The Southern Colonies

5a. Maryland — The Catholic Experiment

<i>Cecil Calvert presenting to Lycurgus his Act Concerning Religion</i>
James Barry, 1793
In this engraving, Cecil Calvert presents his 1649 Act Concerning Religion to the ancient Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus, while libertarians throughout history, including Ben Franklin and William Penn, look on.

New England was not the only destination sought by those fleeing religious persecution. In 1632, Cecelius Calvert, known as Lord Baltimore, was granted possession of all land lying between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Lord Baltimore saw this as an opportunity to grant religious freedom to the Catholics who remained in Anglican England. Although outright violence was more a part of the 1500s than the 1600s, Catholics were still a persecuted minority in the seventeenth century. For example, Catholics were not even permitted to be legally married by a Catholic priest. Baltimore thought that his New World possession could serve as a refuge. At the same time, he hoped to turn a financial profit from the venture.

Maryland, named after England's Catholic queen Henrietta Maria, was first settled in 1634. Unlike the religious experiments to the North, economic opportunity was the draw for many Maryland colonists. Consequently, most immigrants did not cross the Atlantic in family units but as individuals. The first inhabitants were a mixture of country gentlemen (mostly Catholic) and workers and artisans (mostly Protestant). This mixture would surely doom the Catholic experiment. Invariably, there are more poor than aristocrats in any given society, and the Catholics soon found themselves in the minority.

The geography of Maryland, like that of her Southern neighbor Virigina, was conducive to growing tobacco. The desire to make profits from tobacco soon led to the need for low-cost labor. As a result, the number of indentured servants greatly expanded and the social structure of Maryland reflected this change. But the influx in immigration was not reflected in larger population growth because, faced with frequent battles with malaria and typhoid, life expectancy in Maryland was about 10 years less than in New England.

Fearful that the Protestant masses might restrict Catholic liberties, the House of Delegates passed the Maryland Act of Toleration in 1649. This act granted religious freedom to all Christians. Like Roger Williams in Rhode Island and William Penn in Pennsylvania, Maryland thus experimented with laws protecting religious liberty. Unfortunately, Protestants swept the Catholics out of the legislature within a decade, and religious strife ensued. Still, the Act of Toleration is an important part of the colonial legacy of religious freedom that will culminate in the First Amendment in the American Bill of Rights.

On the Web
Historic Saint Mary's City
Visit Maryland's first capital: Historic St. Mary's City is an exciting mix of colorful living history and fascinating archaeology, all set in a beautiful Tidewater landscape. Lord Baltimore's 17th century capital stands ready to be rediscovered. Exhibits at the outdoor museum include the square-rigged ship, the Maryland Dove, Godiah Spray's fine tobacco plantation, the reconstructed State House of 1676, a Woodland Indian hamlet, and much more. With miles of walking trails and scenic river views, Historic St. Mary's City is indeed a special place where "Time & Tide Meet."
Maryland Toleration Act
The Toleration Act was a fairly progressive document written in 1649 allowing a broad latitude in religious toleration, particularly as it applied to Catholics. Read the text of the Doctrine at this site.
Maryland's House of Delegates
From the Maryland State Archives, read about the early years of Maryland's Lower House of Delegates and its struggles with the Upper House whose members were appointed by Lord Baltimore.
  • c. 10,000 B.C.: Indians known to have lived in Maryland by this date.

  • c. 1000 B.C. Indian introduction of pottery.

  • c. 800 B.C. Indian introduction of domesticated plants.

  • c. 1000 A.D. Permanent Indian villages established.

  • 1498. John Cabot sailed along Eastern Shore off present-day Worcester County.

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