Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)


William Preston Lane, Jr.
MSA SC 3520-1483

Governor of Maryland 1947-1951

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 279-283.

"The end of World War II found Maryland in the midst of a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity.  At the same time, the State had a backlog of urgent needs resulting from its curtailment of certain services during the war years, together with its failure and inability to keep pace with increasing demands for new public works projects, educational improvements and fiscal reform.  As Governor, William Preston Lane, Jr. had to provide the leadership to initiate, complete and finance all these projects which he felt the State needed and deserved.  Although the achievements of his administration loom large, he was defeated for re-election in 1950 because of an unpopular sales tax, and he left office a much-maligned man.

"William Preston Lane, Jr. was born on May 12, 1892 in Hagerstown, the son of Colonel William P. and Virginia Lee (Cartwright) Lane.  He was a direct descendent of early settlers of Washington County as well as several of the pioneer families of Southern Maryland, including the Maddoxes and the Claggetts.

"Lane attended the public schools of Hagerstown and then graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree of Bachelor of Laws in 1915.  He was admitted to the Maryland Bar the following year, and joined the law firm of Keedy and Lane.  He later became associated with the firm of Lane, Bushong and Byron of Hagerstown, but he interrupted his professional career in 1916, when as Captain of the Maryland National Guard he served in the Mexican Border Campaign.  During World War I, he served as Captain with the 115th Infantry where he saw service in France, especially during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.  He received the Silver Star for gallantry in action at Bois-des-Consevoye, when as Regimental Adjutant, he voluntarily assisted in the passage of ambulances over a road which had been partially destroyed by enemy fire.  Under his direction, many wounded men were evacuated to hospitals under intense enemy machine gun and artillery fire.  Shortly after the Armistice, Lane was promoted to Major and became Assistant Adjutant of the 29th Infantry Division.

[p. 280]  "After his return to civilian life, Lane once again resumed his law practice.  He entered politics by becoming the Democratic candidate for State's Attorney of Washington County in 1919, but in this he was unsuccessful, losing by about five hundred votes.  He became active in business, and in 1922, he assumed the presidency of the Herald-Mail-Company, which published two Hagerstown newspapers.

"Governor Lane married Dorothy Byron of Hagerstown on January 17, 1922.  They had two daughters, Dorothy, who married Worthington Campbell, Jr. and Jean, who married S. Scott Campbell.

"In 1930, Lane was elected Attorney General of Maryland, primarily as the result of the friendship he had formed in the 1919 campaign with Albert C. Ritchie.  Thomas H. Robinson had been originally nominated as the Democratic party candidate in the primary election of September 8, 1930, but he died on October 12th of that year, so the Democratic State Central Committee subsequently filled the vacancy by nominating Lane.  He defeated his Republican opponent David A Robb by approximately 84,000 votes.

"Lane's administration as Attorney General was marked by his legal work in bank receiverships, enforcement of the blue sky law, and liquor control investigation.  As the State's chief legal officer, Lane came in for his share of criticism during the investigation of the lynching episode on the Eastern Shore in 1933.  George Armwood, a Negro, had been arrested for raping a white woman in Somerset County, and had been taken to the Princess Anne jail, where in spite of police efforts, he was removed by a mob, hanged, and burned.  As Attorney General, Lane took charge of the investigation which followed.  Local officials had refused to take action to apprehend those who had participated in the lynching, so Governor Ritchie called out the militia to help the State Police to do so.  Mob violence then broke out on the Eastern Shore, with the result that the State Police made some arrests and took the suspects to the Salisbury jail.  The mob and the militia then engaged in a pitched battle.  Those who had been arrested were taken to the Baltimore City Jail, but they were later returned to Princess Anne where they were cleared because of insufficient evidence. This action did nothing to enhance Lane's reputation on the Eastern Shore.

"As Attorney General, Lane was also instrumental in pleading two important cases before the United States Supreme Court.  In the case of The Susquehanna Power Company v. The State Tax Commission of Maryland, which he won in 1932, Lane argued that the assessment of submerged lands was arbitrary and a denial of equal protection under law.  In the same year, he won a favorable decision in the case in which the State declared it had concurrent jurisdiction in lands in Dorchester County which the Federal government was trying to use under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act.  Lane argued successfully that the State had the right to tax the non-Federal use of the property which had been condemned.

"When his term ended in 1934, Lane did not seek re-election.  In that [p.281] year, Democratic Party leaders felt that Albert C. Ritchie should step down as Governor, but Ritchie refused.  To help Ritchie's cause, Lane stepped aside, feeling that he would be a liability to his party because of his own association with the 'military expedition to the Eastern Shore,' through no fault of his own.  Lane would have to bide his time until his next political opportunity came twelve years later.

"In 1946, Herbert R. O'Conor retired after two terms as Governor.  Lane entered the race for the gubernatorial nomination, but he had to wage an uphill battle to do so.  In the primary election, he face H. Streett Baldwin, a Baltimore County political leader, and Comptroller of the Treasury, J. Millard Tawes.  Although Lane polled less votes than Tawes and Baldwin combined, he captured the unit vote to win the nomination easily.  In the general election which followed, the Democrats avoided a party split, so Lane defeated his Republican opponent, Theodore R. McKeldin, Mayor of Baltimore, by a comfortable margin.

"Governor Lane began his term five days early, or on January 3, 1947, when the Legislature selected him to be Herbert O'Conor's successor.  O'Conor had been elected to a seat in the United States Senate, therefore, it was necessary for him to resign as Governor before the expiration of his term, so that he could take his seat in the Senate.  Lane was inaugurated for O'Conor's unexpired term on the day of his election, and for the full four-year term on January 8 of the same year.  In his inaugural address, Lane pledged his administration to greater financial support for education, additional hospital facilities, expanded efforts in the field of mental hygiene, improved welfare programs, and better conservation practices.  He pointed out that the accumulated wartime surpluses were coming to an end, and in order to carry out the recommendations made by the Sherbow Commission, the State had to find new sources of revenue.  In his message of February 19, 1947, he bluntly announced to the Legislature that 'the levying of additional taxes is never a pleasant task....We must jointly decide whether we want these services enough to pay for them in additional taxes."1  For that purpose, the General Assembly of 1947 enacted the sales tax for the express purpose of providing the necessary funds to support public school construction, teacher salary increases, better hospital facilities, and additional funds for distribution to the local governments within the State.  Lane felt, and wisely so, that the people would not accept any additional form of direct taxation, so the sales tax became the medium, although an unpopular one, for the financing of all these improvements.  This tax, more than anything else, contributed to Lane's defeat in 1950.  When he left office in January, 1951, he defended the action he had taken in initiating the sales tax.  'The revenue from the sales tax,' he pointed out with pride, 'was the foundation upon which were built all of the improvements ... and the program for more than doubling the State's financial assistance to Baltimore, the counties and other municipalities.'2

[p. 282]  "During the Lane administration, the Maryland road system had to be rehabilitated because all highway construction and rebuilding had to be deferred because of the war.  To carry out this program, Governor Lane requested the State Roads Commission to prepare a Master Plan of highway system construction, a program which would take twelve years to carry out and would result in the introduction of expressways into the State.  As a part of this Plan, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (later renamed for Governor Lane) long an unrealized dream, would be finally translated into reality, although it would not be completed until after Governor Lane had left office.

"In 1949, because of the revelations about the care of the mentally ill which had been published in a Baltimore newspaper, the General Assembly established the Department of Mental Hygiene.  This new department was given full control over the problems of relating to mental illness, with the result that the program improved the administration of these hospitals.  When Lane left office Maryland's mental hospitals ranked among the best in the nation.

"Lane had to face the problems of financing a school construction program to meet the needs for more classroom space and increasing the salaries of the State's public school teachers.  Because of the school construction ban during the war years, these needs were critical.  As the result of this program, schools were enabled to operated under more qualified teachers, better facilities, and more money under which to operate.  The program was also expanded to consider the needs of adults, veterans, child study, and vocational guidance.  By 1951, the standard of public education in Maryland had been raised measurably.

"Public education received a boost with the development of the concept of the junior or community college in Maryland.  This was necessary because of the burgeoning rate of college-age students, the vast influx of returning servicemen and the overcrowding of existing facilities.

"In 1950, because of a Constitutional amendment, the General Assembly began to meet annually instead of biennially.  In the even-numbered years that body held thirty-day sessions, while it continued its regular agenda in the long sessions.  During this short session, it could consider only budgetary matters, emergency and State-wide legislation, and those which involved the general welfare.  It could not consider local legislation in these short sessions, an arrangement which continued until 1965.

"Lane was also responsible for the beginning of a State construction program in Annapolis.  During his administration, expensive repairs had to be made to the State House.  Lane was particularly proud of this reconstruction since both the historic building and its dome had not been adequately preserved.  The Old Treasury Building on the State House grounds was also restored and rededicated.

"In the primary election of September 18, 1950, Lane face opposition from George P. Mahoney, a perennial office-seeker.  Lane won the election [p. 283] by carrying sixteen counties and one district in Baltimore City to capture the unit vote although Mahoney gained a majority in the popular vote.  Even though he had been renominated by his party, the people expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the Lane administration because of the imposition of the sales tax and the disastrous party primary.  His challenger, popular Theodore R. McKeldin, whom Lane had defeated in 1946, capitalized on all this public resentment against Lane with its [sic] slogan 'pennies for Lane' and irreconcilable Democratic party differences to defeat Lane in the general election of November 7, 1950, by a majority of over 93,000 votes, one of the largest majorities ever given to a candidate up to that time, and the largest majority given to a Republican gubernatorial candidate.

"When his term ended on January 10, 1951, with pride in his accomplishments Lane returned to his home in Hagerstown where he remained active in many different fields.  For many years, he served as the Democratic National Committeeman as well as a strong influence behind the scenes in his party.  He became a member of the board of the Fairchild Hiller Corporation, a missile plant located in Hagerstown, the chairman of the board of the Herald Mail Newspaper Company, and the executive chairman of the Hagerstown Trust Company, one of the leading financial institutions in Western Maryland.  In 1960, he became the head of an industrial and economic foundation designed to improve the economy of the Washington County area.  In 1965, Governor Tawes appointed him the honorary chairman of the Constitutional Convention Commission which laid the groundwork for the 1967-1968 Constitutional Convention.

"Governor and Mrs. Lane made their home in Hagerstown until his very sudden and unexpected death on February 7, 1967.  After services at the St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church in that city, he was buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery.

"'Maryland,' commented The Evening Sun, 'will remember William Preston Lane as one of its ablest leaders and honor him for the foresight, political valor and 'marked devotion to duty' by which its people richly benefited.  A great deal that citizens now take for granted, a great part of the foundation upon which we now build was his work.  Although he failed of re-election in 1950, chiefly because the effects of his long-range vision were obscured by small-minded exploitation of the sales tax, his achievements remained to testify to his statesmanlike administration.'"3

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