Harold W. Hurst: December 2005
One of the most remarkable figures to dwell on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the nineteenth century was Ezekiel Forman Chambers (1788-1867). A man of varied talents and interests, he was a war hero, lawyer, judge, college official, politician, and churchman. His commanding influence spread far beyond his native Kent County, extending to the state house in Annapolis, the halls of Congress, the administration of Washington College, and the national deliberations of the Episcopal Church.
The son of General Benjamin Chambers and the former Elizabeth Forman, he was born in Chestertown, Kent County, on February 28, 1788. At the very early age of seventeen he graduated from Washington College in Chestertown and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1808, only a few days after he reached the age of twenty. According to his own autobiography, he soon gained a flourishing legal practice, largely because of the influence of his legal mentor, Judge James Houston, and the prestige of his father, a county clerk who was very popular in the area.
Young Chambers’ legal career was interrupted during the War of 1812 when, as a captain in the 21st regiment of the Maryland militia, he was called to defend the Eastern Shore from the invasion of British troops under the command of Sir Peter Parker. The war’s major battle on the Peninsula took place on the farm of Isaac Caulk near Tolchester Beach in Kent County. The invaders were repulsed on August 30, 1814 and during the engagement Parker was fatally wounded. Captain Chambers served under the regimental command of Colonel Philip A. Reed, who later noted that he (Chambers) “seemed to display more than the common degree of gallantry.”
Chambers’ political career began in 1822 when he entered the Maryland State Senate. During his service in this body he was involved in the formulation of legislation to secure “perfect security” for free colored inhabitants while also facilitating the recovery of slaves absconding from Maryland. The Supreme Court later declared the proposed law unconstitutional.
Chambers entered the national political arena in 1826 when he took a seat in the United States Senate. He served in this capacity until 1834, when he was appointed Chief Judge of the Second Judicial District of the United States and a Judge of the Court of Appeals. Judge Chambers retained his position until 1851, thus having served in both the judicial and legislative branches of government. In 1851 he served in the Maryland Constitutional Convention of that year. President Millard T. Fillmore offered him the post of the Secretary of the Navy in 1852, but Chambers turned down the appointment because of ill health.
Like most other wealthy men on the Eastern Shore, Judge Chambers supported the Whig Party, which was economically conservative and tied to the entrenched propertied interests. Kent County voters, like those in other parts of the Eastern Shore, voted for Whig Presidential candidates in 1836, 1840, 1844, 1848, and 1852. During the Civil War, Chambers, like others in the region, switched his allegiance to the pro-Southern Democratic Party. In 1864, when the judge was 76, he ran for governor on the Democratic ticket but was defeated by Thomas Swan, the Unionist nominee.
In Kent County and in Maryland academic circles, Judge Chambers was also known for his life-long efforts on behalf of his alma mater, Washington College. From 1843 until his death in 1867, he acted as President of the Board of Visitors and Governors. As such, he was probably more influential than any other person in the revival of the institution that had been practically defunct after a disastrous fire in 1827. Under his leadership a new brick building topped by a cupola was erected on “college hill” in 1845. During the 1850s two new brick structures were constructed, flanking the building put up in 1845. These edifices stand today as a testimony to the continuing vitality of the college and the prodigious efforts in its behalf by Ezekiel Chambers.
The judge was also interested in funding college scholarships. He and other local notables enacted a bill in the General Assembly entitled “A supplement to an Act for Founding a College in Chestertown.” This 1847 law authorized the state treasurer to pay the Board of Visitors and Governors of Washington College $1000 annually for boarding one student from each county on the Eastern Shore. This act permitted less privileged boys in the area to receive a higher education. Tuition and board, in this era, amounted to about $100 in the winter season and $65 in the summer session.
Chambers was a man of considerable wealth. The 1860 census reported that he owned $60,000 in real property and $77,000 in personal assets. His total estate of $137,000 made him the richest man in Kent County.
Among the properties inherited from his family was the finest mansion in Chestertown, known now and then as “Widehall.” Erected in 1769 by Thomas Smyth, this majestic structure faces the Chester River lending elegance to the waterfront area. A fire insurance policy taken out by Chambers in 1842 described the house as a two-story brick building 50 feet on the front and 41 feet deep with a piazza on the southside. There were separate adjoining structures including a service building and a stone smoke house. The total property was insured for $3,000 at 3½ percent. The present edifice has been modified since the Civil War era and contains a mansard roof added about 1870.
Although most people at this time in the Eastern Shore area were Methodists, Judge Chambers, like many other upper-class families, belonged to the Episcopal Church. He was first elected to the vestry of Chester Parish (now Emmanuel Church) in 1821 and in 1823 he was appointed as a lay delegate to the state convention of the Episcopal Church, a position he filled for many years after that date.
He also served occasionally as a representative of the Diocese of Maryland in the General Convention of the Church. His exhaustive knowledge of canon law made him a most influential delegate in these meetings. The judge’s piety extended to his own household, where he gathered his family and servants each evening for prayer and devotions.
Despite his many legal, political, and religious endeavors, Chambers also found time to attend to his extensive agricultural interests in Kent County. An advocate of advanced farming methods, he once invited landowners from a two-county area to witness a demonstration of a new reaper. He founded “garden clubs” and promoted “agricultural dinners” held in his elegant home. Indeed, much of his social life involved the entertainment of neighborhood planters interested in agricultural reform and new methods of cultivating grains and fruits.
In contrast to his successes in public life, our subject’s private life was often marked by tragedy and sadness. In later life, illness tended to impede his advancement in the political world, especially at the national level. The father of seven children, he lost a favorite daughter who suffered an early death. One son was mentally retarded. Other aspects of his family life appear to have been troubled.
Ezekiel Forman Chambers died on January 30, 1867, just shy of his seventy-ninth birthday. Thus passed one whom Thomas B. Macauley once called “a man of higher statesmanship.” Thus also ended a busy life devoted to country, state, church and alma mater. A person of singular characteristics and many interests, Judge Chambers was of a type now rare in this age of self-seeking politicians, “experts,” and narrow-visioned specialists.