- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005


By John D. Krugler

Johns Hopkins, $46,

319 pages



Today’s pious pundits and politicians notwithstanding, the history of America’s founding was not a seamless procession of events driven by wise gentry and hearty yeomen yearning to be free. In fact there were more false starts than sprints between the first stabs at settlement in the early 1500s and the ratification of our Constitution in 1788.

Witness Maryland, founded in 1634, the first English colony to allow a black to vote, the first to consider woman’s suffrage, the first to separate church from state, and the first anywhere to grant its citizens religious liberty.

These simplistic data conceal faceted realities, as “English and Catholic, The Lords Baltimore in the Seventeenth Century” makes clear. For example, Maryland’s noble experiment in religious toleration failed and the Lords Baltimore — that is, the Calvert dynasty — lost out in 1689.

As the author John D. Krugler reflects the complexity of history and weighs the magnitude of the Calverts’ brief triumph, he sets some records straight. Indeed, he gets no further than page three before exposing “the Catholic as victim” myth, the notion that a body of repressive laws drove the Calverts to establish a colony primarily as a haven for their fellow Catholics. Another school saw them “as colonial entrepreneurs who acted … primarily for [their own] economic gain.”

As usual, the truth is more complex than the canards, also more interesting and relevant to our day. While it is true that Catholics were persecuted in England, it is also true that many continued to practice their faith after they “conformed” to the rubrics of the Church of England. A few, George Calvert among them, prospered and rose to prominence and influence despite their religion.

At a time when a man’s politics and church were virtually inseparable, Calvert proved otherwise, namely “that English and Catholic were not mutually exclusive loyalties and that Catholics could act in the best interests of the English nation … . Pride in England was not the exclusive domain of Protestants.”

Calvert became King James I’s confidante, an effective operator in London and able emissary abroad. Having served as Privy Councilor and Secretary of State, when he left the court he was named first Baron of Baltimore and continued to advance England’s interests (with his own), notably by planting his first colony, Avalon in Newfoundland.

After a wretched winter defeated that effort — and almost killed him in the bargain — Calvert adapted his ambitions to a better climate. King Charles I now granted him a royal charter for a proprietary colony to be named for the king’s consort. As proprietor he would have nearly regal powers in Maryland; the Lords Baltimore would hold their land “by fealty,” pledging neither military service nor substantial rent, just “two Indian Arrowes of those parts” to be delivered to Windsor each Tuesday before Easter.

George Calvert died before the Arc and Dove sailed, yet Cecil and Leonard Calvert proved to be their father’s sons in political savvy and practical talents. Continuing his balancing act, they persisted in proving their loyalty to England, disarming attacks by rivals and competitors, fending off Virginians whose turf Maryland had expropriated, and recruiting gentlemen planters who could buy their way into the colonial adventure along with the artisans and bondsmen needed to populate a colony.

Notably and now famously, the Calverts’ “Maryland designe” called for religious tolerance, a fact that is celebrated today by Historic St. Mary’s City, the state museum located on the site of Maryland’s first capital. (Full disclosure: I served on that museum’s governing board, as author Krugler does now.)

By separating civil authority from church authority — that is, by not investing any one faith — the Calverts made religion a private matter. They did this for practical reasons as well as spiritual, philosophical and selfish ones. For starters, not enough Catholics volunteered to colonize Maryland. Besides, because establishing a Catholic colony was out of the question, they as Catholics could worship openly only if there were no established church.

The shortage of volunteers forced the Calverts to recruit people of diverse persuasions: Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, and presumably atheists. As Mr. Krugler writes, this “placed a premium on keeping religious strife from destroying the enterprise.” A sectarian hodgepodge, the colony grew and generally prospered as Cecil dealt deftly with authorities in London and Virginia, addressing problems that ranged from petty disputes to the Civil War in England, Cromwell and the Restoration of the monarchy.

Perhaps Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, lacked talent or perhaps new problems were less amenable to solution. Perhaps the success of Maryland Catholics incited jealous Protestants. In any case, “Deeply seated anti-Catholic sentiments, fears of popish plots, and the inept leadership of the proprietary family converged in 1689. That summer another band of discontented Marylanders under the pretense of religion rebelled… [and] toppled the Calvert enterprise.”

In England, the new monarchs William and Mary, “both stalwart Protestants,” eventually ratified the rebels’ armed takeover and cancelled the proprietary charter.

Mr. Krugler writes, “The appointment of a Protestant royal governor closed the book on religious freedom in Maryland.” Thus, by 1692 the legislative assembly of the colony that Catholics founded had embraced the Church of England. Thus, the government that became the first to guarantee one of our “four freedoms” had done so during a perilous undertaking for a web of reasons involving politics, economics, necessity, idealism and willingness to accommodate.

Then, less than three score years later and in a period of relative security, a successor government annulled that hallmark of democracy and instituted new laws of religious conformity. An associate professor at Marquette University, Mr. Krugler argues his points persuasively if dryly, and with the copious annotation required of a scholar.

His is a book of nuanced if repetitive arguments, as one might expect of a professional historian. This is not easy reading, but that in no way reduces its value for Americans curious about the ways that orthodoxy can quash dissent and a homogeneous authority vanquish diversity.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc. is the author of a prehistory of North America and of an authoritative history of Colonial Williamsburg.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide