Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Philip Francis Thomas (1810-1890)
MSA SC 3520-1459

Governor of Maryland 1848-1851

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 135-139.

"PHILIP FRANCIS THOMAS, who rescued Maryland from the insolvency of his predecessors, was born in Easton on September 12, 1810.  His father, a Talbot County Federalist, practiced medicine on the Eastern Shore for more than fifty years. His mother, was Maria Francis, whose ancestors had settled in Talbot County  before 1720. Philip Thomas received his early education at Easton Academy, after which he became a student at Dickinson College.  As the result of his participation in some college pranks which were detected, he was suspended after two years of study, so he returned to Easton, where he became a law student in the office of William Hayward and in November 1831 he was admitted to the Bar.

"In 1835, he married Sarah Maria Kerr.  They had thirteen children, of whom three daughters were still living at the time of his death.  Mrs. Thomas died in 1870, and in 1876, he married Clintonia (Wright) May, a daughter of Governor Robert Wright and the widow of Captain William May of the United States Navy.  He had no children by his second marriage.

"The Thomas family had become members of the Whig Party, so when Philip Francis Thomas became a Democrat he did so with the knowledge that the Democrats in Talbot County were a minority party.  He pulled together the fragments of the Democratic Party, but when he ran for the legislature in 1834, he was defeated badly. Two years later, he again was a candidate and espoused the movement for a constitutional convention which would reapportion the state, and again he was defeated, but this time by the narrow margin of two hundred votes. In 1838, he made his third attempt for a seat in the House of Delegates, and this time he was successful. Thomas was also a delegate to the Democratic Convention which met in Baltimore in that year to nominate William Grason for governor, boldly pledging Talbot County to Grason and then carrying out his pledge. In the county, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate received a majority of one hundred and thirty votes, while Thomas had a slightly larger margin.

"In the following year, his party nominated him for a seat in Con- [p. 136] gress, for which he challenged the incumbent James Alfred Pearce the Kent County Whig who had been representing the district in Congress since March 4, 1835. To the surprise of everyone who had regarded Thomas as the underdog candidate he was victorious, being elected by the narrow margin of one hundred and eighty-eight votes. He took his seat on December 2, 1839 and served until March 4, 1841.

"Thomas was appointed a member of the Committee of Elections shortly after his term began. The contested election cases before the committee at that time were so engrossing that the members were excused from attending the meetings of the House and spent all their time taking testimony, so while Thomas’ services in this connection were important, they did not earn him a reputation either as a parliamentarian or as a legislator. At the close of his term, Congressman Thomas was renominated by his party, but he declined re-election and Pearce, his predecessor, once more assumed his seat. Thomas resumed his law practice though on January 22, 1841 shortly before his term had ended, he accepted the office of judge of the Land Office for the Eastern Shore. He was reappointed in 1842, in spite of the fact that this court was abolished in the same year.  In 1843 he again was a candidate for the House of Delegates and was again elected.

"In 1845, Thomas once more was a candidate for re-election to the House of Delegates, and was elected.  He served with such outstanding success in the session of 1846 that he was generally mentioned as the prospective Democratic nominee for governor long before the State conventions, so at the Democratic State Convention, which met in Baltimore on June 24, 1847, Thomas received his party’s nomination for governor. His Whig opponent, William Tilghman Goldsborough of Dorchester County, charged that Thomas was favorable to the repudiation of the State’s debts, and hoped thereby to defeat him. Thomas, however, explained to the voters every feature of his policies regarding both internal improvement legislation as well as that pertaining to the state’s debts, so in the election held on October 6, 1847, Thomas defeated Goldsborough by about seven hundred votes, and took office on January 3, 1848.

"In his inaugural address, Governor Thomas called the Legislature’s attention to the question of constitutional revision which had agitated the public for many years. He pointed out that the seventy-year old document under which Marylanders were then living had its defects and needed revision. He described it as being 'formed at an early period of the Revolutionary War,' and was 'as well adapted to the exigency of the times as could reasonably have been expected.' It was 'doubtless the very best of which existing circumstances allowed,' but since its adoption 'three generations have passed away, and the social condition of the people, has undergone a total change. Large portions of the territory then barely known and wholly uninhabited, have since been erected into counties and become densely populated. . . . With these striking mutations both in territory and population, no corresponding change has been effected in the Constitution of Maryland. . . . The Government of Maryland so far from conforming to that cherished axiom in the republican [p. 137] creed which asserts the rights of a majority, in all cases, to rule, is in fact a government of a minority.'1

"He urged the Legislature to call a convention and draw up a new Constitution. This, he termed, was the embodiment of the political science of the nation. A Constitution, he said, was 'designed to define the powers of government, to limit and control the action of its various departments, and to guard, protect, and perpetrate the liberties of the people of posterity.' He described it further as 'a work of the greatest import, involving the wisdom of enlighted [sic] statesmen, demanding the most unlimited opportunity for inquiry, deliberation and debate.'2  During the closing months of his term, he saw the convention called and its work nearly completed.

"Governor Thomas did not favor the exclusion of slavery from any of the newly-acquired territories. 'The territory of the United States now owned, or to be hereafter acquired,' he declared, 'is the common property of all States, purchased with the common treasure, or won with the common blood of the whole people.'3

"He further defended the institution of slavery in these words: 'The institution of slavery is regarded by the constitution as a municipal regulation, and property in slaves is recognized, guaranteed and protected. The right of the citizens of each and all of the States to emigrate with their personal effects, to any territory of the Union is clear and indefeasible. Any regulation, therefore, intended to exclude the people of the slaveholding States from an equal participation in the enjoyment of territory to be hereafter acquired by the United States, would be a palpable violation of the constitution--a deprivation of the citizens of such States of their interest in the common property, and a degradation of the States themselves from an equal rank with the other States of the Union.

“'Such a condition of things is not for a moment to be tolerated. The subject admits of neither compromise nor conciliation, and if persisted in, must inevitably endanger the permanence of the Union. To arrest, if possible, so great an evil, it would be well for the representatives of the people of Maryland, respectfully and fraternally, but with firmness and dignity, to warn those who was engaged in this nefarious crusade against the rights of the South and the compromises of the constitution, of the painful consequences to which persistence may lead.'4

"During his administration, the State made good progress in reducing the amount of its public debt. He regarded this reduction to be of the utmost importance to the mercantile interests. The public works in which the State had an interest were prosperous. The railroad construction was proceeding well and would form a mighty link between the East and [p. 138] West. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal had not yet been completed. Thomas felt that 'wisdom and good faith have not at all times, presided over the councils of the company,' so consequently he recommended the creation of a board of public works which would be elected by the people to represent and manage the State’s interests in the internal improvement companies. This step, later adopted in the Constitution of 1851, would, he felt, convert the curse of debt into a blessing.5

"When his term ended in 1851, Governor Thomas was in the same year elected Comptroller of the Treasury, a position which had been created by the Constitution of 1851.  He resigned that office in 1853 to become Collector of Customs of the Port of Baltimore, and he continued in that capacity through 1857.

"After President James Buchanan had appointed his successor, Thomas left Maryland for St. Louis, where he resumed the practice of law.  He returned to Maryland very shortly, but during the Mormon War, President Buchanan offered to appoint him Governor of the Territory of Utah. Thomas declined to accept it. Buchanan also offered him the position of Treasurer of the United States, and he again declined. Finally, on February 16, l860, Thomas accepted the office of Commissioner of Patents, a post which he held for a year until Buchanan appointed him Secretary of the Treasury to succeed Howell Cobb.  Thomas, however, held this latter position for only about a month, resigning on January 11, 1861.

"Governor Thomas, being a Southern sympathizer, retired from public life at the outbreak of the Civil War.  He spent the war years in comparative retirement, devoting his time to the practice of law and the management of his farm near Easton.

"Thomas remained inactive in politics until 1866, when he again represented Talbot County in the House of Delegates.  He served during the session of 1867, when the Legislature elected him to a seat in the United States Senate, to succeed John A. J. Creswell. During the session, the Legislature had at first chosen Thomas Swann, who declined to serve, so the Legislature instead elected Thomas.

"In his letter accepting the nomination, Thomas wrote that he hoped that the 'Union . . . will be restored in all its integrity, and that our country will resume the career of greatness and power, which under the guidance of wisdom and patriotism, surely is its manifest destiny.'  He hoped that 'reason will, I trust, soon resume her empire over the minds of men of all sections, and the passions engendered by the late civil strife will so far subside as to give full play to that ‘sober, second thought,’ under the influence of which our beloved country has been, more than once, rescued from impending perils.'6

"Although he was otherwise eligible, the U. S. Senate refused to seat him and refused to permit him to qualify when he presented his credentials [p. 139] on March 18, 1867.  The technical charge against Thomas was that he had supplied his son with clothing and money, and that his son had fought with the Confederate forces.  Thomas' friends wished to re-elect him to the Senate, but he declined.

"On February 19, 1868, the Senate, then under Radical domination, adopted a resolution that he was not entitled to qualify because he had 'voluntarily given aid, countenance, and encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility to the United States.'  His southern sympathies cost him a seat in the United States Senate.  Had he been elected, the course of history might have been altered, for had he been allowed to serve, he might well have voted for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

"In 1874, Thomas again successfully sought to occupy the seat in Congress he had held so many years previously, taking his seat on March 4, 1875, just thirty-five years after his first term in the House of Representatives had terminated.  His second period of service lasted for only two years or until March 4, 1877, when in the fall elections of that year, he again represented Talbot County in the House of Delegates.  Thomas was also an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate seat in 1878, when James B. Groome was chosen, and again in 1884 when Ephraim K. Wilson defeated him.  He presided at the Democratic State Convention in 1883 when Robert M. McLane was nominated for Governor, and was chosen for his final term in the House of Delegates in the elections of that year.

"Thomas died in Baltimore, where he had gone for medical treatment on October 2, 1890, in his eighty-first year.

"Governor Thomas' body was returned from Baltimore to Easton, where he was buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery in that city."7

Notes on sources

Return to Philip Francis Thomas' introductory page


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