Harold W. Hurst - January 2011


Gentleman Politicians
The Goldsborough Family, 1805-1951
Harold W. Hurst


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the landed gentry were the dominant class on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The great landowners controlled the economy, government and social life of the region. Families like the Lloyds, Goldsboroughs and Tilghmans lived on large estates worked by slaves, free blacks and poor whites. This class enjoyed a social life and political influence that approximated that of the great planters who resided in the tobacco, rice and cotton states that formed the Confederacy in 1861.
One of the most celebrated of the great political families were the Goldsboroughs. Descended from Nicholas Goldsborough, who emigrated from England and settled on Kent Island about 1670, this family played an influential role in Maryland and national political life from the 1690s until well into the middle of the 20th century – a span of at least nine generations.
The Goldsboroughs settled throughout Maryland, but most of them put down roots in the four Mid-Shore counties of Caroline, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s and Talbot. Robert Goldsborough, a descendant of Nicholas, owned 1,941 acres in Talbot County by 1733. His estate, “Ashby,” on the Miles River became one of the showplaces of the region. The estate manor house, known as “Myrtle Grove,” was built in the 1740s by Robert. This historic building, still standing today, consists of a five-bay frame structure; a two-and-a-half-story brick addition dating from 1790 and a more modern kitchen annex added in 1927.
During the Colonial era, the Goldsboroughs held numerous offices such as judge, commissioner of justice, sheriff, delegate to the Maryland Assembly and a member of the Governor’s Council. Beginning with the national period and continuing into modern times, various members of the family have gained fame as Governors of Maryland and United States Senators.
Between 1805 and 1939, four Goldsboroughs occupied seats in Congress; two of them were also governors.
The first Goldsborough to become both a Maryland Governor and a United States Senator was Charles, who was born at “Hunting Creek” near Cambridge on July 15, 1765. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he studied law and later held a seat in the State Senate. In 1805 he was elected as a Federalist to the U.S. Senate, a seat he held until 1817. He was the first Goldsborough to become Governor of the state of Maryland (1818-1819). He died in 1834 and was buried in Christ Church cemetery in Cambridge, the resting place of many members of the Goldsborough family.
A more celebrated member of the family, and one of the most beloved citizens of Maryland at the time, was Robert Henry Goldsborough, who was born in 1779 at the family seat, “Myrtle Grove.” A graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, he began his political career when he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1804. During the War of 1812 he became the captain of a cavalry unit. Between 1813 and 1819, he was a member of the U. S. Senate, representing the Federalist Party. In 1835 Robert Henry Goldsborough was appointed to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat occasioned by the resignation of Ezekiel Forman Chambers. His term of service was suddenly ended by his death in 1836.
Robert Henry’s career was not limited to politics. He was instrumental in establishing the Easton Gazette, an organ for the dissemination of Whig Party views. He was an active member of the Masonic fraternity and a devoted adherent to the Episcopal Church. Other activities included the American Colonization Society, the Maryland Bible Society and the Agricultural Society of the Eastern Shore.
An elegant and forceful orator, Robert Henry nevertheless, according to one historian, avoided “the extravagances of rhetorical flourish and bodily gesticulation.” He possessed enormous charm and social qualities that endeared him to a wide circle of friends. It is no accident that he was known as “the Chesterfield of Maryland.” Upon his death in 1836, the Easton Gazette lamented, “A great man in Israel has fallen. Talbot has lost her pride, and the Eastern shore one of her proudest boasts.”
Phillips Lee Goldsborough (1855-1946) also made history at both the state and national levels. Born in Princess Anne in Somerset County, he held a number of offices between 1892 and 1912, when he was elected Governor of Maryland on the Republican ticket. The Progressive movement was in high gear during this period, and P. L. Goldsborough, like many politicians of both parties, was heavily involved in the reform movement that swept the state and nation. Under his influence and leadership, Maryland passed a child labor law, a compulsory education act, legislation limiting working hours for women and programs for the expansion of oyster conservation.
P. L. Goldsborough was elected to the United States Senate in 1912 and served until 1935. He then was appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a position he held until his death on October 22, 1946.
The last Goldsborough to enter the national limelight was Thomas Alan Goldsborough, the great-great-great-grandson of Robert Goldsborough and the great-grandson of Charles Goldsborough. Born in Greensboro in Caroline County in 1877, he graduated from Washington College in Chestertown in 1899. Thomas Allen, a Democrat, was elected to Congress in 1920 and served from 1921 until 1939, an era that spanned the prosperous ’20s and the Depression of the 1930s. His time in Congress marked a period when he rendered valuable service on the Banking and Currency Committee. In 1939 President Roosevelt appointed him as Federal District Judge for the District of Columbia.
Thomas Alan Goldsborough gained more notoriety as a judge than as a congressman. His name vaulted into the national political limelight in 1946 when he signed a Justice Department order to stop a miner’s strike against government-operated coal mines. Finding himself face-to-face with the blustering president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, who refused to submit to the government order, he was forced to impose a massive fine of $3.5 million on the Union.
Further confrontation with Lewis occurred over the injunction faced in 1948 over the matter of a proposed monthly retirement pension of $100 for the United Mine Workers. On this issue, Goldsborough eventually sided with the miners, noting that it was a meager enough amount for these workers. Thomas Alan Goldsborough was a skilled lawyer whose judgeship was marked by both firmness and magnanimity. He died in 1951.
One notable member of the Goldsborough lineage was entirely associated with Maryland politics. Henry Hollyday Goldsborough was born in 1817 and graduated from St. John’s College. He served as a Deputy Attorney General and was later elected to the House of Delegates in 1857 and the State Senate in 1860. A man of moderate opinions, he deserted the Whig Party when they were taken over by the extremist “Know Nothings.” He then joined the Democrats.
During the Civil War, H.H. Goldsborough was a Unionist who was instrumental in keeping “the Free State” from joining the Confederacy. One historian has written, “By his efforts in the Legislature, especially the Senate, he contributed largely to secure the state on the side of the Federal Government.”
During the Civil War era, the allegiances of the Goldsboroughs were divided. Some were pro-Southern in their views, if not their actions, while others ardently supported the Union cause. Their split loyalties mirrored that of the divided state of Maryland.
Most of the Goldsborough clan had gained their wealth in land ownership, the legal profession and office holding. H.H., however, supplemented income made in the law office by engagement in real estate and commercial endeavors. The Eastern Star, for instance, announced on November 29, 1859, that Henry H. had completed a three-story brick building in Easton at the corner of Dover and Washington streets. The new structure was to accommodate a dwelling, reading room and a Masonic Lodge facility. The Star further noted that the new building “added much to the appearance of the town.”
While politics and the law preoccupied most members of the Goldsborough family, some of them engaged in other activities that contributed to the economy and society of the state and region. Goldsboroughs sat on the boards of directors of the Eastern Shore Agricultural Society and the Easton Bank. John Goldsborough helped organize the Maryland Steamboat Company in 1819. F.L. Goldsborough acted as president of the Talbot County Fair Association between 1885 and 1895.
The ubiquitous Goldsboroughs also held sway over a variety of medical, fraternal, journalistic, religious and social activities of the Eastern Shore. Most of them were loyal adherents of the Episcopal church, apparently unaffected by the pervasive movement of Methodism that swept across Delmarva after 1800. Oswald Tilghman, in his History of Talbot County Maryland, noted that Robert Henry Goldsborough regarded religion as being “more than mere sentiment,” and that it was “the basilar principles of private and public morality.”
The members of this influential family largely gained fame by their actions in the state and national political arenas. The best of them were statesmen of the highest caliber whose chief goals were public service and the common good. Fair-minded and widely acquainted with the issues of the day, they were also fluent in speech and polished in manner. Their legacy stands in sharp contrast to the corruption, coarseness and violent partisanship that too often marks the contemporary political scene. They were, indeed, gentlemen politicians of a type that largely belongs to the past.