Sally Campbell Preston McDowell Thomas Miller (1821-1895)
MSA SC 3520-2259
First Lady of Maryland, 1842
A scandal was brewing in Annapolis in 1841. Unknown to the public, the newly elected Governor and his young bride were experiencing domestic troubles of such a magnitude that by early 1842 the couple had separated and their divorce was imminent.1 Seemingly doomed from its very inception, the marriage of Sally McDowell and Francis Thomas was corrupted by the First Lady's flirtatious nature and the Governor's jealously. Eventually, the Thomas' tumultuous private life affected the public career of Francis Thomas and played a key role in destroying his presidential aspirations.
Contemporary historian Thomas J. Scharf described Miss McDowell as a beautiful and talented woman, as well as a "lady of rare accomplishments."2 Sally, born circa 1821, was one of seven daughters and three sons in the politically prominent McDowell family of Virginia. Sally's father, James McDowell, served as Governor of Virginia from 1843 to 1845 and as a United States Congressman from 1846 to 1851.3 Her mother, Susana Smith Preston, was the great, great niece of revolutionary patriot Patrick Henry.4 Heir to this esteemed lineage, Sally McDowell appeared to be destined for a distinguished life in Mid-Atlantic society.
In January 1836, the McDowells sent Sally to Washington D.C. to attend Miss English's Seminary in Georgetown.5 Upon her arrival in Washington, she came "under the care and direction of [her paternal] aunt, Mrs. Elizabeth Benton," wife of Senator Thomas Hart Benton.6 The Bentons and Sally resided together in a boarding house with various legislators and their families. Among the residents was Francis Thomas who was in his fifth year as a Maryland Delegate in the General Assembly. Consequently, the boarding house was the setting for the future Mr. and Mrs. Thomas' first meeting.7
Although at the time Sally was a mere fifteen years of age and Thomas was forty-two, Senator and Mrs. Benton seemingly were proponents of a match. Sally, apparently a flirtatious young girl, told Thomas that she had "set her cap for [him]."8 This aggressive social behavior was considered inappropriate for the young ladies during the mid-nineteenth century, especially those ladies of Miss McDowell's social and economic status. However, according to Francis Thomas, Sally's advances were not discouraged by her aunt and uncle. He stated, in retrospect, that:
Col. Benton too, repeatedly exercised his good offices to encourage and promote the connexion [sic], and remove all interfering obstacles. On one occasion, after his niece had returned to her father's, in November, 1839, he invited me to his office, and there urged me, with great earnestness, to visit her at her father's, assuring me, that her parents, as well as the daughter, desired the match.9One possible explanation for the family's support of this unlikely couple was the political benefits that would have accompanied it. During this era, family ties were commonly used as a means to cement political alliances, and the marriage of Sally McDowell to a budding political star, such as Thomas, would have been advantageous to all involved. Especially since at the time, Benton, McDowell and Thomas were Jackson supporters, and in the face of Whig opposition, the need to strengthen the Jackson Democrats was becoming more of a necessity. A marriage uniting prominent political families across state lines may have improved the political situation.10
There is, however, conflicting evidence as to whether James McDowell supported his daughter's wishes to marry Francis Thomas. Thomas claimed that the Virginia Governor and his wife were as anxious to see their daughter marry him as were the Bentons. Thomas stated that, "No one was more conspicuous than Gov. and Mrs. McDowell at some stages of the affair in the furthering, as far as they could, what seemed to be to their daughter and her friends a favorite purpose."11 Sally contradicted Thomas's accusation when she stated in her own words that "[i]t is needless for me to say how often and how strongly my parents remonstrated against my marriage...It was no marriage of ambition."12 Regardless of the wishes of Sally's family, the couple was married on June 8, 1841 at the McDowell home in Virginia in the midst of Thomas's campaign for Governor of Maryland. Sally was twenty at the time of their marriage, and Thomas was forty-seven.13
No sooner had the couple exchanged marriage vows, however, then what Thomas referred to as the "green-eyed monster" interfered in their relationship. Apparently, the Governor took offense to the manners and ways of his young, beautiful, and very personable wife. As a result, Thomas became jealous and began to distrust Sally.14 A primary reason for the Governor's suspicions of Sally was the relationship she shared with her cousin, Robert I. Taylor. Taylor had been a dear friend of Sally's since childhood, and he was also Francis Thomas's law partner in a Frederick, Maryland practice. Thomas found fault with the couple's familiar behavior, such as sitting too closely, greeting one another too enthusiastically, and sharing personal confidences. At times, he even felt mocked by the younger couple. On one occasion, Thomas expressed his anger and humiliation when Robert and Sally made fun of his clothing. Finally, unable to contain his jealousy, Francis Thomas accused Sally of numerous lascivious actions which ranged from infidelity to abortion---a serious criminal offense at the time.15 Although Sally denied these charges, by January 28, 1842, not eight months after their marriage, the couple separated. Sally returned to her family's home and Thomas retreated into his work as Governor.16
Around this time, Maryland was falling into a substantial debt due to the state's failing rail and canal systems.17 While grappling with this political ordeal, Thomas's personal character was brought into question when the McDowell family publicly discussed the couple's domestic affairs.18 To combat these personal attacks, Thomas wrote his Statement, which according to the Governor was an "exquisitely painful, publication." Thomas printed numerous copies of his Statement, and had it placed on the desk of every United States Congressman to insure the appropriate audience.19 While he meant this document to be a vindicating statement which would salvage his character, what he revealed, instead, was a desperate man trying to piece his once noble life back together. Thomas projected this desperation when in the opening pages of his Statement he claimed, "I own much anxiety that [The Statement] may be received as my only alternative from a life of dishonor, worse than death."20 Due to its explicit contents, the McDowells filed a libel suit against him. Following that, in 1846, the family proceeded with the divorce case in Richmond, Virginia.21 Many individuals, ranging from old family friends of the McDowells to old political rivals of Thomas took the stand on behalf of Sally to attack the Governor. 22 Finally, both the General Assemblies of Virginia and Maryland issued the couple a divorce, on January 13, 1846 and on February 14, 1846 respectively.23
After the dissolution of their marriage, both Francis Thomas and Sally McDowell re-established independent lives. Thomas went on to be politically active, however, not to the degree he had been in the past. In 1844, Thomas was a prime candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination; however, James McDowell blocked his candidacy at the nominating convention. This political setback prompted Thomas to defect from the Democratic party later that year.24 After making several unsuccessful bids for a Congressional seat as an independent candidate, he temporarily retired from public life in 1853. Returning to aid Stephen A. Douglas, in the Presidential campaign of 1860, Thomas remained in the public eye via another Congressional seat as a Republican from 1861 to 1869. He also served as Collector of Internal Revenue in 1870 and as Minister to Peru from 1872 until 1875.25 Tragically, on January 22, 1876, Thomas was hit by a locomotive and was killed as he walked along his own property surveying construction sites. He was seventy-six at the time of his death.26
Sally went on to find happiness in a second marriage to John Miller, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. The couple wed in Lexington, Virginia on November 3, 1856 and remained together until Miller's death in 1895. Sally passed away one week after her second husband on April 21, 1895. The couple was survived by two daughters.27
Sally McDowell Thomas's tenure as First Lady of Maryland was certainly not a happy one, due to the chaotic state of her marriage at the time. Shortly after leaving Government House, Sally wrote to her father comparing the pain of her experience with Thomas to having "so many limbs chopped off."28 Yet, even though her short presence in Annapolis was clouded by emotional turmoil, Sally attempted to assume the role of First Lady with dignity, continuing on "apparently unconcerned and sociable in the world as ever."29 Sadly, historians know more about this unfortunate scandal than about the life of this First Lady---this due to both her brief presence in the state capital and the scarcity of documentary sources pertaining to prominent women from Maryland's history.
Notes on sources
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