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Eagle Archive: Here's a toast to Maryland's origins as 'The Free State'

I was recently reminded by McDaniel College political science professor Herb Smith that our great state of Maryland has two legitimate nicknames.

"'The Old Line State' is in homage to the bravery of the Revolutionary War's Maryland regiments," Smith said. And then there's "The Free State," of which Smith said the origin "is not that widely known, but probably should be."

The story of the Free State begins at the start of the 20th century, he said, pointing to the progressive reform movement.

"In the political realm, this led to such worthy measures as voter registration, the secret ballot and primaries," said Smith during a recent book talk at McDaniel College. He was there to discuss the book, "Maryland Politics and Government: Democratic Dominance," which he co-authored with John Willis.

"In the field of self-improvement," he said, the reform movement, "produced the formation of the Anti-Saloon League and the temperance movement."

Actually, the Anti-Saloon League, a national organization that existed from 1893 to 1933, was quite active in Carroll County.

In October 1915, the league was so active that it endorsed certain candidates to represent Carroll in the Maryland House of Delegates, declaring, "A thorough survey of the situation in the county convinces us that the strongest ticket possible is as follows: John B. Baker and G. Fielder Gilbert, Democrats; Herbert R. Wooden and Frank Ely, Republicans. We believe these men are worthy."

Well, on Nov. 2, 1915, voters disagreed somewhat — they found only two of the league's candidates worthy, and elected Ely and Wooden, Charles B. Kephart and Jesse Leatherwood to represent Carroll County in Annapolis.

Five years later, the Volstead Act — also known as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — went into effect in January 1920, and was heralded our country's great experiment in prohibition. It was repealed in December 1933.

In much of Maryland, prohibition was heralded with scorn. "Covert and overt Maryland opposition to Prohibition began at the very pinnacle of state government in the personage of our greatest governor, Albert C. Ritchie, the only person ever elected to our state's highest office for four consecutive terms," writes Smith.

"Ritchie openly defied Prohibition, lectured President Harding about its inherent stupidity, and refused any state assistance to the heavy-handed federal attempts to enforce it."

Carroll County was not unscathed from the debate. A newspaper article from Oct. 13, 1922, reports that federal prohibition agents raided the farm of a well-known political leader, Joseph D. Wimert, who once had run for county commissioner.

Smith noted that "most historians concede that Maryland was the wettest state in the Union. But those years of collective civil disobedience also gave Maryland its second nickname.

"It is simply 'The Free State of Maryland' and was coined by Hamilton Owens, editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun in celebration of Ritchie's and Maryland's anti-prohibition stand.

"This was endlessly popularized by (Sun writer H.L.) Mencken. For Mencken, the term "Free State" embodied the very essence of the land of pleasant living. And as such it is indeed worthy of continued recognition, if not outright celebration."

When he is not celebrating Maryland's arcane stories from the pages of history, Kevin Dayhoff may be reached at kevindayhoff@gmail.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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