A Maryland patriot

John Eager Howard, the county's namesake, lived to serve

March 18, 2007|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Special to The Sun

From Orphans' Court judge to governor, U.S. senator to city commissioner, no public service job was too big or too small for John Eager Howard, the Revolutionary War colonel for whom Howard County was named.

Born to a wealthy Baltimore County family in 1752, he made his name in the American Revolution, gaining recognition for military prowess and courage.

"He belonged to a generation of Marylanders who served the Revolution well," said Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse.

In the 1781 Battle of Cowpens, Howard, then a lieutenant colonel, was "credited with turning the apparent British triumph into an American victory" in South Carolina, according to "John Eager Howard: Patriot and Public Servant," a Maryland Historical Magazine article by Cary Howard.

Cowpens "became the beginning of the end of the British hold on America," George F. Scheer wrote in a prologue to Cowpens: "Downright Fighting."

At Cowpens, so named because of its use as a cow pasture, the Americans faced the troops of the fierce British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. In the heat of battle, the Virginia militia misunderstood an order from Howard and began to retreat. Other Americans, seeing the orderly retreat, followed suit. The British charged after the Americans. But the Americans regrouped, turned and countercharged, surprising their enemies. " `Give them the bayonet,' bellowed Howard," according to Scheer's book.

The British panicked, threw down their guns and ran. "After the battle, Howard, holding seven swords of British officers who had personally surrendered to him, was complimented by Gen. [Daniel] Morgan: `You have done well, for you are successful; had you failed, I would have shot you.' Col. Howard replied: `Had I failed, there would have been no need of shooting me,'" Cary Howard wrote.

Congress awarded Howard a Silver Medal for courage at Cowpens. He fought in other battles until he was seriously injured in Eutaw Springs, S.C. He resigned his commission and returned home.

In 1787, he married Peggy Chew, a daughter of the chief justice of Pennsylvania. The Howards settled in Baltimore in a mansion known as Belvidere, at the junction of present-day Calvert and Chase streets. Belvidere was a "charming villa ... a seat of luxurious shrubberies and sloping lawns," according to The Century magazine in April 1897.

"During the lifetime of Colonel Howard, it was a special place, the most hospitable home in Maryland, the resting and the visiting place of all important visitors traveling to or through Baltimore," Peter Kumpa wrote in The Sun. The Howards played host to luminaries such as Lafayette and George Washington.

After the war, Howard began a life of public service at local, state and national levels of government. He served as a judge on the Baltimore County Court, a member of the Electoral College that picked state senators, and an Orphans' Court judge. The legislature selected him to represent Maryland in the Continental Congress in 1787.

In 1789, he was elected governor of Maryland for the first of three consecutive one-year terms. He was the first governor to belong to a political party, the Federalist Party, and was an "extraordinarily strong admirer of George Washington," Papenfuse said.

Howard had fewer powers than modern-day chief executives, due to restrictions adopted after the colonial experience with powerful governors, Papenfuse said. "He was governor in a very critical period in Maryland history, a period when all the states were trying to figure out their relationship to the federal government," he said.

During his tenure, Maryland ratified the Bill of Rights, and the legislature agreed to donate a tract of land for the nation's capital, according to the Cary Howard article.

Howard left the governor's office and became a state senator and a representative to the Electoral College. He became a commissioner in Baltimore, where he was responsible for purchasing land for a marketplace, according to Frank F. White Jr.'s The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970.

Washington asked Howard to be secretary of war in 1795, but Howard declined, saying his old war injury required him to have daily exercise.

Howard served in the U.S. Senate from 1796 to 1803, where he "usually followed the policies and program of the Federalist Party," Cary Howard wrote. He stayed active in civic affairs after leaving Congress. During the War of 1812, Howard commanded a veterans group that would defend Baltimore if necessary, but "the old patriarch did not have the occasion to lead his men into combat."

Howard, who inherited a large estate, donated portions of his holdings in Baltimore for Mount Vernon Place, the Washington Monument, Lexington Market and St. Paul's Episcopal Church, according to Cary Howard. Three Baltimore streets - John, Eager and Howard - are named after him.

He made one final political run as a candidate for vice president on the 1816 Federalist Party ticket with Rufus King. They lost to the Republican Party's ticket of James Monroe and Daniel D. Tompkins.

He died in 1827 at age 75. One of his eight children, George, followed in his footsteps by becoming governor, and another son, Benjamin, served in Congress. George lived at Waverly in what is now Howard County.

The Howard District of Anne Arundel County was created a dozen years after John Eager Howard's death and officially became Howard County in 1851. Besides the county, the state song also pays tribute to Colonel Howard with the verse, "Remember Howard's warlike thrust."

"He should be remembered for his total career of public service, in which he was willing to step forward and take on responsibility in every level of government," Papenfuse said.

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