Baltimore (American History Through Literature)
In 1745 Jones' Town, Baltimore Town, and surrounding settlements merged to form the municipality that would eventually become Maryland's largest and most productive city. Baltimore's geographic location enabled it to grow from an obscure port city to an American urban center of culture and commerce. By 1850 Baltimore was America's fourth most populous city and its sixth largest industrial city. This growth rate is a direct reflection of the emergence of industry in American port cities. Once reliant on a mercantile economic system, large American ports developed industrial districts that changed the face of those cities. Instead of strictly moving goods from one port to another, these transitional cities started producing their own goods for sale. Some of Baltimore's major industries were iron and gas production, ship building, canning, financial banking, and textiles. By 1825 Baltimore was the largest flour market in the United States, and over sixty flour mills were in production in or near Baltimore.
As this transition of economies unfolded, Baltimore was in an ideal spot for industrial growth, forty-eight hours closer to the southern markets by boat than New York. The city became the preferred port for trading with the Caribbean and South America. The location was not only well suited for shipping but also for inland trade. The port of Baltimore is located on the Patapsco River estuary, the farthest inlet port on the Chesapeake Bay, 170 miles from the Virginia Capes. Originally, this location was less than ideal for a city competing with other port cities located on or near the Atlantic Ocean. This disadvantage soon turned into a huge advantage for Baltimore, however, when American port cities began competing for trade with the midwestern states, especially Ohio. By sailing all the way to Baltimore, ships were one hundred miles nearer the interior of the United States.
From Baltimore, a single route over the Appalachian Mountainsollowing the National Pike, the Fredrick Turnpike, and the Cumberland Roaded to the expanding markets in the Ohio Valley. During the nineteenth century, these new markets in West Virginia and the Ohio Valley produced wheat, corn, and raw materials needed for the growing industrial economies in the East, and the major ports like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all vied for their trade. Ohio flour and West Virginia coal and iron helped propel Baltimore into a role as the major exporter of flour to South America. By 1820, the leaders of Baltimore understood their unique situation and were willing to place the city in debt in order to take advantage of their proximity to the West. During the rest of the nineteenth century, city officials financed railroads, canals, and roads to ensure trade and commerce with the midwestern United States moved through Baltimore. One article in the Baltimore American stated, "Baltimore should imitate the spider and spread her lines towards every point of the compass, and lodge in the center of them. . . . The present generation are able to pay interest; let the next generation pay the principle" (Olson, p. 560). The Cumberland route was solidified as the preferred route of commerce to the Midwest by the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), which was chartered for carrying freight and passengers in 1827. In 1852 the B&O tracks were the first to reach Wheeling, West Virginia, at the edge of the Ohio River, and in 1857, they were the first tracks from an East Coast city to reach the western gateway of St. Louis, Missouri. The B&O Railroad gave Baltimore
Besides its vital role in the American economy, Baltimore was also politically important. Before the War of 1812, the British had determined that Baltimore was home to many privateers who were raiding British ships for profit, and the city became a target for attack after the United States and England went to war. The Battle of Baltimore culminated with the British military's unsuccessful attack on Fort McHenry on 13 and 14 September 1814, an event witnessed by Francis Scott Key and celebrated by his poem "The Star-Spangled Banner." This event propelled Baltimore into the national spotlight and endeared the city to citizens of America. For a brief period in the 1830s, Baltimore became the nation's second-largest city.
Baltimore was the northernmost slave state and developed its own brand of the evil institution. As seen by many historians, slavery in Baltimore was characterized by relatively lax master-slave relationships in which slaves could walk about the town unencumbered. Benjamin Quarles explains, "Slavery in Maryland was more 'enlightened' than in the lower South; town slaves were better fed and less likely to feel the whip than their plantation brothers" (p. 7). Baltimore was also home to one of the largest free black communities in the South. In 1850 there were over twenty-five thousand free blacks in the city, making up 15 percent of the city population. This large population of freed slaves developed churches, unions, and community groups for support.
The abolitionist writer and orator Fredrick Douglass (1818895) was a slave in Baltimore during his young life and again later; while in Baltimore, he was a member of the East Baltimore Improvement Society, where he met his future wife, Anna Murray. For Douglass, Baltimore offered an environment that ultimately led to his freedom. As Douglass explains in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), his white slave mistress initially began to teach him to read while he was a young slave in the Auld house, and his education stimulated Douglass to pursue freedom at all costs. After being moved from Baltimore and set to work in several harsh situations, including a year with Edward Covey, a slaveholder with "a very high reputation for breaking young slaves" (Douglass, p. 60), Douglass was sent back to Baltimore and (still a slave) was hired out as an apprentice to earn a wage caulking in the shipyards. Although his wages went to his master, he ultimately was able to hire out his own free time, and he used the money that he earned to finance his eventual escape from slavery, which he managed in 1838 by boarding a Baltimore train bound for Philadelphia. (The former slave and writer-activist Harriet Jacobs  had an uncle, Benjamin, who also escaped slavery, in 1827, using the trains of Baltimore as the means of his flight. Jacobs herself had hoped to take the same route in her flight; however, by the time of her escape in 1842 southern law enforcement had locked down Baltimore's railway stations. Instead of following her uncle's footsteps, she was forced to escape by sailing vessel.)
Historical records show that Douglass was not the only African American to pick up a skilled trade in Baltimore's shipyards. These shipyards provided African Americans jobs as carpenters, caulkers, stevedores, and draymen. The numbers of African American caulkers was so large that in 1838 they organized a union called the Caulker's Association, one of the first black labor unions. The organization dictated high wages and better working conditions. In fact, the historian Bettye C. Thomas claims that African American caulkers in the city's shipyards garnered wages fifty cents higher than their white counterparts.
After the Civil War, African American businessmen established the nation's first black-owned shipyard. The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Baltimore City opened its doors in 1866 and operated with great success for almost twenty years. The company's charter included wording demonstrating that the venture was intended to last for forty years; however, there was a misunderstanding over whether the African American company had purchased the land outright or was leasing the site. The issue went to the courts in 1879. Judges ruled against the claims of the black-owned shipyard and the land was returned to the original white owners in 1884.
In 1820 the American Colonization Society sponsored the first of many ships carrying freed African Americans to new settlements in West Africa. Baltimore took a leading role in this endeavor and tried to create exclusive trading rights with these settlements between 1822 and 1827. Baltimore's monopolistic scheme failed, and the effort illustrates the city's precarious relationship with race in the nineteenth century. On the one hand, many citizens urged the amicable release of slaves, and on the other hand, they were economically tied to the institution. After the failure of the American Colonization Society, the state government established the Maryland Colonization Society, which was separate from the national organization. This society eased fears that Maryland would be limited by the national society's quota on the number of emigrants each state could send to Liberia. William Watkins, the uncle of the black writer and activist Francis E. W. Harper and one of the founders of the Mental and Moral Improvement Society in Baltimore, was one vocal critic of the new state society. Watkins claimed that the colonization of Liberia by freed African Americans had nothing to do with the best interests of African Americans. Instead, it was a scheme to rid America of free blacks. He argues in Freedom's Journal (6 July 1827):
We are appraised that some of the most distinguished of that society (The Maryland Colonization Society), are themselves, Slaveholders! Now, how those men can desire so ardently, and labor so abundantly, for the exaltation of the free people, thousands of whom they have never seen, and feel so little concern for those who are held in bondage by themselves; whose degraded condition is directly under their observation, and immediately within the sphere of their benevolence to ameliorate, is a philanthropy, I confess, unaccountable to me. (Gardner, p. 156)
Under the pseudonym "The Colored Baltimorean," Watkins attacked the colonization plan in abolitionist journals such as the Genius of Universal Emancipation, The Liberator, and Freeman's Journal. His protests ultimately convinced abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison to resist the plan as well.
BALTIMORE AS A CULTURAL CENTER
As Baltimore's population and prosperity grew, the urban core evolved into one of America's premiere cultural centers. Its theater community was one of the largest in the nation, and keeping with the times, Baltimore supported the nineteenth-century interest in lecture series known as the lyceum movement. William Ellery Channing presented his famous sermon on the five tenets of Unitarian Christianity in Baltimore in 1819. In 1857 George Peabody created the Peabody Institute with the goal of developing "a structure that would expose the citizens of Baltimore to the finest in literature, music, the fine arts, and contribute to the formation of literary and scientific taste in the city" (Peabody Institute). Beginning in 1866, the Peabody Institute's new lecture series brought speakers in science, literature, and art to deliver more than thirty lectures a year. The institute also founded the country's first free public noncirculating library in 1866, and in 1868 the Peabody Conservatory of Music opened its inaugural season.
Baltimore was also home to the largest publishing industry in the South. During the early to mid-1800s, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore dominated the American publishing industry. Eventually, Philadelphia eclipsed Baltimore as the cities competed for the same markets, and Baltimore receded from its prominence on the national stage. However, it did remain a significant player in the publishing industry of the South. By 1857 half the publishing houses in the South were located in Baltimore. Although the southern publishing industry lagged far behind its northern counterpart, Baltimore (along with Charleston, and New Orleans) was a major distribution hub for the publishing houses in the North, such as Ticknor and Fields. Baltimore's publishing industry was hard hit during the Civil War, however; the historian Warren Tryon has documented that book sales remained fairly normal in the period leading up to the war, "even until April 1861," but "then, suddenly and unexpectedly, they vanished altogether" (p. 329).
BALTIMORE LITERARY FIGURES
Edgar Allan Poe (1809849) started his literary career in Baltimore after a brief stint at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and stayed in the city from 1831 until 1835, where he obtained a license to marry his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. During this time, Poe also wrote many articles in the Baltimore papers. Some of his work includes publications during this time in the Southern Literary Messenger (a new journal out of Richmond, Virginia), including the 1835 gothic tales "Berenice" and "Morella," as well as critical reviews in the Baltimore Republican and in the Baltimore American. His critiques of the Southern Literary Messenger in these Baltimore newspapers reflect Poe's ability to discern quality in the editing profession, and he corresponded with the founding owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, Thomas W. White, advising him on his journal and suggesting changes. In one letter, Poe advised White to advertise in the American instead of the Republican because the Republican "is a paper by no means in the hands of the first people here [Baltimore]" (Jackson, p. 252). The correspondence with White led to Poe's appointment as the full-time editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835. Although he was discharged from that post early in 1837 and moved to New York and then Philadelphia, he was back in Baltimore at the time of his mysterious death in 1849, and he is buried at Westminster Presbyterian Church near Camden Yards.
During his time in Baltimore, in 1833, Poe entered a literary contest offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. His submission, a group of short stories collectively titled Tales of the Folio Club, brought him a fifty-dollar prize, but more importantly, it led to his meeting with the influential Baltimorean literary and publishing figure John P. Kennedy, who became Poe's patron. Kennedy, a former secretary of the navy, wrote two southern novels, Swallow Barn (1832), a romance set in rural Virginia in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and Horseshoe Robinson (1835), a Revolutionary War Romeo-and-Juliet romance set in Virginia and the Carolinas. But more significantly, Kennedy was enmeshed in the publishing industrye was on close terms with White, Henry C. Carey (who published many of James Fennimore Cooper's works), and Washington Irving, and his presence made Baltimore a literary center.
Unlike the black literary figures Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs who had lived in Baltimore as slaves, the writer Frances E. W. Harper (1825911) was born in Baltimore into a family of free African Americans. Orphaned three years after her birth, she was raised and educated in Baltimore by her uncle, the abolitionist William Watkins, who enrolled her in the Academy for Negro Youth, a school for free African Americans that he had founded and ran. She published her first book of poetry, Autumn Leaves, often called Forest Leaves (1845), while living in Baltimore, but she moved to Philadelphia when southern white resentment of the large free African American population in Baltimore reached a fevered pitch.
As American economic power increased during the nineteenth century, Baltimore grew from an obscure port town to a bustling urban center. Baltimore's unique position as the largest city in the northernmost slave state on the East Coast helped increase its industrial trade between the North and the South, but this position also placed it in a precarious position at the outset of the Civil War. Leading up to the war, Baltimore's aggressive plans to create efficient trading routes into the American Midwest placed the city on the cusp of becoming America's second city, and its relatively lenient brand of slavery (resulting in, and coexisting with, the largest population of free African Americans in the South), also created an environment that allowed many slaves to escape to the North. During the war, Baltimore's economy ground to a halt and inhibited its future growth. After the Civil War, Baltimore never regained its prominence as America's next great city; however, the cultural foundation that developed through the growth in the nineteenth century makes Baltimore one of the important cultural cities in this era. After the war, the city was home to the Douglass Institute, where Frederick Douglass delivered a speech on 19 May 1870 to celebrate the Fifteenth Amendment; however, the city did not entirely embrace equality. Maryland, like other southern states, passed Jim Crow segregation laws and prevented total equality of the races until the twentieth century.
See also Blacks; Book Publishing; Literary Marketplace; Maritime Commerce; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Slavery; Urbanization
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Gregory Scott George