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In April 1775, shortly after Lexington and Concord, Samuel Chase wrote to John Dickinson, a congressional delegate from Pennsylvania, about the dilemma facing those Marylanders who opposed British rule. Respected throughout the colonies for his knowledge and understanding of constitutional matters, Dickinson, in his Letters from an American Farmer and other tracts, had strongly defended the rights of the colonists. Now Chase appealed to him for advice, explaining that the colony could not be mobilized for war with Britain unless those who favored resistance assumed the powers of government. "While the present forms of Government subsist," Chase wrote, "we can neither raise men nor collect men sufficient to answer any effectual purpose. We are afraid of delay. ... The Question is shall we immediately change our Governors or not. Some are for delaying till the Congress determine what we shall do-I am of the former opinion."
Dickinson's response to Chase is not known, but undoubtedly he counseled caution and restraint. On July 8, 1775, Chase joined with Dickinson and forty-seven other members of the Continental Congress in endorsing a petition to King George III couched in terms of deep loyalty to the Crown. This "Olive Branch Petition" emphasized that the union between the mother country and the colonies in earlier times of "mild and just government" had excited "the wonder and envy of other nations." Following the French and Indian War, however, a new system of statutes and regulations" had been enforced by the king's ministers, the petitioners claimed, compelling the colonists to resist by arming in their own defense. Now the delegates expressed their earnest desire for a restoration of the former harmony with Britain "in a manner not inconsistent with her dignity and welfare," and urged the king to repeal all laws that "distress any of the colonies" so that an "opportunity may be restored to them of showing the devotion becoming the most dutiful subjects and most affectionate colonists."
Thomas Johnson, Jr., later the first governor of the State of Maryland, joined with fellow congressional delegates Matthew Tilghman, William Paca, Thomas Stone, and Samuel Chase in signing the Olive Branch petition. He explained why in a letter written in August 1775 to his friend Horatio Gates, adjutant-general of the hastily assembled provincial forces:
King George never directly acknowledged the Olive Branch petition. But in a speech delivered on October 26, 1775, he accused the colonial leaders of a desire "to amuse by the vague expressions of attachment to the Parent State, and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me whilst they were preparing for a General Revolt." As a result it had "now become the part of wisdom, and (in its effects) of clemency, to put a speedy end to these disorders by the most decisive exertions."
Despite of the determination of the Crown to crush the rebellious Americans with force, few Marylanders were yet willing to abandon forever their ties to Britain or to establish a totally new form of government. As late as May 21, 1776, the Maryland Convention reiterated its instructions to its delegates in Congress that they were not to vote for independence without the express approval of the Convention. Yet, no matter how much it was "persuaded that a re-union with Great Britain on constitutional principles would most effectually secure the rights and liberties, and increase the strength and promote the happiness of the whole empire" the Convention could not contain the mounting pressure for independence and a new government for the province.
Since 1774 real political power in Maryland had been exercised by extralegal conventions and committees of patriots, but unlike in most other colonies the proprietary governor had been allowed to retain his titular role as official head of the government. By June 1776, the Convention found it could no longer tolerate the embarrassment of having two governments working at odds with one another, even if, in the words of Thomas Johnson, Jr., the proprietary one had "no real force or efficacy in it."
On June 27 the Maryland Gazette announced that the previous day the ship Fowey carrying Maryland's last proprietary governor, Robert Eden, had "hoisted sail and went down the Bay." The same paper carried an article signed by "American," which decried the ambivalence of the Convention then sitting in Annapolis: "Is it not remarkable that a convention, composed of many of the same delegates [who opposed Governor Eden in past Assemblies] should now, without any change in their governor s conduct, express 'their real wishes for his return to resume the government of this province?' " This "American" believed the only viable course of action was a declaration of independence and a new form of government.
The next day, Friday June 28, 1776, the Convention rescinded its instructions to the Maryland congressional delegation that prohibited them from voting for independence. At nine o'clock that evening a jubilant Samuel Chase wrote John Adams: "1 shall offer no other apology for concluding than that I am this moment from our House to procure an express to follow the post with a Unan[imous] vote of our Convention for Independence. ... our people have fire if not smothered. .. .Now for a government."
On Wednesday, July 3, 1776, the Convention resolved that a new convention be elected "for the express purpose of forming a new government by the authority of the people only, and enacting and ordering all things for the preservation, safety and general weal of this colony." Four days later they explained their action in "A Declaration of the Delegates of Maryland," a statement that in effect was Maryland's own Declaration of Independence because the delegates had not yet heard of the vote that had been taken in Congress on July 4:
Samuel Chase, instrumental in persuading Maryland to declare its own independence on July 6th, did not hear of the Continental Congress's action of July 4th until the 10th. Writing to John Adams on July 5, Chase expressed his frustration at not being in Philadelphia to witness the historic event: "I hope ere this time the Decisive Blow is struck ... How shall I transmit to posterity that I gave my assent?" Chase was able to sign the engrossed copy of the Declaration the following month, but not everyone in Maryland was as enthusiastic about independence as he. Most realized that enormous sacrifice would be required before England would relinquish claim to her former colonies. Nevertheless, once Maryland had cast her lot with the other colonies and accepted the idea of independence her political leaders would move with reasonable dispatch in a concerted effort to create a government that would make the idea a reality.
When the ninth Maryland Convention met in Annapolis on Wednesday, August 14, 1776, forty-two delegates representing Baltimore City and ten of the sixteen Maryland counties were present. The first order of business was to choose a president, and the Honorable Matthew Tilghman, Esq., was unanimously elected. The Convention next appointed a clerk, the future Supreme Court Justice Gabriel Duvall, and later that day appointed two assistants to help him. Over the next few days, as more delegates of the full complement of seventy-six arrived, the Convention resolved disputes over elections and other administrative matters.
On Saturday, August 17, the Convention considered "the resolution of Congress declaring the United Colonies free and independent states,and "Resolved unanimously that this convention will maintain the freedom and independency of the United States with their lives and fortunes." This was one of the few times during the three-month session that the Convention would act with unanimity. Already there had been clashes over who should have been allowed to vote for delegates and whether or not the votes for committee appointments should be recorded. A sizeable minority had voted for a wider suffrage than the £ 40 sterling personal property or fifty-acre freehold qualification established by the previous Convention, and had argued unsuccessfully that the votes for committee appointments should be a matter of record. When later that same Saturday afternoon the Convention elected Matthew Tilghman, Charles Carroll, Barrister, William Paca, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, George Plater, Samuel Chase, and Robert Goldsborough a committee "to prepare a declaration and charter of rights, and form of government for this State," few members had any illusions that the task would be a simple one.
Seventy-eight men served in the 1776 Constitutional Convention of Maryland, two only briefly. The members wrote, debated, and voted on behalf of 250,000 people, nearly a third of whom were slaves. They were elected by "freemen above twenty-one years of age, being freeholders of not less than fifty acres of land or having visible property. ... to the value of £40 sterling at the least," except those serving from Annapolis where practically all freemen could vote. The size of the electorate in 1776 is difficult to determine precisely. There was no legal restriction prohibiting the small minority of free blacks from voting, but the property qualifications were such that about 45 percent of all heads of households, white and black, were probably denied suffrage.
The men chosen to write the first state constitution were drawn from an economic and political elite of relatively long standing in the province. The economic profiles of seventy of the delegates are known, and they offer a striking comparison to all the heads of households in Prince George's County, one of the wealthier counties in the province. All seventy of the delegates owned land; fifty-nine percent of the heads of households in Prince George's County did not. Almost three-quarters of the delegates owned more than 500 acres; in Prince George's County only eight percent of the heads of households owned more than 500 acres and over three-quarters owned less than 200. Sixty-six of the delegates owned slaves; 51 percent of the Prince George's County households did not. But half of the delegates owned more than twenty slaves, while in Prince George's County only seven percent owned that many.
The economic status of the delegates also can be viewed in a broader context than the distribution of land and slaves in a single county. For instance, the delegates' capital wealth in land and slaves can be compared with the distribution of total assessed wealth among householders in six counties selected from both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, including the northern county of Harford. The contrasts are remarkable. About 80 percent of the delegates had fortunes of £ 1,000 or more while only six percent of the sample households had taxable fortunes so large.
Indisputably wealthy by the standards of the day, the delegates nevertheless did not control the wealth of the province. As a group they probably owned no more than ten percent of the land in the state, and in fact, many did not consider planting their principal occupation. Although most of the delegates maintained plantations, almost half acquired much of their annual income from other professions. Sixteen were merchants, twelve were lawyers, six were doctors, and two were proprietors of ironworks. The lawyers, as might be expected, were among the most active members of the Convention. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Samuel Chase, Thomas Johnson, William Paca, and all but one other on the committee charged with drafting the constitution were trained as lawyers. Carroll, Chase, Johnson, and Paca together owned an average of over 17,500 acres and 100 slaves each, placing them among the most economically successful of their profession and the community at large.
Some historians have argued that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were new men-young bloods who were revolting against the previous generation. The ages and previous legislative experience of the delegates indicate they were not. Between the assemblies of 1771 and 1773 the turnover in legislators was almost forty percent, five percent greater than between the legislature of 1773 and the Constitutional Convention of 1776. Half the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were under forty, and three-quarters were between thirty and fifty years old. Delegates elected to the Lower House in 1773 were approximately the same age, with half being under forty-one and three-quarters between the ages of thirty and fifty.
Regardless of age, the best evidence of the stability and longstanding political power of the delegates elected to the Constitutional Convention can be found in the record of their previous legislative experience and in their connections with families having a tradition of legislative service. Apart from the four Catholic delegates who were legally barred from holding office before 1776, twenty-nine of the members had served in previous legislatures and another twenty-eight had close relatives who had served. In fact, over half of the delegates had had at least one member of their immediate family in past legislatures, and fourteen of them had had at least five members of their own or of their wives' families who had been legislators.
The four Catholic members might be considered newcomers to the Convention, but they too conformed to the social and economic profile of the delegates as a whole. Charles Carroll of Carroliton was by far the richest pianter-delegate in the province. Educated at both Louis-le-Grand and the Inns of Court, Carroll was more cosmopolitan than most delegates. Yet despite the political disabilities under which all Catholics suffered in Maryland, he became a staunch defender of provincial rights in the early 177Os. Despising the "clamor of the mob," he still could write to a friend in London in 1771:
"Connected by ties of kinship and interest"! That Carroll could attribute these qualities to the English governing elite and not to his own is perhaps a tribute to a blithe and secure confidence he had in himself. By 1776 could there be any doubt that men of his stature and fortune ought to lead the new sovereign State of Maryland? The overwhelming majority of voters apparently thought not. They chose "gentry" like Carroll to lead them because they valued the "whiggish principles" and the wisdom of their "betters." The political elite for its part had little reason to fear that a revolution against British rule would threaten their own preeminent position in Maryland society, although Charles Carroll of Carroliton would soon begin to doubt this elite's ability to maintain control in view of the growing dissension within its own ranks and the social unrest such dissension temporarily encouraged outside the Convention. At one point in the proceedings, the Convention debate raged so fiercely that Carroll privately expressed his feeling that the whole effort should be given up and peace made with Britain on the best terms possible. Nonetheless, the members of the Convention were vested with the responsibility of adopting a form of government for the new state, and despite the acrimony they persisted, however slowly, in their efforts to reach that goal.
Matthew Tilghman and the others on the committee spent ten days drafting a Declaration of Rights containing forty-four articles. With Charles Carroll, Barrister, gone and Thomas Johnson and Robert T. Hooe added, it took another two weeks to draft a Constitution of fifty-four articles. The "Declaration and Charter of Rights" was presented to the Convention on August 27, and that same day ordered to be printed for the consideration of the members. On September 10 the drafting committee reported the "Constitution and Form of Government." The following day consideration of both was postponed for two weeks so that the deputies appointed to Congressnow attending this convention could immediately repair to Philadelphia." Three days later, on September 13, Charles Carroll of Carrollton noted in a letter to his father that Thomas Johnson, Samuel Chase, and William Paca had gone to Congress and that the plan of government was being printed. While they were gone, the critics of both measures were able to pass a resolution firmly opposed by Carroll, that "the said bill of rights and form of government be immediately printed for the consideration of the people at large, and that twelve copies thereof be sent without delay to each county in this state." The Convention then adjourned to September 30 at which time they again postponed action on constitutional matters day by day until October 4th when they resolved themselves into a committee of the whole to consider the "Declaration and Charter of Rights."
Today only one fragile copy each of the printed first drafts of the Declaration and the Constitution survive. They were sent by Samuel Chase to John Dickinson on September 29, 1776, for his comments and criticisms, accompanied by an urgent appeal that Dickinson come in person to Annapolis to advise the Convention on the merits and defects of the drafts. Chase's request was echoed by Thomas Stone, who as a member of Congress was particularly conscious of the radical constitution recently adopted by Pennsylvania. In the hope that Dickinson could help prevent a similar occurrence in Maryland, Stone wrote:
All indications are that Dickinson did not come to Annapolis, but he did send Chase his remarks on the draft of the "Bill of Rights and Frame of Government." Dickinson liked Maryland's draft so well that he presented it to Delaware's Constitutional Convention which adopted portions of it wholesale into their own Declaration of Rights and Constitution before Maryland finished its deliberations, an irony missed by at least one prominent historian. [ 1 ] (See also Maryland's Declaration and Charter of Rights, first draft).
The leaders of the Constitutional Convention of 1776 are well-known to students of Maryland history, and the Constitution they wrought is amply documented in the Proceedings of the Convention. In examining what the Convention accomplished, however, those who most often found themselves in opposition ought not to be overlooked, because they too played an important role in shaping Maryland's new state government.
Throughout the Convention there were eleven men who consistently opposed the leadership of Paca, Chase, Carroll, Johnson, and Plater. They were most in evidence on the sixty-six recorded roll call votes, where they voted together more than eighty percent of the time, more often than not on the losing side. The opposition members were drawn from the Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel, Calvert, and Lower Frederick County delegations, and they were led by William Fitzhugh, Rezin Hammond, Thomas Cockey Deye, and Charles Ridgely of Hampton. In economic and social characteristics they differed little from other members of the Convention, but on such basic constitutional issues as suffrage they diverged sharply from their peers.
On the surface the opposition members appear quite radical. Seeking an expanded franchise, they advocated no qualification other than that the voter be a free male twenty-one years of age with five pounds visible estate, a definition that would have encompassed many men on county relief. The opposition members rarely succeeded in achieving their goals, but they did effect a number of compromises, including a significantly broadened suffrage. The central question on this and other issues, however, is not how the opposition voted but why they voted the way they did. Were they as Charles Carroll of Carrollton described them, "men of desparate fortunes or of desparate & wicked designs-endeavoring under (the] cloake of procuring great privileges for the people, to introduce a leveling scheme, by which they, these evil men, are sure to profit"? Was it true as Carroll asserted that "CoIl (William] Fitzhugh is a most outrageous, and acts a very weak, & I think a very wicked part; he is united with [Rezin] Hammond, (Thomas] Cockey Deye & such men, & seems desireous of impeding business & throwing everything into confusion"?
Despite Carroll's efforts to paint the opposition uniformly black, it in fact represented a coalescing of three quite different attitudes toward the Revolution. Some, like William Fitzhugh, wished to obstruct and frustrate the whole Convention. Formerly a prominent proprietary official, Fitzhugh, now a delegate from Calvert County, had two goals in the Convention. The first was to salvage three cannon for his friend William Molleson, an English merchant, who had involuntarily "loaned" them to the Convention, and the second to disrupt as much as possible a revolutionary movement with which he had little or no sympathy. His attitude was to change dramatically in subsequent years when his plantation was burned and his slaves carried off by the British, but in 1776 Carroll's description of him was correct.
The second category of opposition delegates included Charles Ridgely of Hampton, who had no qualms about armed resistance to Britain, but who expected reunion to occur soon. They conceived the role of any government created by the Convention as a temporary expedient needing the support of as many people as possible, including the relatively poor men who served in the militia. That Ridgely wanted the war over as soon as possible is clear from a deposition concerning him that Congress forwarded to Maryland authorities in December 1776. The statement related a conversation that had "happened lately" between Ridgely and William Lux in the latter's store in Baltimore:
Ridgely did not attempt to refute Lux's charges. in a letter written inJanurary 1777 to an investigating committee of the new state legislature, Ridgely acknowledged that the conversation had taken place about the time the Constitutional Convention had adjourned. He fumed about "that pretty Boy Billy Lux," claiming "that flaming patriot" would not receive Continental money for the balance of a debt Ridgely owed him on bond, but he did not deny Lux's version of the conversation:
Nothing further came of the matter and Ridgely continued to serve in the legislature until his death in 1790, often in opposition and always outspoken.
In addition to those Convention members who wished to obstruct and those who sought as much public support as possible to end the war quickly, there was a third type of opposition member, those who in the context of their time could be considered true radicals. An advocate of democracy when the rest of his peers sought to shore up and maintain the traditional political oligarchy, Rezin Hammond ought not to have been a leader of the radicals. A wealthy planter who owned over 5,000 acres and 70 slaves, yet like his controversial father and brother who had served in the legislature before him, Hammond rose to defend popular causes and he achieved some measure of success. Hammond first attracted public attention in the summer of 1776 when he addressed the soldiers in the Flying Camp assembled outside Annapolis. Not unlike Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who advocated suffrage for Cromwell's troops during the English Civil War more than a hundred years earlier, Hammond, a colonel in the militia, argued that if a man bore arms he should be allowed to vote. After his election to the Convention that August, Hammond consistently advocated the broadest possible suffrage, but he found himself on the losing side of well over half of the roll call votes in which he participated.
On suffrage and the other controversial issues confronting the Convention the opposition never entirely had its way, but at times it was able to force compromises sufficient to satisfy its constituents, whether enfranchised or not. The compromise on suffrage, for example, meant that about 63 percent of the heads of households were able to vote under the new constitution instead of the 55 percent formerly enfranchised. That the compromise was acceptable to most of the electorate is clear from the number of people who stayed away from the polls at the first election held under the new state constitution in December 1776. In August, when the ninth Convention was elected and suffrage was an important issue, 850 qualified voters went to the polls in Anne Arundel County to elect Rezin Hammond and 3 others. In spite of the expanded suffrage less than 200 chose to vote the following December. In fact, the turnout was poor throughout the state, undoubtedly because the war was not going well for the American cause, and most people, even if they were eligible to vote, preferred to wait and see what would happen before they committed themselves to the new state government.
Rezin Hammond served in the legislature for two more years, advocating issues that increasingly fewer legislators were willing to support. In 1778 he retired permanently to his plantation, and in later life he was regarded as an eccentric.
Although Rezin Hammond did not long remain in the legislature of the new state, other members of the opposition, including Charles Ridgely and Thomas Cockey Deye, did. Over the next twelve years they formed the nucleus of a faction that consistently opposed the expansion of the federal government in state affairs, and they gained national prominence in 1787 when they fought unsuccessfully against ratification of the United States Constitution. The opposition members were even able to convert two of their principal opponents in the Constitutional Convention of 1776 to their point of view; both Samuel Chase and William Paca supported their abortive attempt to defeat the federal Constitution.
But whatever the shape of politics and parties to come, both the opposition and the working majority in 1776 had forged a state constitution that unlike several of its counterparts in other states would survive the test of time. A comparison of the present Maryland Constitution, which was adopted in 1867, with the text of the first state constitution that appears hereafter in facsimile, graphically demonstrates that much of the language, if not all the intent, of the Constitution of 1776 still survives. The blow struck by the 1776 Constitutional Convention was so decisive that it abides with us still.
See: The Decisive Blow is Struck (Annapolis, 1977) for the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1776.That facsimile is taken from the first edition of the Laws of Maryland published after the War of Independence. The legislature originally intended that two noted lawyers from their ranks, Samuel Chase and Alexander Contee Hanson, be the compilers. Chase soon became involved in other duties as the state's special emissary to England, so Hanson had to complete the task alone. Hanson's Laws [Annapolis, 1787] begins with acts passed by the General Assembly in 1768, picking up where the Reverend Thomas Bacon's Laws of Maryland  left off, includes the Convention proceedings, and ends with the 1784-1785 session of the legislature. For a comparative study of Maryland's four constitutions, see the Constitutional Revision Study Documents of the Constitutional Convention Commission of Maryland , distributed by the Maryland State Archives.
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The Documents for the Classroom series of the Maryland State Archives was designed and developed by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse and Dr. M. Mercer Neale and was prepared with the assistance of R. J. Rockefeller, Lynne MacAdam and other members of the Archives staff. MSA SC 2221-04. Publication no. 3918. © 1993 Maryland State Archives.
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