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Biography of Charles Benedict Calvert | Special Collections and University Archives

Charles Benedict Calvert

Charles Benedict Calvert, descendant of the first Lord Baltimore, is generally considered the primary force behind the founding of the Maryland Agricultural College. Chartered in 1856, the College was the forerunner of today’s University of Maryland. For over 25 years, Calvert articulated a strong vision of agricultural education throughout Maryland and acted in innumerable ways to make his vision a reality. He and his brother, George H. Calvert, sold the land that formed the core of the College Park campus for $20,000, half its original cost, and lent the college half of the purchase price.

He was elected as the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees, held the second largest number of subscriptions to charter the college, chaired a committee to plan the first buildings, laid the cornerstone for the "Barracks," stepped in to serve as president of the college when the first president had to resign, and underwrote college expenses when there was no money to pay salaries.

Born on August 23, 1808, Charles Benedict was the fifth child of George Calvert and Rosalie Stier Calvert. He was educated at Bladensburg Academy, attended boarding school in Philadelphia, and spent two years in study at the University of Virginia. He took an early and active interest in the workings of Riversdale, his family estate, located a short distance from the College Park campus, and took over its operation upon the death of his father in 1838. In 1839, he married Charlotte Augusta Norris of Baltimore, and together they had five children, four of whom lived to adulthood.

Calvert left an impression far beyond the campus of the Maryland Agricultural College. He served three terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. His agricultural leadership began with his tenure as president of the Prince George’s County Agricultural Society, then expanded to the state and national level. He was a founding member of the Maryland Agricultural Society and served as its president in its formative years, 1848-1854. Later, he served as a vice president of the United States Agricultural Society. His association with agricultural societies provided a platform from which he could advocate another of his cherished goals—representation of farming interests at the highest level of executive government. Calvert represented the 6th District of Maryland in the 37th Congress from 1861 to 1863. The pinnacle of his service was the passage of a bill to create a separate bureau of agriculture, signed by Abraham Lincoln on May 15, 1862. The bureau was elevated to a cabinet department in 1889. He was also known in Congress as a proponent of slave owners’ property rights. At once a staunch unionist, a beneficiary of the planter’s way of life, and a citizen of a state more divided than any other, his life was a microcosm of the Civil War conflict.

However, Calvert must first and foremost be described as a farmer. He worked at and discussed cattle breeding, guano, farm buildings, machinery, and irrigation as easily as he discoursed on loftier and broader themes. He experimented widely and broadly to improve agricultural productivity.

No large cache of Calvert’s personal papers is available for examination, but he did regularly speak and write in public forums, and his ideas inspired comment from others. From his own words, we know that he was a man of strongly held views and plain but well-crafted language. He questioned the status quo in many arenas while holding fast to traditional ways in others. He was known as a generous man and, with his wife, Charlotte, he entertained graciously at Riversdale and at the National Hotel in Washington, in which he held an ownership interest passed down from his father. His untimely death in 1864 robbed the Maryland Agricultural College of years of valuable stewardship and the world of an accomplished man.