Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

James Thomas (1785-1845)
MSA SC 3520-1454

Governor of Maryland, 1833-1836 (Whig)

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of
Records Commission, 1970), 107-109.

"JAMES THOMAS, like Joseph Kent a doctor of medicine, was horn at 'De la Brooke Manor,' in St. Mary’s County on March 11, 1785, the son of William and Catherine (Boarman) Thomas. The Thomas family, however, had owned 'Deep Falls,' a grant to them in 1680. The governor would later live, die and be buried at that place.1 On his maternal side, he was related to Commander Robert Brooke, the adventurer, who had come to America in 1650, and had built the mansion in which the governor was born. Thomas entered St. John’s College with the class of 1800, but he did not graduate. He seems, instead, to have matriculated at Charlotte Hall Academy, from which he was graduated in 1804. He later went to Philadelphia, where he studied medicine, receiving his doctor’s degree there in 1807. He then returned to St. Mary’s County where he began the practice of medicine, continuing it until the outbreak of the War of 1812. In 1808, he was married to his cousin, Elizabeth Courts, but the exact date is unknown.2

"Between 1808 and 1812 he was a justice of the peace, and from 1810 to 1812 he served as a member of the Levy Court of St. Mary’s County. Shortly before the declaration of war against England, he was commissioned as major in the Fourth Maryland Cavalry. Later, because of meritorious service he was brevetted a major general.

"After the war, Dr. Thomas again resumed his medical practice, but he soon abandoned his profession for politics. Between 1826 and 1831, he was a Senator from the Western Shore, 'gaining a reputation throughout the state for sound judgment and high personal character.'3

"In 1833, George Howard declined to serve another term as governor. The General Assembly, consequently, elected James Thomas by an overwhelming majority, the last anti-Jacksonian candidate to be chosen before that party became the Whigs. Thomas was sworn into office on January 17, 1833. Like that of Joseph Kent, his administration was noteworthy for his [p. 108] advocacy of internal improvements.  The war between the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company's interests and those representing the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ended, so Thomas was instrumental in bringing about a settlement which meant so much to the success of the railroad.

"Governor Thomas was also responsible for the State’s appropriation both to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and to the Susquehanna Railroad. The former received some $2,000,000 while the latter about $1,000,000. The contributions to the canal company were of dubious value, and it was later to bring about the repudiation crisis. The railroad contribution benefitted Maryland greatly, and in the final analysis, it would be the more lasting of the two objects of internal improvement.

"Dr. Thomas was a rabid political foe of President Andrew Jackson. While the Governor advocated a liberal policy of internal improvements either at the expense of the state or the nation, Jackson opposed the use of public money for the construction of transportation facilities for private corporations. Both differed over the question of banks. Finally, they opposed each other on the issue of the tariff.

"Thomas supported appropriations for the support of general education of which the system of internal improvements was the handmaiden. 'The law of the last session lends the public credit to insure the completion of works of great importance and certain profit and bestows the whole of the direct pecuniary gain of the state to provide for general education, and the whole state, as with one voice, approves the measure . . . All exalt in the sure prospect of ample provisions being made in the future for the development [sic] of the intellectual powers of our posterity.'4

"Probably the most noteworthy event to have occurred during his term was the removal of the government deposits which preceded the failure of the Bank of Maryland during 1834. Up to the time it failed, its stock had been valued at $500 a share, though its par value was but $300. The bank’s collapse indicated some manipulation of its securities, yet for about eighteen months, its creditors had been awaiting some settlement in order to liquidate its affairs. Finally, people took matters into their own hands and beginning on August 6, 1835, a mob began several days of rioting, burning and looting. Reverdy Johnson’s and John Glenn’s houses were attacked and property belonging to bank officials was destroyed. The Governor, after several days of anarchy called for federal troops whose arrival, together with drastic action by General Samuel Smith, brought an end to several days of chaos. This incident prompted Governor Thomas to take measures for the establishment of a state militia organization.

"Thomas reported with regret and pain 'the spirit of insubordination which has of late so frequently manifested itself in many parts of the country.' In Maryland, he said, were some of the most flagrant violations. 'In Governments not formed in the principles of republicanism, where persons claiming to be independent of and superior to the people, under color of laws enacted by themselves, practice tyranny and oppression, [p. 109] these popular commotions may sometimes be palliated or excused, as the only means possessed by an enslaved people of checking the inordinate excesses, and striking terror into the hearts of their oppressors.'  He sincerely hoped that the legislature would enact laws which would 'insure the punishments of all similar offenders in the future.'5

"Thomas’ opposition to the abolitionists was expressed when he further decried the 'machinations of sundry misguided and wickedly disposed citizens, residing chiefly in the Northern and Eastern States of the Union, who associating themselves with certain unprincipled foreign emissaries, have sought. . . to destroy the peace, happiness and security' of Maryland and the states in the South. He went on to describe the methods employed in their efforts. Presses, he charged, poured out 'in a constant stream, the most inflammatory addresses to our slave population, which are circulated among them by means of the Post Offices and by secret agents dispersed in every direction . . . From authorities we have a right to expect, and after what we have heard from their constituents, we will not question that they will take the necessary steps to prevent those associations' from being introduced into Maryland.6

"Governor Thomas’ administration was also marked by several achievements. He appointed David Ridgely to collect all records and papers he could find and to assemble them. The governor was happy to report that as the result, many valuable documents had been rescued from destruction, but that many of them needed to be transcribed. He also submitted copies of the reports of John H. Alexander, Engineer, and Julius V. Ducatel, Geologist, in making provisions for a new and complete map together with a geological survey of the state. 'The interesting and useful information exhibited in these reports, and the ample and judicious explanations with which the discoveries they disclose are accompanied furnish an assurance alike of the wisdom of the Legislature in designing these important works and of the skill and fidelity of the agents to which their execution has been entrusted and inspire the most confident hope of great and permanent benefits from a thorough development of the topography and geological resources of the state.'7 The map produced at that time possessed considerable historical value inasmuch as it restored the original names to many places whose historical identity had very nearly been lost.

"When Governor Thomas’ term expired on January 14, 1836, he retired to his home at 'Deep Falls,' St. Mary’s County. There he passed the remaining years of his life, dying there on Christmas Day, 1845, survived by his wife.8 He was buried in the Thomas’ family cemetery at his ancestral estate."

Notes on sources

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