Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)


Thomas Watkins Ligon (1810-1881)
MSA SC 3520-1461

Governor of Maryland 1854-1858

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 147-151.

"THOMAS WATKINS LIGON, the second Maryland governor to have been born in Virginia, had the misfortune of being a minority party governor, who faced bitter opposition from an openly hostile legislature. The son of Thomas D. and Martha (Watkins) Ligon, and the grandson of Col. Thomas Watkins, who served with distinction during the Revolutionary War, he was born on May 10, 1810, near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. Following the death of his father, and the completion of his education under his mother’s supervision, he was sent to Hampden-Sidney College, from which he was graduated with distinction. He then entered the University of Virginia, after which he attended Yale Law School. After his graduation from Yale, he returned to Virginia where he was admitted to the bar, but in 1833, he came to Baltimore, where, for the next twenty years, he practiced law.

"On September 29, 1840, Thomas Ligon married Sally Ann Dorsey of Baltimore County, but he made his home in Ellicott City. The first Mrs. Ligon, a daughter of Charles Worthington Dorsey, died very shortly, and after her death, he married her sister, Mary Tolly Dorsey. He had one son and one daughter.

"Ligon had been invited in 1841 to become a candidate for public office, but he declined. Two years later, he was elected to a seat in the House of Delegates from Howard County, and in 1845, the Democrats nominated him for Congress. He was elected by a majority of about 1,000 votes, defeating the incumbent John Wethered, and was re-elected by a larger margin in 1847, serving in the Twenty-Ninth and Thirtieth Congresses, taking his seat on December 1, 1845 and retiring on March 3, 1849.

"After the elections of 1852, the old Whig Party reorganized, joining the American or 'Know-Nothing Party,' to control Maryland until the Civil War, although its Whig principles would be supplanted by those of the latter group. In the gubernatorial election of 1853, the Whigs nominated Richard Johns Bowie of Montgomery County to face Ligon, who had been nominated by the Democrats. The election was bitterly contested, and although Ligon was victorious, defeating his opponent by about 4,200 votes, he and his party were in the minority in the Legisla- [p. 148] ture. When he was inaugurated on January 11, 1854, he declared that he had assumed the office with 'a deliberate purpose to administer that branch of the Government entrusted to my care in strict accordance with the best interests of the people and my own constitutional obligations.'l He pledged himself to work for the establishment of a system of common schools, the improvement of Maryland’s soils, and increased aid to agriculture. All these were shortly forgotten, when he and his 'Know-Nothing' opponents in the Legislature came into conflict.

"For about a year, Ligon’s antagonism towards the 'Know-Nothing Party' did not erupt into the open. In the state elections of 1855, the Democrats suffered a second defeat which resulted in the 'Know-Nothings' becoming even more powerful. In his annual message of January 2, 1856, Ligon took the opportunity to denounce his opponents. Calling the legislature’s attention to 'secret political associations,' which the 'Know-Nothings' interpreted as a strong blast against them, he courageously presented evidence of fraud in the previous election. He went on to say:

“'I would consider that I had failed to discharge a public duty, were I not to allude to a new element in the political controversies of the times, which in my opinion has already been productive of the more baneful consequences, and has done more to sever the ties, which should bind together our whole people, as one common brotherhood than any thing which has occurred since the organization of our Government. I mean the formation and encouragement of secret societies.

“'In this country the adoption of the veil of secrecy, as a means of accomplishing any political end, is, without any tenable ground of either justification or excuse. . .. Such, however, is not the conditions of American citizens, nor can it be, so long as we are true to ourselves, and adhere to the faith and teachings of our fathers, and the Constitution, which is the work of their hands. . . .

“'If on the one hand we permit brute force to control the ballot-box, and violence to deter the quiet and peaceably disposed citizen from the exercise of his right of suffrage, or on the other allow a citizen to be proscribed on account of his religious faith . . . our Constitution becomes a solemn mockery and the Republic a cheat and a delusion, whose very essence is despotism.'2

"The Legislature appointed a joint committee to investigate his charges which had 'unnecessarily alarmed [it] by supposing that these associations were hatching dangerous plots, of which only some obscure manifestations had escaped from concealment and found their way to the notice of the Executive.' As might have been suspected, the committee dismissed his charges by voting that 'it is difficult to find a motive for so unusual, so futile, and so inopportune an exhibition of the Executive ill-will.'3

[p. 149] "Ligon commented on the general prosperity and good financial condition of the State in his 1856 message, even though there would very shortly be a general depression. He noted that the railroads and canals were in good condition. He reiterated his emphasis on public education and he advocated the establishment of a common school system. 'Our plan of public instruction must be constructed anew; made uniform in its operations throughout the State, supported more liberally by State and county resources, and above all, it should be made subject to some controlling supervisory power, through whom all its operations should be annually communicated.'4 He encouraged the introduction of military instruction into all colleges and academies supported by State funds to supply 'every portion of the State with a Corps of scientific and educated men capable of officering the citizen troops in cases of emergency, upon whose services the State would have a peculiar claim, and upon whom she could confidently rely.'5 He supported the foundation of an agricultural college with an experimental farm attached, a step which the Legislature later took when it established the old Maryland Agricultural College at College Park.

"He concluded his message with these prophetic words:

“'We of Maryland occupying the position of a border State, dwelling upon the dividing line between the two extremes of interest in and opinion upon the subject of slavery, have an especial interest in desiring the adjustment of this unhappy source of popular discontent, upon a basis which will secure permanent tranquility. While, therefore, we should express calmly and clearly our opinions as to the issues thus unfortunately forced upon us, and make no concealment of our resolution to maintain the rights of the States under the Constitution, against any infraction, we should carefully abstain from the use of language calculated to irritate and inflame those who may differ with us in opinion or to impair those fraternal ties which should bind in perpetual unity and concord the people of the respective States. Let wild and unprincipled fanatics, wherever found, endanger the continuance of the Union, if they will, by ceaseless agitation until the last vestige of friendly relationship and brotherly regard may be swept away. But let ours be the more grateful task to cast oil upon the elements of destruction, and if that dark day shall ever dawn which shall witness the downfall of this, the most glorious fabric of Government the wisdom of man has ever contrived, no share in the sin of so great a calamity to the cause of freedom throughout the world, can be laid at our door.'6

"Baltimore was the stronghold of the Know-Nothing Party. During the presidential and city elections of 1856, that party intimidated its opponents, engaged in bloodshed and pitched battles to an unprecedented degree, and prevented people from voting. Thomas Swann, the 'Know-Nothing' candidate, was elected Mayor of Baltimore by nearly 1,500 votes since loyal Democrats had been driven away from the polls in [p. 150] large numbers. Millard Fillmore, the 'Know-Nothing' candidate for President received an even larger majority in the city. Ligon noted that he “retired from the scene convinced that all this might have been prevented; and not without a painful sense of duty unfilled.'7

"Still more bloodshed occurred in the State election of 1857. Shortly before election day in that year, Governor Ligon went to Baltimore in an effort to secure Mayor Swann’s cooperation to hold an election which would be free from bloodshed and rowdyism. The Mayor, while insisting that the election would be peaceful, regarded the governor’s action as interference and treated his efforts contemptuously. Determined that the election would be conducted fairly, Ligon issued a proclamation in which he announced that the city would be under military rule on Election Day, but his action resulted in intense excitement, after which Ligon withdrew his proclamation especially since Swann had assured him that there would be no violence. Disorder and unrest still occurred as before.

"In his final message to the Legislature in January 1858, Ligon reviewed what he regarded 'a state of society verging upon the fiercest anarchy.' He went on to describe the election as one which had 'outrages almost inaudible in a civilized community; and the ubiquity of an organization which prevailed by violence to the exclusion of voters at will, and controlled means and resources for the most pernicious and daring frauds.' He stated that he 'was determined that it should not be truly said of the Governor of Maryland during my administration, that he had transcended his authority; ‘declared martial law’ made the civil subject to the military power; invaded the rights of a chartered city; or done any of the illegal acts attributed to him.' He noted that 'under a sense of duty not left to my discretion, I have issued commissions to all those persons who appear by the certified official returns from the City of Baltimore, to have been elected to the various office.' 'But,' he concluded, 'I record my deliberate opinion that in the exclusion of thousands of people from the polls, there has been no expression of the popular will; and that the whole of the returns from that city are vicious, without a decent claim to official recognition anywhere, and in all their character, a gross insult to our institution and laws, and a most offensive mockery of the great principles of political independence and popular suffrage.'8

"The Legislature declared this message to be an insult to all elected officials and voted not to accept it, the first time this had ever happened in Maryland. On January 13, 1858, following the election of his 'Know-Nothing' successor Thomas Holliday Hicks, Governor Ligon retired from office to his Howard County estate 'Chatham' near Ellicott City, 'with the consciousness of a faithful performance of arduous and unpleasant duties, and no sort of reproach can be attached to his public record.'9

"His governorship was perhaps the most disgraceful in Maryland because of the flagrant manner in which citizens’ rights were violated and [p. 151] because of the countless frauds and disorders during Baltimore’s elections. Ligon, however, displayed marked courage in championing a course which his political enemies opposed and when he surrendered the gubernatorial office, he did so in the knowledge that he extended the powers of the office of governor into areas in which they had never been. By 1860, the reform movement had achieved some success, so that once more the State’s political affairs were back on an even keel.

"For the remaining years of his life, Ligon lived in retirement, taking no active part in politics. He did not resume his law practice in Baltimore, which he had discontinued when he was elected governor in 1853. Only occasionally did he emerge from his life as a farmer to take part in the deliberations of certain boards concerned in the management of charitable and educational institutions in a number of which he was interested. He died at his home on January 12, 1881, leaving an estate valued at nearly $11,000. After funeral services in St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church near Ellicott City, he was buried in the family cemetery. 'No sermon was preached, nor were there any flowers or other display, all ostentation being distasteful to Mr. Ligon, as evidenced in his life, which was marked by severe simplicity, both as a public official and as a private citizen.'10 He was survived by an unprecedented number of former governors:  Philip Francis Thomas, Enoch Louis Lowe, Augustus W. Bradford, Thomas Swann, Oden Bowie, William Pinkney Whyte, James B. Groome, and John Lee Carroll."

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