America's First Experiment in Toleration

By Hartsock, John; Marsden, Gordon | History Today, January 1993 | Go to article overview

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. …

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