America's First Experiment in Toleration
Hartsock, John, Marsden, Gordon, History Today
Like the sudden thunderstorms that can roll swiftly up the Chesapeake Bay in summer, turning the normally tranquil waterway into a storm-tossed sea, an equally intolerant and dark spirit had descended on the hardscrabble tobacco plantations dotting the lush shoreline of that tidewater region some 300 years ago, in what was Lord Baltimore's former palatinate of Maryland.
In 1692, three years after a Protestant revolution had ousted a Catholic government in Maryland, the arrival of a royal governor appointed by William III confirmed its results and effectively spelled the end of the first experiment in England's Thirteen Colonies of the practice of religious toleration as a fundamental principle of civil governance. Three centuries later we can only marvel that the experiment lasted as long as it did.
Lord Baltimore's experiment in religious toleration is worth recalling not only for its novelty. At a time when Americans have just completed observance of the bicentennial of their Bill of Rights, with its guarantee of religious freedom, the events that happened 300 years ago in Maryland are a reminder of the vulnerability of a principle now taken for granted. Considering the religious temper of the seventeenth century, Maryland's social experiment can only elicit admiration for the courage of an enlightened family who for more than half a century practised religious toleration as a guiding principle.
The groundwork for this novel experiment in religious freedom was laid in February 1632 when George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and a former secretary of state to James I, began lobbying the court for a grant creating the colony of Maryland. The request took courage on Calvert's part: as a matter of conscience he had openly avowed his Catholicism in 1625, this at a time when English Catholics were persecuted and proscribed from participation in government affairs. Indeed, going public with his faith precipitated Calvert's resignation as a secretary of state.
That his petition was favourably received by Charles I is remarkable, but is a testament to the regard Calvert commanded in the kingdom for the circumspect and sober-minded service he is credited with having rendered to Charles' father, James I.
George Calvert's ambitions were cut short when he died on April 15th, 1632. Instead, a charter for the colony was granted to his son Cecil, the 2nd Lord Baltimore, on June 20th of that year. The document carved the Maryland colony (named in honour of Charles' queen, Henrietta Maria) from the Virginia grant and nominally called for the establishment of the Church of England as the state church in the new colony. But the ambiguous wording of the charter has left historians speculating that a quiet conspiracy existed between the king and the Calverts effectively giving the ruling Lord Baltimore, designated the colony's |Proprietor', an authority sufficiently independent of the crown to permit English Catholics a refuge where they could worship freely. Legally the new colony was a palatinate, a medieval form of political entity semi-autonomous from the crown.
In November 1633 between 130 and 150 colonists set sail from England aboard the two vessels the Ark and the Dove. Although no precise figures exist on just how many were Catholics, it is clear that the denomination was in the minority and they remained so throughout the history of the early colony. Some historians place their figures at as little as 10 per cent of the population. Cecil's brother, Leonard Calvert, accompanied the settlers as the colony's first governor.
The earliest evidence that the Calverts intended to practice a policy of toleration is contained in Cecil's instructions to his co-religionists |to be silent' on matters of religion in the company of Protestant settlers. In addition, Cecil advised his brother to be |very careful' to preserve unity and peace' between Catholics and Protestants. And he guaranteed Protestants that they would be treated with |mildness and favour.' The implication was clear: Religion was not to play a role in the civil life of the community.
After a three-month passage the settlers landed in Maryland on March 25th, 1634, near where the Potomac River enters the Chesapeake Bay. The new colony was a thickly forested country, with towering trees that a carriage drawn by a team-of-four could drive between, according to the contemporary account of Father Andrew White, a Jesuit priest who accompanied the settlers. Within a few days of arrival, Governor Calvert bought a primitive village from local Yaocomaco Indians and it was here the settlers founded their first shelter. The village was named St Mary's and became the first capital of Maryland. Within two years the Indian shelters would be replaced by primitive clapboard structures.
The colony soon became a haven not only for English Catholics but also persecuted Puritans, Quakers, Anabaptists, Presbyterians and other groups. History is abundant with examples of the broadminded toleration practiced by the Calverts. For example, in 1638 a court found a Catholic overseer guilty of interfering in the worship of two Protestants who worked as indentured servants on the plantation of a Jesuit mission near St Mary's City. The non-clerical overseer had discovered them reading a Protestant religious tract and prohibited them from continuing to do so. What makes the trial and verdict extraordinary is that a Jesuit priest testified against the overseer - his co-religionist - and that the court consisted of Governor Leonard Calvert and two other Catholics. By most accounts Leonard Calvert shared his father's and brother's spirit of toleration.
Nor was it the first time the Calverts had to suppress the zeal of their co-religionists. Early in the colony's history Jesuit missionaries demonstrated an eagerness to establish a firm Catholic presence by creating large plantation missions through direct purchase of land from Indians instead of from the proprietary government. Fearful the activity could jeopardise his proprietorship in the eyes of the home government, Cecil Calvert in 1641 prohibited additional acquisitions.
Religious toleration was perhaps at its most magnanimous when in 1648 Cecil invited 500 persecuted Puritans, a sect not likely to have much sympathy for a Catholic ruler, from nearby Virginia to settle in Maryland. Initially 300 accepted the offer. Calvert then appointed one of their number as his colonial governor to replace Leonard who had died the year before. Most of the group settled sixty-five miles to the north of St Mary's City in what would become Annapolis and the future capital of the colony.
The spirit of toleration extended beyond religion, however. In 1642 at the annual gathering of the Maryland General Assembly, Mathias de Sousa became the first African-American to cast a vote in a colonial legislature. Then in 1647 Margaret Brent, a major landholder who had been appointed by Leonard Calvert on his deathbed to handle his private affairs, voted in the General Assembly on behalf of the proprietary family in what was the first recorded vote of a woman in a colonial legislature. Finally, unlike policies elsewhere in the early colonies, Maryland's Indians had equal rights under Maryland law.
The culmination of the spirit of toleration came in 1649 when the Maryland General Assembly codified what had been official policy since the settlers' landing fifteen years earlier, the first official act of religious toleration in the Thirteen Colonies, the |Act Concerning Religion'.
The work of both Cecil Calvert and the General Assembly under the guidance of Puritan Governor William Stone, the Act not only guaranteed freedom of worship, but prohibited the use of religious epithets such as |papist' and |antinomian'. The punishment for sectarian name-calling was potentially harsh or magnanimous: offenders could chose between a public whipping or a public apology. The Act acknowledged:
The enforcing of conscience in matters
of religion hath frequently fallen out to
be of dangerous consequences in those
commonwealths where it hath been
According to the Act, no Christian would |bee any wais troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof. Even though the |Act Concerning Religion' excluded non-Christians from its guarantees, the tolerant spirit eventually extended to them as well, as Jacob Lumbrozo, a Jewish physician, discovered when in 1658 he was charged with blasphemy for, according to one historian, declaring in public that Christ's resurrection amounted to magicianship. Christian colonists were incensed. Nevertheless, Lord Baltimore dismissed the charges and Lumbrozo eventually attained full citizenship in the colony.
What emerges then is a picture of a family committed, and perhaps eager at any cost, to keep the peace among sects not particularly disposed at the time to forbearance. Not until 1689 did the British Parliament pass, and William III approve, the Toleration Act for Dissenting Protestants, considered the seminal guarantee of religious liberties in England. Pointedly, it excluded Catholics.
To be sure, Maryland did not have a monopoly on religious toleration. Rhode Island under the guidance of Roger Williams is the other notable experiment in religious toleration in England's early North American colonies. In January 1636 Williams fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his dissenting views. He settled in the wilderness that would evolve into the Rhode Island colony where in 1644 he made public his vision of religious toleration.
In Maryland, it was admittedly an imperfect toleration. Notwithstanding Mathias de Sousa's voting in the General Assembly, the Calverts encouraged the introduction of black slaves into the colony. And when Margaret Brent lobbied the General Assembly for the right to vote on her own behalf, her request was denied. That effort has earned her the sobriquet |America's first woman suffragette'.
Nor did Indians always receive equal justice under the law. In a 1637 court case presided over by Leonard Calvert, a white colonist admitted in a signed confession to killing an Indian. Despite the confession, an all-white jury refused to find their fellow colonist guilty because the Indian was a heathen. Governor Calvert refused to accept the jury's verdict and directed it to reconsider. The second time the jury found the white colonist guilty of murder in his own defence. An |infuriated' Calvert, as one historian described him, dismissed the jury and fined its members for returning an unreasonable verdict. Clearly the colonists had displayed their moral double standard. Later, a second jury found the colonist guilty of manslaughter.
But if toleration was imperfect, it was no less so in Rhode Island. Under that colony's first constitution, which was approved in 1664, Catholics were forbidden public worship. And Williams' personal sense of toleration had its limits. His impulse to establish religious toleration in Rhode Island was based more on a desire to protect his own dissenting Puritan views from the state. Finally, after Rhode Island was well established, he engaged in a public and acrimonious debate with Quakers, reviling the sect and lumping them together with Catholics as guilty of |spitting and belching out fire from one fire of Hell'.
Yet if imperfect from a twentieth-century perspective, the toleration practiced in Maryland - as well as in Rhode Island - is still remarkable considering the age. In 1650, Maryland's Protestant Governor Stone, his Protestant councillors and burgesses, and thirty-eight Protestant freemen, signed and sent a |Protestant Declaration' to the Cromwellian Parliament in which they defended the Calvert administration and declared that they had complete |freedom and liberty in the exercises of our religion'.
Bearing in mind the religious climate of the time, what then inspired the magnanimous toleration of the Calvert family? Was it simply that they, like Roger Williams, had tasted the bitterness of religious persecution? After all, George Calvert had had to resign his position at court having revealed his faith, and there is reason to believe that Cecil never matriculated at Oxford because of his Catholicism.
Some historians have belittled the Calvert contribution to religious toleration. As recently as 1986, the toleration in Maryland was described as only |grudging', the result of |force of circumstance'. The Calverts, the argument goes, were forced by necessity to attract settlers regardless of faith if the colony was to prove viable.
And then there is the matter of the medieval palatine authority granted the Calverts, cited as evidence that they were hardly democrats. Calvert defenders counter that the stipulation in the colony's charter calling on the proprietor to rule with the |advice, assent and approbation' of the colony's freeman provided the basis for what became the annual meeting of the Maryland General Assembly.
There is reason to believe that the Calverts' encouragement of toleration was more than just pragmatic. First, there is evidence that the family was strongly influenced by the humanist spirit of the age. Not the least of those influences was Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia was a treatise about a perfect society where every man might be of what religion he pleased'. One of the chief advisers to the Calverts was Father Henry More, a Jesuit priest and the great-grandson of Thomas More.
Whatever the direct influence of the martyr's views on the Calverts, beyond it was the intellectual spirit of the time that they as educated men were likely to be familiar with. Even though Europeans engaged in bloody religious persecutions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, there were still voices of moderation in both Catholic and Protestant camps, not the least of whom was Erasmus. A friend and correspondent of Thomas More, he openly condemned religious persecution by his Catholic church while refusing to break with it.
On the Protestant side, men of moderation such as Sebastian Castellio (who was strongly influenced by Erasmus) openly opposed punishment of heretics. In what has been called |the sixteenth century's most courageous and most noble plea for tolerance' Castellio protested when dissenter Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 by John Calvin.
The devastation of the Thirty Years' War could only make toleration more attractive and we see its almost simultaneous expression in Maryland and Rhode Island.
But it is recent archeological discoveries at the first colonial capital of St. Mary's City that provide some of the most compelling evidence that the Calverts were social visionaries and not merely venture capitalists. In 1986 archeologists found evidence that the town was designed according to Italian baroque urban planning principles in the shape of a pair of outstretched wings. At the end of one wing stood the State House, while at the end of the second wing, exactly half a mile away, stood a Catholic church. Precisely in the middle lay the town square. The governor's house, the seat of everyday civil administration, overlooked the square, the place of everyday civil affairs.
The physical separation of the church and State House in such a plan represented an attempt at separation of church and state, concludes archeologist Henry Miller, research director at the site. |The importance is not so much that St Mary's City was planned,' he says. |Rather, it shows an interest in attempting to develop a new kind of society. |Economic pragmatists', he adds, |do not go to the trouble of planning cities'.
It is one of those disquieting historic ironies then that religious intolerance extinguished the first experiment in religious freedom in English North America. In the 1680s an extreme Protestant faction chafed away the proprietary rule of the very family that had provided them safe haven, in part because that family was Catholic.
The 1689 rebellion that lead to the downfall of the Calvert government was not the first uprising by disaffected Protestants. They had instigated several throughout the history of the early colony. Among them, a Protestant supporter of Parliament, one Richard Ingle, attacked St Mary's City in 1645 in one of the few instances - and probably the most violent - of the English Civil War reaching across the Atlantic to Britain's North American colonies. This was followed by a temporary takeover of the colony's government by Protestants in the early 1650s. The Calverts reasserted their authority but they were to lose the colony again in 1689.
The 1689 rebellion has been called, variously, the Maryland Revolution, the Glorious Revolution in Maryland, and Coode's Rebellion, the latter in honour of one of its leaders, John Coode, a sometime Anglican clergyman. It was, on the face of it, an extension of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England which saw the Catholic James II ousted. But unlike the event in the mother country which is celebrated as one of the watersheds in the development of individual liberties in the English-speaking world, the Maryland event took a darker turn.
When William of Orange ascended the throne, Charles Calvert, who succeeded as Lord Baltimore on his Father Cecil's death in 1675, sent an emissary to Maryland directing the colony to swear allegiance to the new king. (Ironically, Cecil Calvert never visited his colony despite his strong guiding hand.) The emissary died en route and Charles was not notified of his death. Thus Maryland colonists never received official notice of their proprietor's charge. When word of the royal change reached Maryland from other colonies, Protestant hot-heads interpreted Charles Calvert's silence as an act of disloyalty to William. The group, nominally lead by Coode, organised themselves as the |Protestant Association'. Besides accusing Calvert of disloyalty, they charged in a declaration that the Catholic family had not adequately provided for the establishment of the Church of England in the colony.
They had other longstanding grievances as well. Although Charles Calvert remained firmly committed to a policy of religious toleration, he did not seem to possess the wisdom and circumspection of his father, Cecil, and uncle, Leonard. Among his sins in the eyes of the Protestants was that he packed the upper chamber of the General Assembly with relatives and friends, and had appointed a governor, William Joseph, who was widely regarded as arrogant.
Also, under the terms of the colony's charter settlers paid a feudal quit rent to the Calverts for the land they built on and farmed, instead of owning the land outright and paying a property tax. The feudal nature of the legal arrangement suggested that the colonists were something less than freemen and property owners.…
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Publication information: Article title: America's First Experiment in Toleration. Contributors: Hartsock, John - Author, Marsden, Gordon - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 43. Publication date: January 1993. Page number: 22+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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