Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Robert Bowie (1750-1818)
MSA SC 3520-121

Governor of Maryland, 1803-1806, 1811-1812

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of
Records Commission, 1970), 51-53.

"ROBERT BOWIE, who had the reputation of being 'a radical Democrat,' came into office on the crest of a reform movement in 1803. One of the most picturesque figures in Maryland politics in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, he was described as a man 'ardent and impulsive, bold and romantic, . . . pronounced an exponent of the strenuous life as was Theodore Roosevelt a century later. In love and in war and in politics, he was alike daring and persistent, never flinching in the presence of obstacles.'1 When he died he was well admired, loved and respected, the subject of deep public affection and gratitude.

"Robert Bowie, the third son of Capt. William and Margaret (Sprigg) Bowie, was born at 'Mattaponi,' near Nottingham in Prince George’s County, in March of 1750, but the exact date is unknown. He attended the schools of the Rev. John Eversfield near Croom, and the Rev. Mr. Craddock near Baltimore. When he was barely twenty years old, he eloped with Priscilla, the daughter of Gen. James John Mackall, at the time a girl of fifteen. Their marriage was a long and happy one, with seven children. Shortly after their marriage, Bowie’s father gave him a house and lot in Nottingham and also a farm in the vicinity. In 1791, when Capt. William Bowie died, Robert inherited 'Mattaponi,' which he used as a summer home.

"Bowie was twenty-four years of age when the Freeholders’ Convention held at Upper Marlboro in November, 1774, made him a member of the committee to carry into effect the resolutions of the Continental Congress. From that time on, he was a prominent leader in county affairs. On September 12, 1775, he was instructed to enroll a company of 'Minute Men,' and early in 1776 he was commissioned First Lieutenant of a company of militia organized in Nottingham. He was commissioned a captain on June 21, 1776 and participated with the Maryland troops in action around New York, where they were a part of George Washington’s army. Captain Bowie took part in the southern campaign, and although he received no great recognition such as that accorded Smallwood, Howard [p. 52] and Stone, he always displayed 'good Judgment and Courage.'2 Following the signing of the treaty of peace, Bowie returned home and entered politics, and despite his long absence, he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1785 and was re-elected five times.

"Between 1790 and 1801, Bowie was not active in politics. During this interim, he served both as a major of militia as well as a justice of the peace in Prince George’s County. He was a senatorial elector in 1796, and between 1801 and 1803, he was again a member of the House of Delegates, from which he resigned upon his election as governor on November 14, 1803.

"Robert Bowie served three terms as Governor, being re-elected in 1804 and 1805. The most important event during his administration was the settlement of the Bank Stock case through which the State completed the transfer of stock belonging to it, then in British funds. Other acts provided for the opening of the National Road and the prohibition of the immigration of free negroes into the State. Interestingly enough, only few reform acts were passed during his three years as governor, the most notable of which was one increasing Baltimore’s membership in the House of Delegates.

"After his retirement from office in 1806, Robert Bowie was appointed a justice of the Prince George’s County Levy Court, serving in that capacity until 1809. During the period between his first and second administrations, he seems to have been in the limelight only several times. In 1808, he served as a presidential elector for James Madison, and he advocated a declaration of war against England.

"On November 11, 1811, Bowie was elected governor for the second time, defeating John Eager Howard. In June of 1812, when Congress finally declared war against England, 'the Governor proceeded through the street bareheaded to the State House, where he congratulated the leaders upon the welcome news.'3 He at once called the Legislature into special session, sending that body a message directing it to take measures to 'organize, arm and equip' the militia 'and hold [it] in readiness to march at a moment’s warning.'4 In November of that year. he reported that four companies of infantry and one of artillery had been ordered into public service. In addition, arms, field pieces and swords had been distributed together with “fifty blankets to the troops stationed at this place, for the defence of the capital of the state.'5

"Unfortunately, just as Governor Bowie was attempting to rally the people of Maryland to support the war effort, an event occurred which ultimately brought an end to his public career. On June 20, 1812, Alexander Contee Hanson, the editor of the Federal Republican, a rabid Federalist newspaper, published a strong editorial in which he charged that the Republicans had entered a war 'without funds, without taxes, without a [p. 53] navy or adequate fortifications.' He went on to condemn the war in the strongest possible terms a situation which was directly counter to the political sentiment in Baltimore. On the evening of June 22, a highly-inflamed mob broke into the paper’s office, destroyed the type and newspaper presses and levelled the building. In the process, several persons were killed. Indignation meetings were held throughout the State and Bowie was urged to order an investigation and to punish those responsible for the riot. Bowie was accused of shielding the criminals who were never apprehended. Instead, in August, he stated that 'when our country is engaged in an open and declared warfare with one of the most powerful nations of Europe, it is the part of patriotism—it is the duty of every good citizen—a duty sanctioned and enforced by a love of country itself, to cultivate a spirit of harmony and concord, to avoid all internal broils and domestic disturbances, and thereby the more effectually concentrate the public force against the common enemy. A course of conduct of a contrary character and description, certainly would not deserve, and never could receive the approbation of virtuous and enlightened people.'7

"In the elections of November 1812, the reaction against the Baltimore riot worked against Bowie and his Republicans. Although he conducted a strong campaign, the Federalists led by Levin Winder, defeated him by a comfortable margin. Bowie retired to his home and in 1813, 1814, 1815 and 1816, he again attempted to regain the governor’s chair, but in all of these efforts he was unsuccessful. He died at his home on January 8, 1818 and was buried in the family cemetery at 'Mattaponi,' leaving an estate valued at over $36,000 including some eighty-two slaves.8

"At his death, the House of Delegates adopted a resolution expressing its respect and high esteem. The resolution proposed that members of the legislature should wear crepe on their left arms during the remainder of the session, but the Senate would not concur in this last action. 'According to the practice of our predecessors, this mark of respect has been paid to the memory of those only who held important stations in the government at the time of their death. Several most respectable citizens who had filled the office of governor, sunk to the grave before the gentleman named in the resolution, and although some of them had rendered distinguished services in the war for independence, yet the honour now proposed to be offered was never conferred.'9 One of his biographers described him as 'an implacable enemy, but a most loyal friend, and those who knew him in private life loved him well for his generosity and kindly spirit.'10

Notes on sources

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