Newsletter of
The Maryland State Archives
Why a Green Bag? 

When Constance R. Beims, Governor Harry Hughes' appointment secretary, entered the Senate Chamber on February 19, 1984, green leather bag in hand, she was following a venerable Maryland tradition. Article II, sec. 13, of the Maryland Constitution, first adopted in 1851, provides that "All civil officers, nominated by the governor and subject to confirmation by the Senate, shall be nominated to the Senate within forty days from the commencement of each regular session of the
Legislature...." Each February, by the 40th day of the session, the names of the individuals nominated to a variety of state and county offices are delivered to the Senate for confirmation. But why in a green bag? 

Nearly fifty years ago, on March 26, 1935, the Evening Sun reported that although the "combined resources of the Enoch Pratt Library and half a dozen private information agencies were thrown into the search, the origin of the term 'green bag,' used so frequently recently in referring to Governor Nice's political appointees, remains almost as much a deep, dark secret as ever." One knowledgeable Baltimore politician contends green is the color of money and the patronage appointments in the green bag are an effective way to reward the governor's supporters. Others seek a historical explanation and argue the term derives from President Andrew
Jackson's practice of presenting official documents to Congress in a green-colored cover, or folder. But the tradition has a history apparently unique to Maryland. 

In an effort to resolve the matter in 1983, Lynne MacAdam and Jane McWilliams of the  Legislative History Project team scoured sources ranging from histories of seventeenth-century English theater to nineteenth-century Baltimore machine politics, from crumbling files of newspaper 'morgues' to rough drafts of appointments found in two centuries of Governor's papers at the Archives. 

Not surprisingly, they discovered "green bag" has English roots. In England, a green bag can be found behind the Speaker's chair in the House of Commons where public petitions to the House are placed. From at least the late seventeenth century, "green bag" was synonymous with "lawyer." British barristers and solicitors once carried briefs and documents in bags made of green cloth. By 1889 there was a prestigious American legal journal published in Boston called The Green Bag, which described itself as "A Monthly Illustrated Magazine Covering the Higher and Lighter Literature Pertaining to the Law." 

Another less complimentary, and perhaps more common meaning of "green bag," however, implied devious legal practices. In Wycherley's Plain Dealer (1677), a lawyer is unkindly characterized as "You Green Bag Carrier, you Murderer of unfortunate Causes, the Clerks Ink is scarce off your fingers." By the nineteenth century, "green bag" was firmly established in America as a term that referred to lawyers. But in Maryland the term referred as well to political appointments. 

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The Archivists' Bulldog

The Archivists' Bulldog 
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Green Bag (continued from Page 2)

If "green bag" was newspaper jargon, a popular catch phrase succinctly labeling the most public and dramatic phase of the patronage system, then it would not be surprising to find that there never was, at least in the early history of its use in Maryland, an actual "green bag," in which nominations, either mayoral or gubernatorial, were delivered for announcement and confirmation. The only nineteenth century reference to a real "green bag" appears in the Annapolis Evening Capital of February 18, 1888, where Mayor Latrobe of Baltimore was said to have "emptied his green bag in the City Council Chamber yesterday [with] great rejoicing among the local appointees...," but the story was probably intended to be satirical and did not literally mean "green bag." 

In 1935, when the Pratt Library and other agencies tried unsuccessfully to determine the origin of "green bag" there was no discussion of any actual bag. Interviews with former Secretaries of State and others involved in the appointment process indicate that there probably was no real green bag as late as the 1940s. Possibly Governor McKeldin's newly-appointed Secretary of State, John R. Reeves, was the first to actually use a green bag. 

In 1951, Reeves was assigned the task of delivering the Governor's appointments to the Senate, but he could not find the green bag supposedly last used, according to one newspaper, "years ago." Undeterred, Secretary Reeves made a new one. He refused the offer from one of Governor McKeldin's "female secretaries" to fashion one of green velvet because it would be too "audacious." Instead he stripped the upholstery off an office chair and made his own. 

By 1951, time had blurred the distinction between a journalistic catch phrase and physical reality. With Reeves' chair-cover green bag, Maryland's long political tradition of delivering gubernatorial appointments to 

Atlas (continued from  Page 3)

In  his remarks, Ed talked about the history of map making in Maryland, beginning with John Smith's expedition to map the Chesapeake in 1608.  He finished his remarks with this observation: "the dilemma of the mapmaker is not unlike that of the modern legislature. There is too much information and not enough time or resources to map out a course of action in sufficient detail to overcome all the obstacles that present themselves in today's world. 

"If there is a lesson in this book, it is that the most successful maps are those that are the simplest in design, those that do not attempt to crowd too much detail into the delivery of their message, yet provide a broad overview and paths to understand and to follow. 

"May your efforts over the remainder of the 90 days lead to a map for Maryland's future that is as graceful and accurate as John Smith's, one that gives leadership and direction for the future, and avoids shutting out the light."