Celebrating 17 years

"Our people have fire if not smothered"

Loyalists, Radicals and the Fight Over the Declaration of Independence in Maryland

Introduction

The Declaration of Independence

As late as mid-June 1776, John Adams complained to Maryland Continental Congressman Samuel Chase that 'Maryland stands alone.' [1] Throughout the first six months of 1776, Maryland's delegates successfully, but not always whole-heartedly, resisted the growing tide of pro-independence sentiment in the Continental Congress. Orders from the colony's only functional government, the extra-legal Provincial Convention and its interim authority, the Council of safety, demanded that the congressional delegates refuse to consent to any acts calling for independence, foreign alliances, or a permanent union of the colonies.

Only when the increasingly powerful domestic radical elements threatened the political power and privileged status of the country's gentry did the convention finally instruct Maryland's delegates in Philadelphia (many of whom already saw the need for a break with England) to vote for independence.

The "clear conviction" of Maryland's elite

Maryland's delegates to the Continental Congress were an elite of large planters and wealthy merchants. This elitism came about because the delegates to Congress were elected by the Provincial Convention whose members were, in turn, elected by gentry-controlled county committees. Aubrey Land opines that, besides wealth, all members of this elite group of provincial politicians had the same Whig political philosophy, the same conception of property rights, and a "clear conviction that the well being of society demanded their control."[2]

The Provincial Convention was mostly composed of former assembly "county party" conservatives and moderates. It was the moderates who more strongly desired the restriction of Parliament's powers over the colonies and the protection of American liberties. As a result, they were usually elected as delegates to Congress by a large number of the province's self-serving and wealthy merchants.[3]

Unlike all other previous Maryland delegates to the Continental Congress, those who attended during the first half of 1776 had restrictions placed on their authority. In January, the Provincial Convention instructed all congressional delegates to recall the "State of felicity" they and their ancestors had enjoyed under English rule. The delegates should maintain hope for reconciliation between the colonies and England, and keep in mind "the avowed end and purpose for which these colonies originally associated, the redress of American grievances and securing the rights of the colonists." Any vote of the delegates in favour of independence which did not receive the convention's sanction would not be considered binding.[4]

Samuel Chase

When Samuel Chase, Thomas Johnson, William Paca, John Rogers, Thomas Stone, Mathew Tilghman and the two other congressional delegates of 1776 were originally elected, all concurred with the sentiments expressed in their instructions. For the most par, this remained the case until June of that year. In a letter dated May 20, May, 1776, Stone expressed these sentiments: "To cut the only Bond which held the discordant Members of the Empire together seems to me the most weak and ill judged Measure I have ever met with in a State which had the least Pretention to wisdom or knowledge in the Affairs of Men."[5]

Nevertheless, a gradual change took place among the congressional delegates' attitudes towards independence during the months proceeding July 4. On June 8, one day after Richard Henry Lee presented his resolution in Congress proposing independence, union and the formation of alliances, Thomas Jefferson explained, in his notes of congressional proceedings, that the opinion of Maryland delegates was swaying in favour of a break with England. While Samuel Chase had come to favour independence as early as the beginning of January, even the conservative Thomas Stone was forced, by June 11, to admit that, "Peace and Security which every virtuous man in this country has so earnestly desired seems not attainable in the present disposition of the ruling powers of Britain."[6]

The fear of radicalism

This change of heart among the province's delegates, which historian John McMahon attributes to their exposure to delegates from other colonies, was not paralleled among the members of the Provincial Convention. Until the end of June, Maryland's elite chose to retain hope for reconciliation. In part, this unwillingness to accept independence was due to the relatively mild English presence in the colony. Maryland was not subjected to any specific punitive legislation, as was the case in Massachusetts. [7]

Moreover, Maryland's Governor Eden, unlike Virginia's Governor Lord Dunmore, permitted the colony's gentry to freely resist the British government so that he could maintain some small degree of control over the situation. While Dunmore physically confronted the Virginia gentry with troops and even burned Norfolk, Eden remained on good terms with many convention leaders and actually distributed arms to moderate militia officers who supported the extra-legal government. This almost harmonious state of affairs supported the provincial elite's illusion that reconciliation was a viable solution.[8]

A more important cause for the elite's lack of enthusiasm for independence was their fear of growing radicalism among the provinces small farmers, tradesmen, and artisans. Throughout the years 1774, 1775, and 1776, dozens of incidents showed the separating sympathies of the colony's gentry and its lower classes. In October 1774, the Annapolis merchant Michael Stewart was forced by unusual circumstances, to pay duty on a small shipment of tea placed on his ship without his knowledge. When discovered, Stewart offered to publicly burn the tea, an act that the Provincial Convention of November 21 deemed as sufficient punishment. Yet, a small minority, led by the convention delegate Mathias Hammond, demanded that stronger measures be taken. When the elite-dominated convention refused to do so, Hammond and his followers began to gather a mob of lower-class radicals to burn Stewart's store and his house, where his wife was about to give birth. Stewart responded by setting his own ship on fire.[9]

Similar incidents, in which the mobs ignored the orders of the convention and local Committees of Observation, illustrated the extreme radical nature of Maryland's masses. Some elements of the lower classes would, in the summer of 1776, try to have the franchise extended to all white men above the age of 21. Others, including some congressional leaders, also perceived the Maryland elite as being too conservative. General Charles Lee called them "namby pambys." John Hancock circumvented Maryland's extra-legal government and turned to the leader of the unusually radical Baltimore Committee of Observation, Samuel Purviance, when he wanted Governor Eden imprisoned for passing intelligence on to the English navy.[10]

Thus, when the delegates to Congress altered their views in independence, they voiced more the sentiments of Maryland's radical lower classes than those of the elite. The extra-legal government, in preventing the transformation of public sentiment into a positive congressional vote for independence, created problems for the congressional delegates. As Samuel Chase explained in his letters from Maryland "a general Dissatisfaction prevails here [in Maryland] with our Convention." Chase later noted that Maryland's governmental elite feared that they would lose their privileged position in society because of the possibility of institutional changes and democratisation. He complained that while popular support in the colony favoured independence, the attitude of Maryland's elite prevented the people's wisdom from being followed.[11]

This situation, however, changed throughout 1776 for old "county party" stalwarts, such as John Hall and Mathias Hammond became envious of the fact that they had been eclipsed in the Provincial Convention by men like Samuel Chase, William Paca, and Charles Carroll of Carrolltown. In an attempt to revive their political power, Hammond and Hall were more than willing to encourage and court the support of the colony's radical elements.[12]

Not only did Hammond and several others like him support mobs, which ignored the Committees of Observance, but they also managed to gain enough political strength to win control of several local and county committees. Delegates to the Provincial Convention were rapidly realising that the base of their political power was weakening.[13]

In addition to the growing political power of the province's radicals, soldiers of the militia began, in 1776, to protest the appointment of the colonels and majors by the convention. The militia was composed mostly of small farmers and landless freemen; the two most radical groups in Maryland. In order to control this armed and potentially dangerous militia, the convention appointed men of wealth as the higher officers. After their first experience with any sort of franchise, when they were permitted to elect lieutenants and captains, militia troops demanded the right to elect all but the highest officers. One soldier went so far as to claim that: "It was better for the poor people to lay down their arms," and submit to the English, than "to be commanded and ordered about as they were," by convention appointees. The twentieth battalion of Queen Anne's County displayed these same sentiments by electing their own lieutenant-colonel and colonel from its lower class rank and file.[14]

The Provincial Convention delegates realised, by mid-June, that they must advocate independence or lose their political power. A radicalised and armed militia demanded that their franchise be extended, Hall and Hammond controlled a sizeable following at the grassroots level and congressional delegates began to appeal to individual county committees asking them to support independence. The provincial Convention that began on June 21 was Maryland's last chance to instruct their delegates to join those of the other 12 colonies in forming an independent union. Each of Maryland's 16 counties (eight from each shore) had five delegates present.

Until the June convention, an act could only be passed by a majority of counties. A county's stand on an issue was determined by a majority of its delegates. Therefore, only 24 delegates from the strongly loyalist Eastern Shore could prevent Maryland from signing the Declaration of Independence. On June 24, a critical resolution changed the convention's method of voting so that a deciding majority of delegates, not counties, could pass an act. On June 28, a vote on independence was called. Forty-two delegates voted "yea" and 27 East Shore delegates voted "nay." The Provincial Convention thus released Maryland's congressional delegates from all restriction regarding the vote on the Declaration of Independence.

Conclusion

John Adams

By the end of May, Maryland's delegates to the Continental Congress did not share the same fears associated with independence as their brothers at home, despite the fact that they were from the colony's elite. Subjected to the patriotic fervour of the delegates from other colonies, those of Maryland overcame whatever fears of independence they might have previously held. Bound by the convention's restrictions, however, the delegates could not vote for independence even though their letters indicate that they knew that large numbers of radical artisans, tradesmen, small farmers, and freemen desired exactly that.[15]

All restrictions on the authority of the delegates in Philadelphia were dropped only after a combination of forces made it politically expedient for the convention delegates to support independence. Finally, on June 25, as Samuel Chase was able to triumphantly write to John Adams: "I shall offer no other apology for Concluding, than that I am this Moment from the House to procure an Express to follow the Post with a Vote of our Convention for Independence, etc., etc. See the glorious effects of County instructionsóour people have fire if not smothered."[16]

 

Endnotes

[1] David Curtis Skaggs, Roots of Maryland Democracy (Westport, 1973), p. 178.

[2] Aubrey C. Land, Colonial Maryland (Milkwood, 1981), p. 309.

[3] The term "county party" was used to describe those delegates and appointed officials of the "family party." Members of the "family party" owed their positions and income to the proprietor and therefore guarded his prerogative and interests in the province.

[4] David Scaggs, p. 175; John V.L. McMahon, An Historical View of the Colony of Maryland (Baltimore, 1831), vol. I, p. 438.

[5] Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of the Delegates to Congress: 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C., 1979), vol. IV, p. 333; Letter of Thomas Stone to James Hollyday, May 20, 1776, in Paul H. Smith, Letters of the Delegates to Congress, p. 47.

[6] Ibid., p. 160; Letter of Thomas Stone to Maryland Council of Safety, June 11, 1776, in Paul H. Smith, Letters of the Delegates to Congress, p. 311.

[7] John V.L. McMahon, p. 431.

[8] Aubrey C. Land, p. 309.

[9] David Curtis Skaggs, p. 149; Aubrey C. Land, p. 301.

[10] David Curtis Skaggs, pp. 143, 149; Aubrey C. Land, p. 301.

[11] Letter of Samuel Chase to John Adams, June 21, 1776, in Paul Smith, Letters of the Delegates to Congress, p. 305; David Curtis Skaggs, p. 178; Paul Smith, p. 305.

[12] Aubrey C. Land, p. 309.

[13] David Curtis Skaggs, p. 175.

[14] Aubrey C. Land, p. 311.

[15] Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (Washington, D.C., 1921), pp. 488, 492.

[16] Letter of Samuel Chase to John Adams, June 28, 1776, in Paul Smith, Letters to the Delegates to Congress, p. 305.

Bibliography

Burnett, Edmund C., ed. Letters of members of the Continental Congress. Washington, D.C., 1921.

Land, Aubrey C. Colonial Maryland. Milkwood, 1981.

McMahon, John V.L. An Historical View of the Colony of Maryland. Baltimore, 1831.

Skaggs, David Curtis. Roots of Maryland Democracy. Westport, 1973.

Smith, Paul H., ed. Letters of the Delegates to Congress: 1774-1789. Washington, D.C., 1979.