Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Henry (1750-1798)
MSA SC 3520-640

Governor of Maryland, 1797-1798

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of
Records Commission, 1970), 39-41.

"JOHN HENRY, the only governor to retire voluntarily because of ill health, was born at 'Weston,' the Henry plantation in Dorchester County during the month of November 1750. The exact date of his birth, however, is unknown. His father, Colonel John Henry, had represented his County in the legislature, while his mother, Dorothy (Rider) Henry, was a daughter of Colonel John Rider, who had come to Maryland in the early part of the eighteenth century and had settled in Dorchester County. Early in his life Henry was sent to the West Nottingham Academy in Cecil County. Later he entered the College of New Jersey (subsequently renamed Princeton), from which he was graduated in 1769. For the next six years, he studied law in the Middle Temple in London. There he mingled freely in the best society, and while the differences between the two countries were fast becoming irreconcilable, he became a member of the Robin Hood Club, an organization which debated the issues then separating England and America. After he had completed his legal training, he returned to America about 1775, shortly after which he entered politics. In February 1777, he was elected to the House of Delegates to represent Dorchester County. After only several days membership, he was appointed on the committee to ascertain what force would be sufficient to suppress the insurrection in Somerset and Worcester Counties. In December of the same year, he was elected to the Continental Congress, serving in that body as well as in the House of Delegates until 1781. He then was elected to two terms in the State Senate. In December 1783, he headed the Senate Committee to prepare for George Washington’s reception when he came to Annapolis to resign his commission. In 1784, he was elected to a second term in the Continental Congress. 'During the years of his service in the Continental Congress, he was particularly distinguished for the relentless war which he carried on against the civilians who sought to profit financially at the expense of their distressed country,' says Powell.1

"On March 6, 1787, he married Margaret Campbell, the daughter of John and Elizabeth (Goldsborough) Campbell, of Caroline County. Margaret Henry died in 1789, and the governor remained a widower for the rest of his life. They had two sons, both of whom survived their father.

[p.40] "At the time Henry’s term as a member of the Continental Congress ended, friction increased between the Eastern and Western Shores of Maryland. The chief area of contention was the division of power each should hold under the U. S. Constitution. The chief concern of the people at this time centered upon the election of two United States Senators. On December 9, 1788, members of the General Assembly met in joint session to elect two senators. The Eastern Shore members proposed and were able to adopt a resolution which required that 'one senator should be a resident of the Western Shore and the other of the Eastern Shore.' This resolution remained in effect for over a century. John Henry and George Gale from the Eastern Shore and Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Uriah Forrest from the Western Shore were nominated. On the second ballot, John Henry became the first Senator elected by Maryland to a seat in Congress. The General Assembly then adjourned until the following day, when the names of Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Uriah Forrest were again put in nomination for the seat to represent the Western Shore. Carroll was elected. The terms for which the first senators were elected were unequal, the one being for six years and the other for only two years. The senators-elect chose the terms each should have and Henry drew the term expiring in 1790. At the close of his first full term he was re-elected for an additional six year term, but he did not complete it since he resigned on [November 28], 1797 to accept the governorship.

"While he was Senator, John Henry had the high honor to receive two of Maryland’s electoral votes in the presidential election of 1796. As a presidential candidate, he joins Robert Hanson Harrison who received his State’s vote in 1789 as the only two who have thus far been so honored.

"On November 13, 1797, John Henry was elected governor to succeed John H. Stone. There was, however, some opposition to his election, for it was bitterly contested. One of those who opposed him proposed that the word 'unanimously' be stricken from the resolution which declared him to have been elected. On the vote, however, the motion was defeated. In his letter of acceptance, John Henry declared that 'the various instances in which I have experienced, through a political life of twenty years, the confidence and attention of my fellow citizens, excites my gratitude and receives my warmest acknowledgements.'2

"Governor Henry served only one year in office. Because of his ill health, he declined to be a candidate for re-election. His short administration, however, was marked by several noteworthy accomplishments. He was instrumental in reorganizing the militia undoubtedly because of the quasi-war with France. The governor informed the General Assembly in his address that 'the conduct of the French nation would long before this time have justified an open and direct state of hostilities. The love of peace has hitherto restrained the authorities of the Union from such a state of things.'3 He went on to say that 'it would be unbecoming the Wisdom of the Legislature to trust the peace and safety to this present [p. 41] and weak system.' Re urged the Legislature to prepare for the coming war and to concur with the Massachusetts resolutions 'respecting the dangerous tendency of foreign influence, and proposing an alteration in the Constitution of the United States in this respect.'4 He concluded his address by informing the Legislature that he had been in public life for many years, and 'should my name, therefore, be presented to you for the purpose of again filling the station which I now enjoy, you will be pleased not to receive it, as it is my determination to become a private citizen.'5

"The House sent him an agreeable reply to his message. It concurred in his recommendation that the militia system be revised 'for it is a deep and solemn truth, never to be departed from, in republican governments, that their ultimate security rests on a well organized, prompt and disciplined militia.'6 It promised to give the Massachusetts resolves its urgent consideration because it felt that 'the principle . . . [was] of the utmost political consequence, and will most probably be adopted, so far as is consistent with acquired and existing rights.' The House regretted his retirement from public life and believed with him that he would carry with him 'the consolation of an upright and virtuous heart, and the grateful sense of your countrymen for more than twenty years honourable and meritorious services in the highest offices in the power of the state or its citizens to confer.'7

"Governor Henry was succeeded by Benjamin Ogle on November 14, 1798. He then retired to his home, 'Weston,' where he died on December 16, 1798, slightly over a month following his retirement as governor. He was buried at first in the old family cemetery at 'Weston.' In 1908 his body was reinterred in the Christ Protestant Episcopal Cemetery in Cambridge and over his grave his descendants erected a suitable monument.

"Governor Henry, like Thomas Sim Lee and Daniel Martin, left no portrait of himself. In 1824, when the artist Charles Willson Peale proposed to the Corporation of Annapolis the exchange of a portrait of Lord Baltimore for those of six governors, one of whom was John Henry, he reported he was unable to obtain a likeness of Henry.8 Many of his papers were lost when the British burned his home in 1780. Another fire soon after his death destroyed the remainder. Biographical material is, for that reason, extremely scarce. He was however, remembered with great respect. Elias Jones, in his History of Dorchester County describes him as 'a gentleman and citizen of the first rank in private and public life.' Jones goes on to note that 'his physical appearance and polished manners made him the centre of social attraction wherever he mingled with the people; his preeminent legal attainments and thorough knowledge of public affairs at home and abroad placed him first in public estimation, and the people chose him to represent them in every public affair where strong influence and leadership were most needed.'9

Notes on sources

Return to John Henry's introductory page

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