Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Remembering John Eager Howard and His Vision for Baltimore

Remembering John Eager Howard and his Vision for Baltimore

©Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist, retired[1]

John Eager Howard statue, Mount Vernon Place, , in the mist, 1909, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

There is an old soldiers’ folk song that in an address to Congress on April 19, 1951, General Douglas MacArthur made permanent in our collective memory, Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away. There have been many what are called snowclones of that refrain, including my favorite, Old Archivists never die, they just get filed away.

It is organizations like the Sons of the American Revolution that make it their mission to keep the memories alive of those men and women who fought valiantly for their country from the earliest awakenings of the United States to the present time. One such patriot was John Eager Howard who emerges from the mist of time along with those who served with him because of the financial support the Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution has provided to such worthwhile memory projects as the biographical studies of the Maryland 400 of the Maryland State Archives. It is one of my proudest memories of my tenure as State Archivist that I initiated this biographical project that Tim Baker and Owen Laurie have carried on so well and to such good effect. The funding of the Maryland 400 internships and the purchase of the General Smallwood Papers continues to result in a better understanding of the lives of those who fought to create this nation and to remind us of our own obligations, not only to continue to honor that service but to meet the high standard they set for us to follow both in their military and their civilian lives.

Patriotism takes many forms. In John Eager Howard’s case it manifested itself through both military and civilian service.

John Eager Howard (1752-1827) was a distinguished soldier. For his service in the American Revolution he was awarded a silver medal from Congress the latin inscription of which reads, “by rushing suddenly on the wavering lines of the enemy [he] gave a brilliant example of martial courage at the battle of the Cowpens, January 17, 1781.” One contemporary anecdote with regard to the battle is that by its end he had the swords of seven British Officers who had surrendered to him.

Much has been written about John Eager Howard’s military career, most recently Jim Piecuch and John Beakes’ “Cool Deliberate Courage “ (2009). It is not very likely that his contributions to the success of the American Revolution will recede into the mists of time, nor will his men be forgotten now that every effort is being made by the Maryland Archives to document their lives, including at least two African Americans who were enlisted by Howard on July 17, 1776.

Private collection

Patriotism for John Eager Howard also meant public service. He was elected Governor of Maryland three successive years by joint ballot of the Maryland Legislature, and had the privilege of writing President Elect George Washington concerning Washington’s electoral victory in Maryland in January 1789, as well as informing him of Maryland’s ratification of the Bill of Rights, two years later. Unfortunately the letter illustrated here from a fax offering it for sale in 1998, has disappeared into a private collection, so it is not possible to confirm whether the flattering comment signed ‘J. A.” which reads “much distinguished as an officer of the army--particularly in the affair of the Cowpens So. Carolina” is in the hand of Vice President John Adams.

John Eager Howard and Peggy Howard,

center courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

Portrait on right ca. 1782 by Charles Willson Peale, courtesy of the National Park Service

Public Service ran in the family. John Eager Howard’s son, George Howard, was born November 21, 1789 in the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis. Named after President Washington, he would serve as governor of Maryland from 1831 to 1834.

John Eager Howard declined the offer to be Secretary of War, but instead served in Congress as a U. S. Senator from Maryland from 1796 until 1803.

President Washington made his last official visit to Annapolis in 1791 while John Eager Howard was governor, escorting Mrs. Howard home after a ball in town, undoubtedly paying due attention to his one year old namesake, and bidding farewell to friends of long standing. Mrs. Howard, formerly “Peggy” Chew, being presented here with a flower by her husband in a silhouette dated 1808, was the the daughter of the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Chew. Howard had prevailed over many suitors including the unfortunate British Major John Andre, who was executed at Washington’s orders for spying in 1780. Andre, on departing Peggy’s company for the last time, expressed his distress in poetry:

If at the close of war and strife
My destiny once more
Should in the various paths of life
Conduct me to this shore;

Should British Banner guard the land

And faction be restrained

And Cliveden's mansion peaceful stand,

No more with blood be stained,

Say, wilt thou then receive again

And welcome to thy sight

The Youth who bids with stifled pain

This sad-farewell tonight?

Perhaps John Eager Howard’s greatest service as a civilian, however, was one of the least told and least remembered aspects of his public and private life. He was devoted to the future of the city of Baltimore and probably did more than any single person to shape its expansion and development as the second largest city (1830-1850) in the United States prior to the Civil War.

Varle detail from Papenfuse, Historical Atlas

Although the date of construction of his home, Belvidere, on a high hill overlooking the Jones Falls and just beyond the then city limits, is unknown for certain, it was probably begun about the time of his marriage to Peggy Chew in 1787 and completed by 1794. From the surviving prints and later photographs, at its core it closely resembled Clivedon, Peggy’s family home in Germantown, Pennsylvania. In 1798 it was fully described in the Baltimore County Federal Tax List of that year as being a 2 story brick house 63’ by 40’, with two wings of stone, 2 stories high, a large stable, a 2 story stone smoke house, a one story brick milk house, and a one story stone house occupied by the gardner. In this 1801 edition of Peter Varle’s map of Baltimore the house and its stone wings are clearly identified along with the location of the formal garden.

Colonel Howard, as he was known, proved to be focused on the future of the city. He was a developer of vision, in many ways the James Rouse of his day, whose dogged determination shaped Baltimore City’s future and greatly expanded the boundaries of the city. In doing so he provided a material legacy for his family that had far reaching effects on the physical growth of the city including a plan for the expansion of West Baltimore that encompassed neighborhoods affordable to the less well off in the city among whom were the most prosperous of the rapidly growing Free Black population.

Howard’s Addition to Baltimore Town, courtesy of the Baltimore City Archives

In 1782, before he built Belvidere, Howard purchased a large tract of land called Lunn’s lot, west and south of the original, small fish shaped Baltimore Town. It ran directly South of the site for his new home, and was surveyed into several hundred lots for renting and sale. In order to promote building on the lots, he adopted a system of long term leasing called ground rents, in which he kept title to many of the lots, renting them out on an annual fee that was nearly equivalent to 6% of their market value. The remainder he sold outright. On a groundrent lot, the builder could use his capital to erect houses without having to expend it on the the outright acquisition of the land. As long as the rent was paid on time to Howard and his heirs, the land could be built on, and the buildings in turn sold or rented as the owner saw fit. If the rent was not paid, then the title to anything built on the lot, reverted to Howard or his heirs.

By 1812 Baltimore was in desperate need of a plan for expansion and growth. The population of the town was growing rapidly and there were no clearly defined boundaries to the city which had been incorporated by the Legislature in 1797, nor was there an official city plan to aid in the laying out of new streets and to extend the old ones. The City Government decided it was time to act, although the year, 1812, proved it was not the most auspicious time to undertake a thorough mapping of the city, and their choice of surveyor, at the urging of John Eager Howard and his brother Cornelius, met with furious opposition from local surveyors who wanted the job themselves.

Thomas Poppleton’s original 1812 proposal to map Baltimore, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

In April of 1812, John Eager Howard had found the surveyor he needed to oversee the accurate subdivision of his property and some one well qualified to meet the needs of the Mayor and City Commissioners. That month Thomas Poppleton, a bankrupt London surveyor who was skilled in the scientific method of accurate surveying called triangulation, submitted a proposal to map the city. He won the contract, but local surveyors, headed by a politically well connected Jehu Bouldin, undermined Poppleton at every turn, voicing their complaints to the city council that he was not up to the task. Finally Poppleton gave up, writing a scathing letter to the Mayor and City council announcing that he was leaving for a better job in New York City that Cornelius Howard had secured for him, and offering to come back on his own terms if the city should care to invite him.

By then, war had broken out with Great Britain and the city was otherwise occupied. Howard’s plans for better mapping the city were set aside. Howard concentrated instead on investing in the war effort and assisting in the defense of the city. According to the Baltimore Commercial Chronicle and as reprinted in other newspapers at the time of his death in 1827:

During the late war, after the British troops had succeeded in getting possession of Washington City, and when the attack upon Baltimore, which subsequently took place, was hourly expected, the expediency of surrendering the city was agitated by a few,... the subject was mentioned to Col. Howard-- his answer was prompt and worthy of the hero of Cowpens, Guilford and Eutaw--”No gentlemen, all the property i have in the world is in the city of Baltimore and its neighbourhood--I have four sons now under arms, but I would rather see my property reduced to ashes, and my sons weltering in their gore than to accede to such a proposition.

With the end of the War of 1812 in 1815, Baltimore was still in need of a master plan for expansion and development. During the war Thomas Poppleton had become the city surveyor for New York, and had produced a superbly accurate map of lower Manhattan. John Eager Howard and his associates used their influence with the General Assembly not only to expand the boundaries of the city from a few hundred acres to nearly 15 square miles, but also to establish an independent State authorized commission to oversee the mapping of the city free from the interference of the Mayor and City council and they hired Thomas Poppleton back on his own terms.

1851/2 revision of Poppleton’s map of Baltimore, from Papenfuse, Historical Atlas

By 1822 Poppleton had completed his map which accommodated the growth of the city and defined the beds of the city streets and alleys for years to come. Updated and published again In 1851, it would become the base map for the recording, by lot numbers assigned to Poppleton’s configuration of lots, of all real estate transactions in the city.


John Eager Howard would live at Belvidere until his death in 1827, entertaining notables, enjoying his garden, and the view of the expanding city. According to the 1820 census there were 29 people living in the house and the outbuildings, including five slaves and seven free blacks. This drawing was commissioned by the family the month John Eager Howard died. His obituary appeared in newspapers around the country and President John Quincy Adams attended the funeral Howards will, drafted the week he died, was straightforward and to the point. There was to be no inventory of the estate. If his children owed him any money, the debts were forgiven. His personal property was to be sold to pay any outstanding debts, and the property divided equally among his children. There was a private sale of the furnishings of Belvidere, some of which were bought by Charles Ridgely of Hampton, and are now on display at Hampton mansion. It is not known for certain what happened to the slaves and free blacks who were there in 1820, but the manumission records in the Legacy of Slavery database at the Maryland State Archives hint that they may have been freed by the Howard children who inherited them. That Free Blacks and Slaves lived together in the same households was not uncommon in Baltimore City, an aspect of slavery in the city that has been overlooked by scholars.

From Thomas Poppleton’s plats of the Howard Estate, 1828-1831, Maryland State Archives

Howard’s plans for developing his Baltimore property proved profitable to his children. Thomas Poppleton was hired to map out the estate and allocate the individual pieces of property and ground rents equitably among the Howard children. Above is the plate showing the lots surrounding the Washington Monument for which Howard had donated the land. The monument was begun in 1815 and completed in 1829, two years after his death. The lots are colored coded according to who inherited them.

It took a court case brought by Howard’s only daughter Sophia, before equity could be achieved in the property distribution (she argued she had not gotten her fair share), but by 1831 each had received his or her allotment mapped out by Thomas Poppleton. Benjamin Chew Howard inherited Belvidere and lived there until 1844 when he sold it to John S. McKim.

Belvidere in 1874

The McKims made one major alteration to the House, a serpentine porch designed by John H. B. Latrobe. The porch is easily identified in this view of the house that accompanied an article about both families ownership that appeared in the the christmas issue of Appleton’s Journal, 1874. The following year the house would be gone, and and its history would recede into the mist of time. In 1822, John Eager Howard and his surveyor Thomas Poppleton had sealed its fate with their master plan for the city’s streets.

Detail from the 1851/52 Poppleton in Papenfuse, Atlas

If you look closely at this detail from the 1851 re-issue of the 1822 Poppleton map which associates Belvidere with the McKims and the Howards, you can see the problem created by Poppleton’s map. If Calvert street were ever to be extended according to the plan, the house would be demolished. It was, and in the process of leveling the hill it was discovered that the house sat on a fortune’s worth of builder’s sand which, in turn was used in the construction of the rows of house that appeared along the neighborhood streets. Perhaps John Eager Howard was not so foolish afterall, to have built his house upon the sand.

Sachse view from the top of the Washington Monument, 1863, courtesy of the Library of Congress

For about ninety years the house that John Eager Howard built for Peggy and their family stood aloof from the bustle of the city as can be seen in this panel from a panoramic view of Baltimore drawn from atop the Washington Monument in 1863.

Detail from 1851 Poppleton and Contemporary Aerial view of the location of Belvidere and St. Paul’s Rectory

According to one account some thought was given to moving Belvidere to another location, but in the end the cost estimates proved too great. The house was removed, the hill was leveled, and upscale row houses were built. Only the Saint Paul’s church rectory survives to remind Baltimore of Belvidere. The land for the rectory was donated by John Eager Howard and the rectory resembles the core of the house that Howard built high on the hill above it.

In the end John Eager Howard’s vision for the future of his city meant the inevitable destruction of his personal house and preserve. Whether or not he would have had pangs of regret, or would have attempted to circumvent the master plan in favor of his comfortable surroundings, we will never know. What we do know is that he had the foresight to force the city to adopt a master plan for growth that proved beneficial to the public at large and in the end to the personal fortunes of his family. It was a bold move of a bold patriot who we should continue to take the time to remember.

[1] I am much indebted to Lance Humphries, Owen Laurie, and Pat Anderson for their assistance in the preparation of this essay on John Eager Howard’s Baltimore. A fully annotated and credited version is available from the author and forms a part of a forthcoming book on Thomas Poppleton and the city.