Journey’s End


Here is the train station where we picked up our son, who was joining us for a summer holiday. It’s possible to board the train in Washington, DC after breakfast, and arrive in Montpelier, Vermont before sunset. What a concept! Verging on European in its convenience and good sense! What a pity all cities of this country are not similarly connected. Inside the station are eight wooden seats for passengers awaiting the train, and a rock collection featuring local specimens to admire in the meantime.


Maryland, My Maryland

Pictures by my daughter from the Local History and Geography homeschooling block.

On this day in 1788, Maryland became the 7th state to ratify the Constitution. Perhaps you live in Maryland and never knew how this came about. Or perhaps Maryland is terra incognita because you live far away, in Nepal, or Virginia. In any case, I am going to tell you.


For thousands of years human beings on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay fished, farmed, and fought one another without foreign interference. However, the seagoing vessels across the Atlantic Ocean grew ever-larger, and when Italian Giovanni Caboto, in the pay of Henry VII of England, wandered into codfish-rich Newfoundland/Maine waters in 1497, that was enough for England to claim the promising land. (They also insisted on referring to Caboto as “John Cabot” to help make their case.)

One hundred and ten years later Captain John Smith, although mainly concerned with the floundering colony in Virginia, ventured up the Chesapeake Bay, pronounced it goodly and pleasant, and produced a map that received much attention. So when George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, tired of the anti-Catholic feeling in Protestant England (Catholics were considered untrustworthy and could not hold office, vote, or worship openly), he asked his friend King Charles I to give him a piece of this New World land.

Calvert had tried Newfoundland first, but his settlers died of harsh weather and disease. His request was granted, but the Virginians were unhappy about the potential nearness of Papists. Well, suggested Charles, how about just a northern sliver of Virginia, about 10,000 square miles around the Chesapeake Bay—nobody there except non-Christian native dwellers! Calvert accepted this parcel, to tax and govern as he saw fit, in exchange for two Indian arrowheads a year, an enviably low rent.

Shortly afterward George Calvert died, so his younger son Leonard set sail in the Ark and the Dove and a party that included settlers and adventurers, several gentlemen, a handful of women, a number of indentured servants, and three priests. The group was a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, as it was Calvert’s intention to set up a religious-tolerant community. When they arrived at the mouth of the Potomac in March 1634, they were kindly greeted by the surprised yet helpful Yaocomico inhabitants, who, tiring of attacks by their Susquehannah neighbors, were fortuitously planning a move west. They granted the newcomers their land, along with houses, fields, and useful botanical, zoological, and culinary tips. The settlers renamed the territory Terra Maria, in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria (daughter of King Henri IV of France). Terra Maria: Mary-Land.


The Maryland settlers were better prepared than their hapless predecessors in Jamestown, those aristocratic younger sons who arrived in their best clothes ready to pick up the gold and jewels lying scattered on the shores of America. No, these folks brought tools and seeds and useful skills like carpentry, and had been recruited by Calvert on condition of willingness to work hard. The village, now called Saint Mary’s City, Maryland’s capital, was quickly fortified and the surrounding lands divided and allotted according to size of the household living on it: for heads of household, wives, and indentured servants, 100 acres each; for children 50 acres each. You can imagine that this arrangement encouraged emigration of large groups. “And here is my cousin Robert… and his son John…and their three manservants…” Voilá—450 more acres!

Although the Calverts were Proprietors—they actually “owned” Maryland and could govern it as they saw fit—the settlers announced that they intended to make their own laws. Calvert objected, and an uneasy compromise was worked out, but this insistence on self-rule was, as we know, a harbinger of things to come. Calvert did convince them to pass his Act of Toleration in 1649, which guaranteed religious freedom to Christians, although the arrangement was: if you deny the divinity of Jesus Christ you will be executed. Such means of ensuring uniform worship have not entirely fallen out of favor in 2010. The Act lasted until the Puritans chopped off Charles I’s head for tyrannical cluelessness (no longer a capital offense in Great Britain). In 1692 England and its colonies were declared officially Protestant. The new leaders burned down the Catholic churches in Maryland and moved its capital to Puritan-founded Providence—renamed Annapolis for Protestant Queen Anne.

To be continued April 29th: Part II.


Library of Congress-Part 1


On this day in 1800, President John Adams approved legislation appropriating $5,000 to fund a hitherto nonexistent Congressional library.

Now, when the United States was young and the ink was still drying on the [mostly] ratified Constitution, its first Congress met for a short while (1790 to 1800) in Philadelphia. This contender for the role of Nation’s Capital was merely a disappointed temporary location, resigned to the government’s eventual transfer south. In the meantime, however, Philadelphia was, thanks largely to William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, a highly livable city—the most populated in the country (Washington, DC wasn’t even in the Top Twenty), with paved and lighted streets lined with sidewalks, fine masonry buildings, a university, a hospital, a fire department, gardens and parks, theaters and shops and philosophical societies and libraries—much like today, but without WiFi. The Library Company of Philadelphia offered the use of its fine collection to members of Congress free of charge, at a time when library use was by paid subscription.

When the government packed up and trudged southward to the Potomac in 1800, they said to one another in despair, “Where in this muddy village of farms, taverns, and unfinished government buildings will we do the research and study necessary for Congressional legislation and malediction?”

Fortunately, the previous Congress had been planning ahead, and in 1801, a collection of 740 books and three maps, purchased with the appropriated funds, arrived from London. They were stored, along with the papers Congress had brought from Philadelphia, in a room of the partially-built Capitol Building. It was primarily a collection of legal, economic, and historical works. The next President, Thomas Jefferson (He Who Must Not Be Named in Texas), a voracious scholar himself—if there was any subject that never interested him it is apparently unrecorded—signed a law creating the post of Librarian of Congress.

Fire is a perpetual threat to the flammable cities of civilization, and disaster can result merely from an unsnuffed candle. The Library has suffered from several, mostly minor, fires. But in August 1814, during the War of 1812, the British set about destroying Washington’s public buildings, to avenge the Americans’ destruction of the public buildings of Toronto. Although parts of the Capitol held up remarkably well, its interior, filled with wooden furniture, paintings, and irreplaceable documents and books, was highly flammable. That was the end of the library.

But only temporarily. Because Jefferson, now in retirement and short of cash, offered to sell his personal library to the U.S. government as the foundation of a new collection. So in 1815 he was paid $23,900 for his 6,487 books, which arrived by horse and wagon from Monticello.

What a collection it was. Not only works of law, economics, and history, to replace the lost books. But also: Biography. Geography. Chemistry. Botany. Medicine. Anatomy. Architecture. Philosophy. Painting and sculpture. Theater. Music. Literature. Essays. Mythology. Religion (including a copy of the Koran). And not only in English, but also works in French, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek, and Russian, several of which languages Jefferson spoke or read.

Some members of Congress objected to the collection’s breadth, explaining rather myopically, “the library was too large for the wants of Congress,” but Jefferson famously responded, “There is…no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” and that statement has guided the Library in its acquisitions over the years.

For Library of Congress-Part 2: Please see May 7th