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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

A Daring American Success Story

Written by Barbara Geehan

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George Calvert

When children across the country make paper turkeys from their handprints at Thanksgiving, or study the tribulations of John Smith and Pocahontas at Williamsburg, Virginia, or visit the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they rarely are told the remarkable story of the founding of St. Mary's City here in Southern Maryland. Thus, they are missing the revolutionary account of the birth of religious freedom in the United States.

Why is this so? Why aren't founders George, Cecil, and Leonard Calvert up there with other American heroes like rebels Roger Williams and Nathaniel Bacon? "Roger Williams and William Penn are credited with the very same things that the Calverts did, and yet chronologically the Calverts were first," says John Krugler, professor of history at Marquette University, a former member of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, and a much-published expert on the Calvert family. "Their efforts have either been played down and undervalued or, in some cases, completely ignored."

This spot, where the Ark and the Dove brought intrepid English colonists in 1634, is not just the first home of Maryland's capital and the birth of the separation of church and state. It also was first among the English colonies to allow a Catholic chapel and to permit a person of African descent to participate in the Assembly. And the first woman petitioned for the right to vote.

Krugler points to several reasons why this "ungracious silence" - quoting founding father James Wilson who decried the lack of recognition accorded to the Calverts - has happened, and explains why it is time to rewrite the history books. He attributes it to a lack of records left by the Calverts, confusion over their motives, and a strong anti-Catholic sentiment that has lasted almost to present day may have influenced historians and archaeologists alike.

In the 1620s, English entrepreneur George Calvert began to seek sites for colonial development in the New World. Having reconverted to Catholicism, his childhood religion, the newly designated baron of Baltimore and his family and a group of Catholic and Protestant colonists set out for Newfoundland in 1628. For a variety of reasons - the long winter, a naval war with the French, and religious discord - he turned his attention in the fall of 1629 to the warmer climate of the Chesapeake area.

George died before his colony was started, but his sons established a colonial capital called St. Mary's City in Maryland, named for the king's Catholic wife. In order to gain the needed numbers, the Calverts risked colonizing with a religiously diverse population. In an effort to implement their father's goals, Cecil and Leonard Calvert instituted a visionary policy that allowed people of varied faiths to worship according to the dictates of their conscience and without interference from civil authorities.

After a rough start - it took more than 25 years to stabilize the enterprise - St. Mary's prospered as it moved to an economy based on small tobacco plantations. Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, lacked the skills and sensitivities of his grandfather and father. His policies exacerbated growing political and religious animosities both at home and in England, and in 1689 a group of Protestant Associators grasped control of the colony. They moved the capital in 1695 to Annapolis, a Protestant stronghold, and began systematically to strip Catholics of their civil and religious rights. When the sheriff of St. Mary's County padlocked the door of the Catholic chapel in 1704 (see related story), the Calverts' bold experiment to create a colony where liberty of conscience and freedom of worship flourished came to an end. St. Mary's City "sank back into the soil...and by the time of the American Revolution, little of (it) was left but memories of its former importance," according to the colony's museum, Historic St. Mary's City.

Fortunately, St. Mary's was saved by the plow. There was little development over the years except for farming; so when interest in the first capital grew in the 1930s, archaeologists found the area relatively undisturbed. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark since 1969, it is arguably the best-preserved founding site of a 17th-century English colony in North America.

So why does it tend to be overlooked in history books?

As Catholics in an anti-Catholic England, the Calverts, says Krugler, had to live somewhat in the shadows. This is why they did not write extensively about their support of religious freedom or on why they made the decisions they did.

"The so-called 1620 pilgrims of Plymouth captured the public imagination," Krugler tells us. "The English who came to New England - the Puritans who became Yankees - prospered and over the course of the next two centuries spread into the Ohio Valley and to the Midwest. They carried their ancestors' stories - stories that became part of our national lore."

In Maryland, climate, carelessness, and courthouse fires eliminated most of the few important records. Without these records, historians and scholars debate the Calverts' intentions. Should they be credited with the revolutionary innovation of religious freedom, or were they purely capitalists in it to line their pockets?

Krugler says that of course the Calverts colonized for economic reasons. "But this should not be seen as a negative. Yes, they were fiercely capitalistic, and their colony needed to be a viable economic enterprise." Furthermore, George Calvert was deeply English, and after 1624 a committed Catholic who wanted to spread his King's dominions.

But as Catholics, he and his sons were not going to establish a colony that implemented the penal laws and oppressed their co-religionists. How do you enjoy religious freedom under an English law that virtually outlaws Catholics? The Calverts decided to extend religious freedom to all who joined them in the colonial enterprise. Religious beliefs were a private matter, outside scrutiny of the government.

"The Calverts were too far ahead of their times. George realized that to have a peaceful community you must remove religion as a divisive factor. That is a very modern principle, even today," says Krugler.

Krugler also noted that Protestants and their stories dominated until well into the 20th century. Catholic stories remained largely in the shadows and not as well known. "It is a fairly safe assertion that until the 1960s when JFK ran for president, bringing the anti-Catholic biases into the open, Americans were generally hostile to Catholics," he explains. "Certainly Americans are more receptive to Catholic stories today than they were half a century ago.

"Perhaps the most prominent reason for the lack of attention to the Calverts stems from the fact that the bold experiment initiated by the Calverts failed to sustain itself. By the time of our struggle for independence (1776), when national consciousness began, the Calvert plan had been overthrown for almost a century. The founding generation did not know of it and did not look to the 17th century for precedents. Later historians tended to focus on the founding generation - Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison. Until very recently, the ‘ungracious silence' noted by Wilson persisted."

Krugler summarizes: "The Calverts should be recognized for their daring and innovative planning under very difficult circumstances. When all the various pieces of the planning are seen does the brilliance of this family's story emerge. The Calverts should be seen as an American success story. They should have a place in the pantheon of American heroes."