Maryland’s finest estate helps us remember the grandeur of a bygone age, the fortune of a powerful family, and the nameless people who made it all possible.
The Ridgelys of Maryland were crucial to the Revolutionary War. Their ironworks provided the Continental Army with the arms and ammunition to fight the conflict, and their merchant fleet helped establish Baltimore as a major Patriot port.
Flush with cash from the war, in 1783 the Ridgelys began construction on a sumptuous mansion befitting a family of such vast wealth.
Despite only being a summer home–the Ridgely’s main residence was in Baltimore proper–Hampton was the largest home in America when it was built, dwarfing both George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Visiting Hampton, it is easy to covet the Ridgelys’ lifestyle: the decadent dinner spread complete with ice cream (an on-site ice house kept food cold all summer long), the luxurious furnishings brought back from visits around the globe, the hand-painted wall paper and floor-to-ceiling artwork.
It is so tempting to step over the plastic barriers and into the lushly appointed rooms, in fact, that a park ranger notes before the tour even begins that the mansion is far more heavily alarmed than it looks.
The wealth in this “summer home” is captivating, seductive, enviable. Give it a moment, though, and one begins to wonder how such a lifestyle was possible. The answer was, of course, slaves.
Hints of an enslaved people are everywhere one looks.
There’s the hidden staircase, built to keep servants away from public eye. The bell pulls beckoning a slave to a particular room, often to change a chamber pot or some other equally demoralizing task. The sparse kitchen that would have burst with laborers working in searing conditions to keep the Ridgelys dining in opulence a few feet away.
The mansion tour predominantly focuses on the Ridgelys and only briefly alludes to the indentured servants, convicts, prisoners of war, and slaves who worked these gilded grounds. However, a visit to the nearby “Lower House” will start to flesh out the whole story.
The Lower House, located at the base of the hill on which Hampton looms, was the Ridgelys’ primary estate before Hampton was built. After the family moved into their mansion, the Lower House became the home to the farm manager, who oversaw the daily workings of the estate’s grounds.
An “ornamental farm” was built around the Lower House. Intentionally designed to look like a pleasant European village, this farm housed the estate’s servants, masking the inherent gruesomeness of slavery so as to not offend the refined eyes of the Ridgely family, who could see the slave quarters from Hampton’s northern windows.
And there was a lot to mask. While most Maryland slave owners had fewer than 10 slaves, in 1829 the Ridgelys owned more than 300.
On the ornamental farm, historic documents detailing seemingly benevolent treatment by the Ridgely family, such as Eliza Ridgely’s 1840s list of Christmas presents for slave children, are coupled with documents outlining horrific abuse, such as an 1829 newspaper article protesting the cruelty visited upon a Ridgely slave. Of the 37 gashes whipped into the man’s back, the Ridgelys reportedly stated, “He had got no more than he deserved.”
Reading those words, it’s impossible to look at Hampton, broadcasting her glistening wealth from the top of that nearby hill, with any sort of affection. The Ridgelys’ fortune waned after Emancipation–having to pay people for their work isn’t nearly as lucrative as enslaving them–and one cannot help but feel a pleasant burst of Schadenfreude at that fact.
When Hampton was signed over to the federal government as a national historic site in 1948, it was ostensibly to preserve the mansion and its snapshot of 18th- and 19th-century genteel life. Luckily for us, it also preserved the harsh realities of slavery, the horrible juxtaposition between almost-perverse levels of wealth and the servitude that made such wealth possible.
There is no denying that Hampton is a beautiful place. The Ridgelys dominated polite society, with their orangery that could grow citrus fruit even in the coldest winter months, their stables that housed unbeatable race horses, and their Italian-style terraced gardens that flowed down the southern lawn.
But the historic Ridgelys also dominated an entire village of enslaved people. As you tour the sumptuous rooms, admiring the finery of the “best table in America” and the lush furniture that cost more than your car, never forget the faceless men and women who were enslaved to make a Maryland family’s life more comfortable.
If You Go
Hampton is an easy drive from the northern edge of I-695. The grounds are open daily from 8:30 AM-5:00 PM, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Tours of the mansion are free and offered Thursday-Sunday on the hour starting at 10 AM. Tours of the Lower House and slave quarters are offered Thursday-Sunday but only when staff are available.
Event note: On December 13, Hampton will be open for a special Christmas celebration, with each mansion room decorated for the holidays in a different period style. On December 14, tours of the Lower House will showcase how the enslaved population celebrated the Yuletide season. More information on this event is available here.