Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Smallwood (1732-1792)
MSA SC 3520-1134
Governor of Maryland 1785-1788

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 21-23.

"WILLIAM SMALLWOOD, like John Eager Howard an outstanding military leader, and the great grandson of Colonel James Smallwood, who had arrived in Maryland in 1664, was born in the year 1732. There is disagreement as to his place of birth. According to some authorities, he was born in Kent County. Klapthor and Brown in their History of Charles County say this is rather unlikely. His father, Bayne Smallwood, did own land in Kent County 'but no record has yet been found to prove that he actually lived there or that his son William was actually born there.'1 It is more than plausible that William Smallwood was born in Charles County, because his father had been a planter and merchant in that county for many years and had represented Charles County in the Lower House of the General Assembly during the period between 1738 and 1756. His mother was Priscilla (Heaberd) Smallwood, a native of Virginia.

"In his youth, Smallwood was sent abroad for his education, first at Kendall, and then at Eton. He participated in the French and Indian War after his return to America, then served in the Lower House of the General Assembly during the sessions of 1761-1774 becoming one of the leaders of that body. During his legislative career, Smallwood served on the Committees on Arms and Ammunition, Grievances and Courts of Justice, the Examination of the Agents’ Accounts, and others. He subscribed to the Maryland Non-Importation Association in 1769, and participated as a delegate in the Convention of 1775. He was also a signer of the Association of Freemen of Maryland.

"At the outbreak of the Revolution, he resumed his military career. A few days after the battle at Lexington, he left Annapolis for Boston with a force of over 1,400 men to join the Continental Army. On January 14, 1776, he was commissioned Colonel of the First Maryland Regiment, and within a few months he marched north, participating in the Battle of Long Island. At Fort Putnam, his troops were designated by General Washington to cover his retreat, thus saving the American Army.

"Smallwood, according to one of his biographers, was a controversial [p. 22] leader. He also, says Mereness, 'made himself disagreeable by repeated complaints that he was not promoted as rapidly as he deserved, by complaints that his state was not accorded recognition in proportion to its services, and by his offensive attitude toward foreigners. The sacrifice of his men during battle seemed not to disturb him. His greatest service in the war was as a drill master, in raising men and supplies, and in administering other military affairs of his state.'2

"Smallwood distinguished himself in many engagements. His men performed well at the Battle of White Plains in August 1776, where they covered Washington’s retreat, and where he himself was wounded. Two months later, on October 23, 1776, he was commissioned a brigadier general and his regiment participated in the battles of Fort Washington, Trenton and Princeton. At Germantown on October 4, 1777, the Maryland Line captured part of a British camp. During 1779 and 1780, he was stationed at Wilmington, Delaware, where he covered Washington’s stores near the Elk River and kept the British on the Chesapeake Bay under constant surveillance.

"In 1780, Smallwood’s men marched south to participate in the battles in South Carolina. As the result of that campaign, he was appointed a major-general. For heroism at Camden, he and his men received the thanks of Congress. Following Baron de Kalb’s death several days after being wounded in the Camden engagement, General Smallwood was appointed a division commander. When Horatio Gates was removed, Smallwood became a subordinate to Baron von Steuben under whom he refused to serve. Smallwood protested violently and threatened to resign his commission rather than serve under a foreign leader. George Washington indicated that he did not approve of Smallwood’s position, while the Congress refused to comply with his demands. To ease tensions, General Nathanael Greene returned him to Maryland to assist in the raising of supplies and reinforcements. Smallwood, notwithstanding all the friction he caused, remained with the army until November 15, 1783.

"Smallwood was elected to Congress in 1784, but before he could take his seat, the Legislature chose him to succeed William Paca as governor. He qualified on November 26, 1785, and served the customary three terms, retiring from his gubernatorial office on November 24, 1788.

"Smallwood had the misfortune of serving as governor during one of the most difficult periods in the history of the nation. Not only were the Articles of Confederation proving inoperable, but the country also found itself in the midst of an economic depression. In spite of the country’s unsettled affairs, Smallwood was responsible for several major accomplishments, even though the national government, as such, had virtually ceased to exist. He called the Maryland Convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States, despite strong opposition to the proposed document in the State. During his administration, he encouraged the movement for the improvement of navigation on the Potomac River, which [p. 23] resulted in the compact with Virginia for that purpose in 1785. Finally, during part of his term, there was agitation over the settlement of the public debt of the Confederation, but with the adoption of the Federal Constitution, the controversy ended without the need for legislation.

"Governor Smallwood was succeeded in November 1788, by John Eager Howard. Following the expiration of his term, he retired to his estate in Charles County, but this was only temporary. In the fall of 1791, he was elected to the State Senate and had the honor of being chosen by his colleagues as the President of that body for that session. Both he and Governor Plater died within four days of one another, so that in 1792 the State was deprived by death of two of its three highest elected leaders. Smallwood never married, one of two governors to have been bachelors. He died at Mattawoman in Charles County on February 14, 1792.

"Until relatively recent times, his final resting place was unmarked except for a chestnut tree, which, according to tradition, grew from a nut placed in his grave. On July 4, 1898, the Maryland Society, Sons of the American Revolution, erected a plain granite block over his grave. In 1957 the General Assembly appropriated money to buy land for the establishment of Smallwood State Park, which consists of his home 'Smallwood’s Retreat,' its burial ground and some three hundred acres of land. After his death, an announcement in the Maryland Gazette read: 'Prominent as a soldier, wise and decided as a statesman, inflexible as a patriot, he uniformly distinguished himself in the Cabinet and the field, and through the various vicissitudes of a long and doubtful war, maintained and possessed the confidence and applause of his country.'"3

Notes on sources

Return to biographical profile


This information resource of the Maryland State Archives is presented here for fair use in the public domain. When this material is used, in whole or in part, proper citation and credit must be attributed to the Maryland State Archives. PLEASE NOTE: Rights assessment for associated source material is the responsibility of the user.


Tell Us What You Think About the Maryland State Archives Website!


[ Archives' Home Page  ||  All About Maryland  ||  Maryland Manual On-Line  ||  Reference & Research
||  Search the Archives   ||  Education & Outreach  ||  Archives of Maryland Online ]

Governor     General Assembly    Judiciary     Maryland.Gov

© Copyright December 20, 2002Maryland State Archives