Carolina were the property of several men collectively; and William Penn’s theories of government gave Pennsylvania an early start toward democracy. Maryland alone remained a palatinate from its founding to the outbreak of the Revolution—a territory owned by a single landlord with hereditary rights and authority as absolute as that of any medieval prince. In exchange for his all-but-royal prerogatives, the lord proprietary of Maryland pledged to the Crown of England nothing more than his continued allegiance, one fifth of the colony’s nonexistent gold and silver, and two Indian arrows to be delivered yearly during Easter week at Windsor Castle.
The six men who consecutively owned Maryland for 144 years were—with the exception of the last one—the Lords Baltimore. They derived their title from an estate in County Longford in the north of Ireland, where George Calvert already owned a manor of 2,300 acres when he received the first barony in 1625. Milords pronounced the word Baltimoor , using a flat a, as in palatine, and speaking the last syllable in accordance with its original meaning. Calvert was their family name. There never was a “Lord Calvert,” the trade names of a whisky, a coffee, and a laundry in modern Baltimore notwithstanding.
George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, was born near Kiplin, Yorkshire, about 1580, probably of Flemish ancestry, but he knew Ireland well by the time he became an Irish peer. Early in his public life he was made clerk of the Crown in County Clare and served on two royal commissions to investigate religious discontent in Ireland. It was for these services among many others that James I of England gave him his barony, praising him for his “gravity of manners, singular gifts of mind, candour, integrity, and prudence,” and “benignity and urbanity toward all men.”