Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Grason (1788-1868)
MSA SC 3520-1456

Governor of Maryland, 1839-1842

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 117-120.

"ALMOST NOTHING is known about the early life of William Grason, Marylandís first popularly-elected governor. In his original edition, Buchholz states that Grason was born at 'Eagleís Nest' on the Wye River in 1786, the son of Richard Grason, a farmer,1 but these facts cannot be proved. Governor Grason was probably born in Queen Anneís County, although there is no definite information to that effect. The date of his birth is given on his tombstone as March 11, 1788. The names of both of his parents are unknown, but in the admissions book for St. Johnís College, he is registered as the son of  'Commodore Grason,' with his guardian being 'General J. Davidson.2  This fact seems to indicate that Governor Grasonís father had died previous to his sonís admission to St. Johnís College in March 1801. In addition, the indexes to patented lands in Queen Anneís and Talbot Counties, fail to reveal a tract with name of 'Eagleís Nest.' No wills exist for a Richard Grason in either county to indicate that he had a son named William, but there is, however, a will probated in Queen Anneís County in 1797 for a Richard Grason which was executed in 1786. This may account for the absence of a probate document which might verify Governor Grasonís parentage, since the will would have been made two years before William was born. An Ann Grason, whose will was probated in Queen Anneís County in 1797, names a son William who was not yet twenty-one years of age, so from this evidence, it might therefore be assumed that the parents of William Grason were named Richard and Ann.3

"In 1801, Grason was sent to Annapolis where he was enrolled at St. Johnís College, but he did not graduate from that school. Undoubtedly his familiarity with the sea caused him to want to become a sailor. At any rate, after he left St. Johnís, he entered the United States Navy as a midshipman, but his naval career seems to have been only of short duration.

"On October 12, 1813, Grason was married to Susan Orrick Sulivane, [p. 118] the daughter of James Bennett Sulivane of Cambridge.4 For several years he and his wife lived in Dorchester County near her parents, and about 1816 they moved to Queen Anneís County where he made his home near Queenstown.

"William Grason made his first attempt at public office in 1828, when he was nominated as an Anti-Jackson candidate for a seat in the House of Delegates. He was elected and in the following year, he was re-elected. In 1831, he was chosen as a senatorial elector from the Eastern Shore. In 1833, he was a candidate for the nomination as congressman from his district, and when the District Convention met, the Queen Anneís County members favored Grason. The delegates from the other counties preferred John T. Reese of Kent County who was named, but before the election, Reese died, so the Convention had to be recalled to choose a successor. The Queen Anneís County members, meanwhile, switched their support from Grason to Richard B. Carmichael. The latter was, subsequently, nominated and elected.

"In 1835 Grason made his second attempt to secure a seat in Congress. This time he received his partyís nomination, but in the general election he was defeated by James A. Pearce, the Whig Candidate, by a majority of slightly more than one hundred votes.

"In 1837, Grason became a candidate for office for the third time, competing for a seat in the House of Delegates from Queen Anneís County instead of attempting a Congressional campaign. As in his first race, he was successful, receiving the most votes of the four candidates chosen.

"The Constitution of 1776, as amended by the Reform Act of 1837, provided that the governor should be chosen directly by the people instead of by the Legislature after 1838. Under the provisions of this Act, the governors term was to be for three years. The state was divided into three gubernatorial districts, with the Eastern Shore comprising one district, with Baltimore City and the counties of Southern Maryland making up the second district, and Harford, Baltimore and the western counties the third district. Each of these districts would name a candidate in rotation commencing with the Eastern Shore District in 1838. In the spring of that year, the Democrats nominated William Grason for governor, while the Whigs named John Nevitt Steele of Dorchester County. After a bitterly fought campaign in which both candidates charged each other with dishonesty, and corruption, Grason was elected, defeating Steele by the slim state-wide margin of three hundred and eleven votes. The Democrats failed, however, to secure a working majority in the Legislature, a condition which resulted in constant friction with the Whigs.

"In his inaugural address, on January 7, 1839, Grason informed the General Assembly that the thorniest problem it would have to solve would be the payment of Marylandís debts, primarily because the State had indulged in the all-too-lavish subsidizing of internal improvement projects complicated by the peopleís reluctance to accept additional taxation to [p. 119] pay off the debt.  He recited the history of internal improvements by pointing out that the State 'had entered by degrees with a connexion with canal and railroad companies, and still more cautiously into the plan of borrowing money for their support.He went on to show how this policy would continue unless the Legislature took some action to change its thinking, he urged this body to guard against 'an increase of existing evils and of providing, if possible, for the gradual redemption of the public debt.'  He combatted the arguments of those individuals who favored repudiation rather than the levying of additional taxes on an unwilling people by declaring that the heavy debt had 'been contracted and confirmed by successive Legislatures, sanctioned by the people themselves . . . and the obligations of the State are in the hands of men, who relied upon her good faith, and whose borrowed money has been expended on her works. It is impossible to question the validity of the debt, and unreasonable to plead inability, without first making an effort to discharge it.'6 Grasonís only other alternative would have been repudiation, which he refused to consider. Instead, he condemned the people for 'the continued re-election of Representatives, who were most prominent in creating' the Stateís financial dilemma, and consequently, the Whigs whom he accused of contracting the debt, refused to cooperate with him.7 As the result of the constant castigation of his political opponents, he was able to accomplish little during his administration except to utter gloomy prophecies as a 'political Jeremiah' about the Stateís inability to pay its debts.

"This speech was only the introduction to Governor Grasonís financial lamentations. In December 1840, he again described the Stateís problems and stated how, in his opinion, these might be solved. Feeling that their credit needed holstering, some states had claimed the proceeds from the sales of public lands. 'It is contended, that these lands were ceded to the general government, to he applied to the payment of the national debt; and that the debt having been paid, the States are now entitled to the revenue arising from that source. A Statement of the principal facts will show, that the States have no just claim to the revenue arising from the sale of the public land and they would derive but little benefit from it, if they had,' he insisted.8  He carried his logic one step further by stating that the principle of distributing the revenue could never be satisfactory without 'disturbing the constitutional relations between the General Government and the States, and finally destroying the limits, which were intended to separate their functions and powers.'

"Governor Grason also called the Legislatureís attention to the amendments of the Constitution. He pointed out that 'the mode of amending it furnishes proof that it was nothing more than a provisional organization of a new government.' Its changes had caused it to become 'a shapeless [p. 120]  mass of unintelligible and contradictory provisions' so that 'no one can tell what the Constitution is, or where it is to be found.'9

"During the late 1830ís, the United States had to face open rebellion along the Canadian frontier, a condition which brought with it the danger of war with Great Britain. Memories of the War of 1812 had not yet faded, and with continued disturbances and agitation because of American sympathies towards the Canadians, Grason took the opportunity to urge 'preparations for defence . . . to meet aggression from whatever quarter it may come.' Maryland, he insisted, was more vulnerable to naval attack. 'A hostile fleet having possession of the Chesapeake Bay, might cut off the whole of our trade, destroy our villages, and lay waste a large portion of the State.' All this could be avoided by having 'a sufficient number of steam frigates to guard the Chesapeake Bay.' By calling the attention of the Legislature to the seriousness of the situation, he reported that he wished 'to be understood as only claiming for Maryland, that protection and defence which it is the duty of the general government to extend to every State in the Union.'10

"Grasonís term ended on January 3, 1842, following which he returned to his farm in Queen Anneís County, occasionally emerging to participate in public life. In 1850, the Democrats of Queen Anneís County chose him to be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and in the same year he was elected to the State Senate. In 1856, he was again a senatorial candidate, but he was defeated. Following Abraham Lincolnís election in 1860, Grason was selected to be a member of the delegation from Queen Anneís County which participated in the conference held in Baltimore to determine Marylandís course. The convention named him its president, but he declined because of his failing health.

"Governor Grason died at his home near Queenstown on July 2, 1868, at the age of eighty-one. He was buried on his own land, now called 'Wye River Farm,' located on the Bennett Point Road in Queen Anneís County."11

Notes on sources

Return to William Grason's introductory page


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