Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Pinkney Whyte (1824-1908)
MSA SC 3520-1466

Governor of Maryland 1872-1874

Link to biography of William Pinkney Whyte, Baltimore City government pages

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 179-183.

"WILLIAM PINKNEY WHYTE, who had a long and memorable career holding nearly every elective office in the State, was born in Baltimore on August 9, 1824, the son of Joseph and Isabella (Pinkney) White. His paternal grandfather, Dr. John Campbell White, had come to America in 1798 after the failure of the Irish rebellion in which he had taken part, and had begun the practice of medicine in Baltimore. His maternal grandfather, William Pinkney, had been an outstanding lawyer who had served as Attorney General of the United States, United States Senator, member of the House of Representatives, and a diplomat who represented this country with distinction at the Courts of St. James, St. Petersburg, and Naples. A family business disagreement caused Governor Whyte to change the spelling of his surname to that of 'Whyte' to distinguish his branch of the family from that of his uncle’s.

"Whyte’s early education was under the direction of R. M. McNally, who had been Napoleon Bonaparte’s private secretary. When he was eighteen, because of his family’s financial difficulties, Whyte had to interrupt his education and enter the counting house of Peabody, Riggs and Co., then one of the leading commercial establishments in Baltimore, remaining with that firm for two years. In 1843 he entered the law offices of Brown and Brune studying there for about a year, following which he entered Harvard Law School. After his return to Baltimore in 1845, he continued his legal studies under Judge John Glenn and was admitted to the Bar shortly afterwards.

"Late in 1847, Whyte married Louisa D. Hollingsworth, the daughter of a prominent Baltimore merchant. They had three sons. The first Mrs.Whyte died in 1885, and on August 28, 1892 he married Mary McDonald Thomas. The second Mrs. Whyte lived only a short time after their marriage.

"Whyte began his long and distinguished public service career in 1847 when he was elected as a Democrat to a seat in the House of Delegates from Baltimore City. He served until 1849 when he declined to seek re-election to a second term. He then returned to his law practice until 1851 when the Democrats nominated him for a seat in the U. S. House [p. 180] of Representatives, but he was defeated by only a small majority in spite of the fact that his district was predominantly Whig.

"In 1853, the Democrats nominated him as their candidate for Comptroller of the Treasury. He won the election, but he did not seek re-election in 1855. His services were so much appreciated that the Legislature of 1856, controlled by his opponents, passed a resolution declaring that in the Comptroller’s office 'the system adopted is one of admirable character, and that the details of the office have been so simplified that mistakes or confusion hereafter in the official business of the Comptroller’s office is almost impossible. The careful arrangement of the official vouchers and the uniform precision in all the details of the office evince not only the wisdom of the Constitution in providing the safeguard to the Treasury, but also show the successful manner in which the objects of the Constitution and the several acts of Assembly referring to the department have been observed by Mr. Whyte, the late incumbent.'1

"In 1857, the Democratic Party again nominated him for Congress, but at that time Baltimore City was under the control of the 'Know-Nothing Party,' and Whyte was defeated. He, however, vigorously contested the seat exposing the fraud and violence which characterized the election, and even after his loss, he contested his defeat before the U. S. House of Representatives which refused to concur in the report of the Committee on Elections recommending that he be seated. Whyte's actions, however, aided the reformers who were enabled to affect changes in the method of conducting elections.

"Whyte retired from public life at that time and devoted the Civil War years to his law practice. He did not emerge again until 1868, when he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention which nominated Horatio Seymour for the presidency.

"In that same year, Reverdy Johnson resigned his seat in the United States Senate to accept appointment as Minister to the Court of St. James. Governor Swann asked Whyte to complete Johnson’s unexpired term, so he took his seat on July 14, 1868. At the December session of that year, he had attention focused upon him because of his brilliant and successful vindication of the rights of President Andrew Johnson, although Congress at that time differed with the President over reconstruction, especially after the Radicals’ unsuccessful attempt to impeach him. When Johnson sent his annual message to Congress, one of his enemies made a motion to dispense with its further reading. Whyte rose to defend Johnson, calmly and fearlessly pointing out to his colleagues that the President was doing his constitutional duty and that Congress had no other alternative except to listen to him. Johnson’s detractor withdrew his motion so that his message was read without further incident. Whyte’s term was for less than one year, but it was characterized by his firm support of constitutional precepts and his fearless assertion of sound constitutional doctrines. He untiringly opposed the use of federal troops at the polls throughout the South and he unhesitatingly opposed every attempt to increase the woes of the Southern people.

[p. 181] "In 1871, the Democrats nominated him for Governor. In the ensuing campaign he was opposed by the Republican candidate Jacob Tome, whom he defeated on November 7 of that year by a majority of about 15,000 votes. This election marked the first opportunity for Maryland Negroes to vote and their ballots enabled the Republicans to make substantial gains in the Legislature, but not enough for that party to gain control. 'The result was a foregone conclusion,' says Frank R. Kent. 'With the Republicans the question at this time and for some years afterwards was to induce a suitable man to accept the nomination . . . . In the Whyte campaign Mr. Tome was the victim, but he did not over-exert himself making a campaign.'2

"Governor Whyte was inaugurated on January 10, 1872. He served for slightly more than two years, but without distinction. In his second and final message to the Legislature, he urged that body to extend its aid to public education, advocating the formation at the Maryland Agricultural College of a 'colony of English farm hands' . . . and thus establishing a nucleus for such emigrants to cluster around, and then to distribute them among the farmers of the State. 'It is plain,' he insisted, 'that a new system of agriculture must be adopted in Maryland. It is hardly possible for our farmers to grow grain in competition with the agriculturists of the West, and it will be far more judicious to turn our lands to other and more remunerative culture.'3 He supported the creation of a Board of Immigration, but this was not accomplished until later. During his administration, Garrett County was organized out of Allegany County, the last county to be formed in Maryland. The Legislature also established the State Board of Health and the House of Correction. Maryland authorities differed with the Federal government over Negro suffrage, but Governor Whyte exerted strong influence to educate the Negro by supporting the Colored Normal School.

"Governor Whyte resigned on March 4, 1874 since the Legislature had elected him United States Senator to succeed William T. Hamilton. Although Whyte’s term in the Senate would not begin until a year later, or on March 4, 1875, he resigned at once in order that the Legislature might elect his successor while that body was still in session. James Black Groome was chosen to complete his unexpired term.

'The Legislature of 1874,' says Elihu Riley in his History of the General Assembly of Maryland, 'deserves to be held in perpetual remembrance--it elected William Pinkney Whyte to be United States Senator from Maryland, restoring Maryland, in the Chief Chamber of Congress to the dignity it once held when it was represented in that body by Carroll, Johnson and Pinkney, and reflecting the era when the statesmen of the country looked to the statesmen of Maryland to point the course of the ship of State, when disaster and disunion threatened the nation, [p.182] and was prophetic of a splendid representation of the Commonwealth in the ability, the dignity, and integrity of its chosen Senator.'4

"Whyte devoted the next year to his law practice and to his private business. During the interim, Maryland engaged him as counsel to the commission which settled the boundary controversy with Virginia. Whyte studied the case completely and proved Maryland’s claim so fully that he scored a brilliant victory for the State.

"During his six years in the Senate from 1875 to 1881, he served under different circumstances as the Democratic Party by now had regained the ascendancy. He espoused the cause of sound currency by speaking on January 29, 1878 in opposition to the resolution which favored the payment of the country’s debt in silver as well as gold, taking the position that the double standard had been fixed originally upon the theory that it should represent the exact equivalence between gold and silver. According to the “Ohio Patent,” he declared the suggestion 'subject to the microscope of honesty, is simply to pay in ‘clipped coin’ the national debt created in time of sore distress for the maintenance of the Union.'5 He opposed the creation of the Electoral Commission of 1876 by predicting Rutherford B. Hayes’ election, if the Democrats agreed to the proposal. He served as a member of the commission which prepared the bill under which the District of Columbia would be governed for nearly one hundred years. Finally, he opposed the 'Roach Subsidy Scheme' in 1879, a plan which would have subsidized shipbuilders with government funds. Whyte attacked the proposal on constitutional and economic grounds and protested against the inequity of the entire subsidy principle.

"Whyte did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1880 because of his wife’s illness and growing friction between him and Maryland’s other Senator Arthur Pue Gorman. In the following year, the voters of Baltimore City elected him Mayor without opposition. He served a two-year term retiring in 1883 again to practice law. In 1887, the Democratic State Convention nominated him for the position of Attorney General, and he was elected, defeating the Republican candidate Francis Miller of Montgomery County, by over 10,000 votes. He served until 1891, during which period he argued successfully a far greater number of new points of criminal law than any of his predecessors since 1851.

"In 1898, Baltimore Mayor William T. Malster appointed Whyte to be a member of the commission to revise the City’s Charter. He served as the chairman of that body which performed its duties promptly and judiciously.

"In 1900, Whyte was named City Solicitor, a position he was to hold for the next three years. During this period, he advised the City through the legal steps by which it disposed of its interest in the Western Maryland Railroad. He retired from public life once more in March 1903.

"His last period of public service was his third and final term in the United States Senate. His old enemy, Arthur Pue Gorman, had died early [p. 183] in June 1906, so Governor Edwin Warfield appointed Whyte to fill the vacancy in the Senate. When the Democratic State Convention met in August of 1907 to adopt the primary system of conducting elections, Whyte was a candidate for the remainder of the unexpired senatorial term and received an impressive vote. Before his term ended, however, he died unexpectedly at his home in Baltimore on March 17, 1908. He was buried in Greenmount Cemetery after funeral services in the Emmanuel Protestant Episcopal Church.

"Whyte was mourned as a man who had had a political career without comparison in Maryland. Because it spanned such a long period of time he was the State’s acknowledged political leader at the time of his death. 'Maryland owed him honors, and she gave them to him freely because he was great in ability and could use them; because he was great in character and could be trusted with them, noted The Washington Post. 'To him is due much of the State’s prosperity in commercial and trade development, and her welfare was the thing nearest his heart.'6

"Known as 'Maryland’s Grand Old Man,' he was regarded with deep personal affection in the State at the time of his death. Nationally, he was remembered as a trusted and fearless leader who had gained a national reputation as a friend of the South. The product of a distinguished lineage, a successful lawyer, and one whose long and distinguished career had few parallels or equals, his public service extended over an almost unprecedented period of sixty-two years, a record few politicians and statesmen could match."

Notes on sources

Link to William Pinkney Whyte as comptroller

Return to William Pinkney Whyte's introductory page

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