Remarks on the occasion of the 300th Anniversary of the
Commencement of Justice in Prince George's County, April 23, 1996
When Tim Maloney and Judge Sothoron asked me to be the keynote speaker this morning, I had no idea what a daunting task it would be.
In the first place, I fall between some of the best known public speakers in the state who were bound to have good material of their own on the county's history which I knew I should avoid duplicating at all costs. In the second place, there have been a number of excellent historians who have written about the History of Prince George's County lately. You only have to visit the Internet and the WEB Site for the three hundredth anniversary and click on the history section to find that Alan Virta has written a fine essay on the county's past. Indeed my good friends Burt Kummerow, George Calcott, Peggy Calcott, Shirley Baltz, and John Walton have put together a splendid documentary which you may have seen on Maryland Public Television. They take us on a wonderful visual and narrative journey through the county's past. It is so good it deserves to be in every school in the county and viewed by all the school children at least once a year. How, I asked myself, could I hope to do any better?
Finally, it is always dangerous to assume the mantle of principal speaker at any event. Who remembers what Edward Everett said in his two hour oration at Gettysburg? Yet some of us still can recite the three minutes of the other fellow.
This morning I will try to take my lead from the other fellow, and confine myself to about fifteen minutes by addressing the significance of the day, and the importance of the place where this county officially began 300 years ago.
My working title is What's in a Name? Why Should We Remember?
Choosing a name for the county in 1695 was probably not very difficult. The heir to the throne of England was Anne, the last of the Stuarts. She had married Prince George of Denmark, and it was only a matter of time before she would be crowned queen. Governor Nicholson had already chosen to honor her by calling the new capital of the province Annapolis. It was only fitting and quite politically shrewd to name the newest county after her husband.
Choosing April 23rd as the day on which the county would begin its government is not difficult to understand either. Saint's days were always used to mark special occasions. The first Lord Baltimore was married on St. Cecilia's Day and his son dispatched the first colonists to Maryland on the same day in 1632. Choosing St. George's Day in 1696 as the day on which to commence the first session of the Prince George's County Court was politically astute as well. Saint George was a 3rd century A.D. Christian martyr known for his power to slay dragons and who, since the time of King Edward III, was also the patron saint of England.
Designating a county seat for the new county was probably not so easy and took a considerable amount of political maneuvering. Hidden in that choice, I believe, is a special story that tells us much about the early history of Maryland, and the lengths to which names were used to make a point, and, perhaps, even play a joke, albeit a small and quiet one, on the governor and the crown.
In today's world places are not named as thoughtfully or with as much meaning as they were three hundred years ago. Just a casual review of Louise Joyner Hienton's tract map in her book Prince George's Heritage reveals the first settlers calling their lands:
Mount Calvert was a logical choice for a county seat. It was centrally located in relation to the homes of the approximately 2000 residents whose lands formerly lay about equally in the counties of Charles and Calvert from which Prince George's was created. But choosing a property once owned by the late Philip Calvert, Chancellor of Maryland and uncle of the then Lord Baltimore, is as much symbolic of a break with the past as it was geographically sound. Philip Calvert's dream of Maryland was a world of a growing metropolis centered at St. Mary's City. Throughout his life he resisted diluting power by creating more counties and increasing the size of the General Assembly, just as he resisted moving the capital away from St. Mary's City. For nearly thirty years, from 1668 until 1695, only one new county, Cecil County, was created and that was to honor the second Lord Baltimore, Philip's brother, Cecil Calvert, in 1674. In 1696 Mt. Calvert was a geographically sound choice, but the name referred to a man whose whole career seemed opposite to the goals of the new county. The name had to go.
When that first court met here on April 23, 1696, possibly in a tavern or a private dwelling on or near this site, the justices immediately got down to the business at hand. In those days there was no clear separation of judicial and administrative functions. Justices admitted attorneys, interpreted the laws, and constituted the civil authority in the county.
For those who think that justice in the colonial period only extended to the rich, they will find a different story in the records of the first day of Prince George's County Court. In 1696, a majority of the adult population were immigrants, many of whom came to the county as indentured servants, working out their passage or paying for their crimes at home in England by serving as laborers for five or seven years. Clearly Thomas Simmons did not like being an indentured servant and was prone to run away, but instead of following the law and bringing his servant into court for punishment, his master, Thomas Kinniston, chose to extend Simmons' indenture on his own, as punishment, selling him to someone else for the time he had run away. It proved to be a classic case of buyer beware. Simmons was set free by the court on the grounds that Kinniston did not follow the law,but instead took the law into his own hands.
In this very first case before the Prince George's County Court on April 23, 1696, the court asserted a basic principle of government and justice which it would repeat over and over again: for a community to grow and prosper, citizens must live within the framework of the law, not outside it.
Economic development was high on the list of priorities that day as well. Once the Simmons case had been heard and a decision rendered, the court turned to establishing an administrative structure for collecting the taxes and overseeing the roads. The county was divided up into hundreds, a geographical area similar to the tax districts of today, and then constables to keep the peace, press masters to find the labor, and overseers to attend to the roads were appointed.
To ensure the proper punishment would be at hand when needed, the court also ordered that Sheriff Greenfield "do cause to be erected a cage, pillory, whiping post and stocks according to his discretion at or before June Court Next year."
Punishment was a clear responsibility of the court, although it would not be within the purview of the County Court to handle the more serious crimes such as witchcraft. I wonder how many of the justices that day felt the slightest tinge of uneasiness knowing that eleven years before at Mt. Calvert, Rebecca Fowler "having not the feare of God before her eyes, but being led by the instigation of the Divell certain evill & dyabolicall Artes called witchcrafts inchantments charmes & sorceryes wickedly divelishly and feloniously at Mount Calvert ... & several other places ... did use practice & exercise in upon & against one Francis Sandsbury & Several others ... and their bodyes were very much the worse, consumed, pined & lamed ...."
The evidence must have been overwhelming. On the 9th day of October, 1685, a mere eleven years before the justices of Prince George's County met here, Rebecca Fowler was hanged as a Witch.
While no witches were tried this day in April, 1696, or any other subsequent day for that matter, the days to come would be filled with bringing law and order to an unruly world. Indeed it was the court's lot to keep even commerce honest. It would not be too long before each county would have its own set of weights and measures to be certain that the taverns dispensed honest pints and store keepers sold full measures of goods.
The work of the Court kept the clerk busy. Possibly even too busy. The first clerk, William Cooper, died after only four months in office. His wake was no mean affair and provides us with a glimpse of what life was like when the court was in session. The farewell party cost nearly four times the price of the coffin, and included 11 pints of brandy, 10 1/2 gallons of cider, 10 gallons of boiled cider with spirits, and what was deemed 'the trouble of the house.' The wake was held at one of the two inns in town, that of Charles Tracy (the other was owned by William Groome), where undoubtedly the justices stayed while court was in session. Where the court was held until the new church and courthouse was built in 1697, is not known for certain, although by August of 1696, it appears that they were meeting in the "Old Church, " the Anglican Church at Mt. Calvert, called St. Paul's Church, the Parish Church of St. Paul's Parish, one of the few Anglican churches known to exist in Maryland as early as 1692.
Attending court must have been a festive occasion. Not only would you learn all the gossip, you could watch the court cope with what at times seemed like a rising tide of bastardy and requests for county relief, the social welfare rolls of their day.
A few years later, one governor lamented that it "was too difficult a Taske for me to graft good manners on so barren a stock." To him county justices "often favor one the other, and would have all things under their jurisdiction and administration, tho they are ... meanly qualified for the trust and had not even the command of the language or learning to make proper charges to the jury. He went so far as to make a proclamation against vice and immorality to be read in court before the grand juries were charged, to what effect, we are not certain.
On that very first day the court met, the justices inexplicably did something else to the bafflement of future historians, if not their contemporaries.
As if an afterthought as their last action of the day before adjourning until the fourth Tuesday in June, they ordered "that this place called Mount Calvert Doe for the Future goe by the name of Charles Town." Why the sudden change? Why no longer Mount Calvert? Why specifically call the county seat Charles Town?
Too often we interpret our past in terms of absolutes with little effort at understanding the shadings of opinion and the degrees of commitment that shape action in the public world. Usually historians interpret the 1690s as a time of growing constraint upon the Catholic population and interpret the disenfranchisement of the Catholics as the abandonment of the Act of Toleration which the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, had so carefully crafted nearly fifty years before. To a point, such an interpretation is a valid one. Catholics would not return to the public arena until the American Revolution when Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his Catholic cousins from Prince George's County, became active members of the extralegal conventions convened to fight British rule.
In fact, Charles Carroll's kinsman, James Carroll, who settled in Prince George's County in the early years of the 18th century would make it clear in his will that, apart from planting, there were only two professions open to Catholics under the current state of the laws, medicine and the law. He encouraged his nephew to choose the former, because, as he put it, "it may afford the least temptation to change his Religion.".
But in spite of the increasing legal restrictions on the public role of Catholics and the severe restraints placed upon them with regard to the practice of their religion in any other than the most private of circumstances, the Protestant judges of Prince George's County made an overture of conciliation that surely did not go unnoticed in London at the town house of the third Lord Baltimore, Charles Calvert.
By the revolution of 1689, the crown of England took over the government of Maryland. Governor Nicholson, who did so much to foster the creation of Prince George's County, was a Royal Governor. But Catholic Lord Baltimore retained a base of power that could not be ignored and to which even Royal governors were forced to pay heed. Lord Baltimore still retained title to the land in Maryland not yet granted. Prince George's County represented the future of Maryland in 1696. It boundaries to the west extended to the source of the Potomac and then northward to the 40th degree of north latitude and back eastward to the bounds of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, or nearly 2800 square miles, of which only a fraction had been granted to anyone by Lord Baltimore.
On a spring day 300 years ago, perhaps not unlike this one, the justices of Prince George's County thumbed their noses at the official policy against Catholics and tipped their hats to Lord Baltimore by naming their county seat Charles Town. Prejudice and religious discrimination was by no means abolished that day, but the acknowledgement of the importance of a modicum of accommodation was in evidence, and would serve to ameliorate the rhetoric of anti-Catholic sentiment to such a degree that only eighty-seven years later in 1783, Catholic and Protestant residents of this county could join in celebrating the arrival of the news that peace was at hand and the Treaty of Paris acknowledging the acceptance of the United States as a nation among nations would be on its way to Annapolis to be ratified by Congress.
In time, the center of population of the county moved westward and the overseers of the roads did their job. Pressure mounted to move the county seat to an even better crossroads of commerce than Charles Town. In 1721, Upper Marlboro became the capital of the county. Gradually the buildings of Charles Town fell into disrepair and ultimately disappeared under the cultivated fields of Mt. Calvert, leaving only this fine home, built in the late 18th century.
What's In a Name? Why Should we Remember?
Those are questions to which the fields which now cover the first county seat of Prince George's County, Charles Town, pay a tribute which I hope is no longer silent.
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