In doing some research on the Progressive Era — in part, the subject of my Wednesday column in The Baltimore Sun — I tripped into a fascinating corner of Maryland history and the record of a long-gone governor from Conowingo named Austin Crothers. He was a man of contradictions in an age of ambiguity, a progressive with regressive tendencies, a bold reformer mired in the muck of his time.
Once upon a time, Maryland had a real progressive movement, and the governor most identified with that period was this mustachioed Crothers, born in 1860 to a Cecil County farmer and his wife.
Crothers came to prominence during the Progressive Era, early in the 20th Century, and though his accomplishments are many and impressive, there was an ugly side. Progressivism was not colorblind, and many people who called themselves progressives were racists. Clearly Crothers’ era was closer to the Civil War than to the modern civil rights movement. But it is still remarkable to read how forward-thinking men could remain addicted to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, even as their constituents seemed to smarten up.
For the record, Maryland history indicates that Crothers, governor from 1908 until 1912, and many of his fellow Democrats were reform-minded in the progressive spirit of their times. “Challenging boss rule, expressing confidence in science and calling for efficiency, Progressivism registered a change in ideas about government’s role in American society,” writes historian Robert Bruggers.
And yet, though disciples of this ambitious movement in American politics, Crothers and other Democrats made several notable attempts to restrict the voting rights of African-Americans. According to Bruggers’ rich and useful “Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980,” the progressive period in Maryland was an age of contradiction, noting with irony how, in 1911, the year Baltimore mandated the pasteurization of milk, the city also legalized racial segregation in housing. Crothers was among the schemers in disenfranchisement.
He stated that some qualifying test for voting would make black men “frugal and industrious and eager for an education.” In 1908, his attorney general, Isaac Straus, fashioned an amendment to the state constitution that would have required applicants to write out the full names of certain public officials before being granted voting rights. (Maryland voters rejected Straus’ plan, as they had an earlier disenfranchising measure known as the Poe amendment.)
Then the infamous Digges amendment emerged, also during the Crothers administration. That amendment, in 1910, would have given all white men in the state the right to vote and required all others to have owned at least $500 worth of property for at least two years before registering to vote. The General Assembly passed a measure allowing only whites to vote on the amendment. Crothers only vetoed the whites-only measure. Maryland voters, however, resoundingly rejected the Digges amendment.
There you have the reasons the word “unfortunately” appears in at least one biographical sketch of Austin Crothers. “It testified to the ambiguity of progress in Maryland,” writes Brugger.
Still, Crothers had many achievements that marked his administration as progressive. He and the General Assembly formed a state roads commission in 1908, the first in the nation, and gave it the authority to buy out the private toll roads and improve road transportation in the state. Crothers tried to root out waste in Annapolis and corruption in political campaigns. He called for an end to cronyism and the “evil practice” of electoral bribery. Straus also authored a campaign-finance bill that required the publication of donors and expenses, limited spending on campaigns and, amazingly, prohibited corporation contributions. (The General Assembly approved the bill.)
During Crothers’ tenure, the state strengthened election laws and established the regulation of banking and insurance. The General Assembly created the Public Service Commission to regulate public service providers and utilities. It called for PSC members to be “broadly representative of the public interest” (and not, presumably, cozy with the industries they regulated). Crothers also called for a centralized state purchasing agency. He supported higher food safety standards and gave public health officials enforcement powers to combat infectious diseases. He called for better care for the mentally ill and for workmen’s compensation.
“We want to put Maryland in the front rank of the march of progress,” Crothers was quoted as saying. “Standpattism in both parties is dead, and we hope never to be resurrected.” He did as promised and served only one term, returning to Cecil County in 1912. He died in May of that year.