MARYLAND Historical Magazine -- its parent, the Maryland...


August 26, 1994

MARYLAND Historical Magazine -- its parent, the Maryland Historical Society, this year passes the 150-year mark -- has given over its summer issue to a single subject: the society's origins. Three major articles, respectively by Kevin B. Sheets, Michael J. Kurtz and Patricia Dockman Anderson, dunk the modern reader into the mid-1800s as if into a fine, swirling ocean wave.

Does MHS, in the late 1900s, bear up under a less and less justified perception of elitism? The 22 men who in 1844 obtained a state charter of incorporation, Mr. Sheets points out, were indeed educated and affluent. What they had to contend with, however, wasn't trash culture or here-today, gone-tomorrow hedonism but progress. John Spear Smith (son of Gen. Samuel Smith and the first MHS president), Brantz Mayer, George Dobbin, F. W. Brune, S. T. Wallis, J. H. B. Latrobe, John McMahon et al. lived in an age of ever newer, ever better. Most Marylanders preserved not, neither did they seek meaning beneath the surface flow. The new, long-thoughts organization built itself a library and an Atheneum building downtown.

Mr. Kurtz's subject is John Gottlieb Morris, forgotten now but a force then, as clergyman (a founder of Lutherville), naturalist, author, board member and, in 1895, the 92-year-old president of MHS. Americans were short on learning; in 1857, the London banker George Peabody, once a Marylander, munificently tried to promote it. Morris was Peabody Institute's first librarian. What a fuss, in the 1860s, when a Peabody-MHS merger was proposed.

After the Civil War, professional historians set up shop in Maryland; most notably, and contrastingly, J. Thomas Scharf and Herbert Baxter Adams. Scharf was a lawyer, popularizer, Confederate and stitcher-together of stringer reports; Adams, a German-mold researcher, a New Englander, a star on D. C. Gilman's Johns Hopkins faculty, a founder of the American Historical Association and deviser of the seminar teaching method. Ms. Anderson chides Scharf who, a state officeholder, made off with many public records. Interestingly, he later presented his big documents collection not to MHS but to Adams' university.

The history of history can, itself, be great reading. Will there be, a late-1900s Marylander may ask, a full-length, general-reader book on the first 150 years of our state historical society?

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