Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thomas Johnson (1732-1819)
MSA SC 3520-743
Governor of Maryland, 1777-1779

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 3-9.

"THOMAS JOHNSON, Maryland’s first elected State governor, was born in Calvert County on November 4, 1732, the son of Thomas and Dorcas (Sedgewick) Johnson. His grandfather, also named Thomas Johnson, had come to Maryland from Yarmouth, England in the last half of the seventeenth century following his elopement with Mary Baker, a chancery ward, whom he had been forbidden to marry because the marrying of maids in chancery was unlawful. They fled from England, settling at St. Leonard’s, where the future governor was born, the fifth of twelve children.

"Thomas Johnson received his early education at home. When he was a young man, his parents sent him to Annapolis, where he came into contact with educated men. There, he studied law under Stephen Bordley following which he was admitted to the Bar. On February 16, 1766, he married Ann Jennings, the daughter of his employer Thomas Jennings. They had eight children.

"In 1762, he was elected to represent Anne Arundel County in the lower House of the General Assembly, serving in that body until 1774. His early legislative career was marked by several outstanding accomplishments. Following the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, he was named one of the members of the committee to draw up instructions for the guidance of Maryland’s representatives to the Stamp Act Congress which met in New York in that year. Two years later, he was appointed to the committee which drafted resolutions on the constitutional rights and privileges of the freemen of the Province. In 1768, he was named to a committee to draft a memorial to the King 'on the late acts of Parliament imposing duties on the colonies for the sole purpose of raising a revenue.'1 He was also one of the Superintendents selected to supervise the building of a new 'Stadt House' in Annapolis.2 Then, in 1773, he was chosen a member of the standing Committee of Correspondence and Enquiry to obtain 'the most early and authentick Intelligence of all such Acts and Resolutions of the British Parliament or Proceedings of Administration as may relate to, or affect the British Colonies in America, and to keep [p. 4] up and maintain a Correspondence and Communication with our Sister Colonies respecting these important proceedings from Time to Time to lay before this House.'3

"In 1774, Thomas Johnson was elected to the Convention of Maryland and was named, together with Matthew Tilghman, Robert Goldsborough, William Paca, and Samuel Chase, as deputies to arrange for a meeting to take steps to relieve Boston. Up until this time, Johnson had restricted his public service to Maryland. His election to the Continental Congress widened his horizon and commenced to build his reputation. He served as a member of the Congress between 1774 and 1777. It was John Adams who said of him 'Johnson of Maryland, has a clear and cool head. . . . He is a deliberating man, but not a shining orator; his passion and imagination do not appear enough for an orator; his reason and penetration appear, but not his rhetoric.'4

"On October 2, 1774, the Congress passed a resolution requesting the preparation of an address to the Crown for the redress of grievances. Johnson was selected to draft it together with Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, and Patrick Henry. Following the adjournment of that session of Congress, Johnson returned home where he once more became a member of the Committee of Correspondence.

"The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1775. During that session, his most important accomplishment was his speech on June 15, 1775 in which he nominated George Washington to be Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Washington’s election was unanimous.5

"On August 1, 1775, following the adjournment of Congress, Johnson returned to his home. In late July he took his seat in the Provincial Convention, being chosen one of the delegates from Anne Arundel County. He was placed on the committee to draft the Association of the Freemen of Maryland, a declaration of rights for a new form of government and a pledge of loyalty to the patriot cause. In late August he became a member of the Council of Safety, a group which carried on the executive functions between sessions of the Provincial Convention.

"In the fall of 1775, Johnson again took his seat in Congress, being selected a member of the important Committee on Claims. On December 7, he was back in Annapolis for the session of the Provincial Convention and to organize resistance in Maryland. Early in January 1776, the Convention elected him senior Brigadier General of Militia, so that for the next few months he had to locate arms and ammunition, clothing and supplies, and money with which he was to raise and equip an army.

"Johnson was not in Philadelphia during the deliberations leading to the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, he did not sign the document. He was, instead, in Annapolis voting on July 6, 1776, in favor [p. 5] of the adoption of the Declaration of the Delegates of Maryland which declared Maryland’s separation from England.

"In the same month, he organized and personally led the 'Flying Camp,' a regiment of 1,800 soldiers who later marched from Frederick to Washington’s headquarters in New Jersey.

"In the summer of 1776, the first Convention to prepare a State Constitution met in Annapolis. In the election of delegates from Anne Arundel County, Johnson was a candidate but for some unknown reason, he was defeated. At the time, he was more concerned with the problems of raising and equipping the militia. On August 26, however, Caroline County held a special election to replace a delegate who had accepted a commission in the Flying Camp, and Johnson was elected to succeed him, taking his seat on August 30. Johnson played an important role in the proceedings, recommending the adoption of a simple oath as a prerequisite for holding office in the State.

"Maryland’s first Constitution required the immediate election of a governor by both houses of the Legislature. Accordingly, on February 13, 1777, the two houses met for this purpose. Johnson received forty votes out of the fifty-two cast, with the remaining ballots being scattered among his opponents. Samuel Chase received nine, and Matthew Tilghman, George Plater and William Paca each received one. The newly-elected Governor qualified on March 20, a man held in the highest esteem in all the colonies. He was inaugurated with great pomp in the State House in Annapolis on Friday, March 21, 1777. The soldiers who were drawn up for review on the lawn, fired three volleys, and batteries of artillery fired a salute of thirteen rounds. A gala night followed the inauguration, the state ball revived memories of the brilliant entertainments that had won for Annapolis international renown in the days preceding the Revolution.

"Several days after his inauguration, the Legislature considered what it termed 'the proper mode of intercourse or communication with the governor.' The Committee appointed to report on the matter established guidelines for the relations of the legislature with the executive. 'All affairs or matters of business which the governor may think fit to communicate or in which he would have the advice and direction of the legislature, and which, according to the constitution would properly fall under their deliberation ought to be addressed to the general assembly and laid first before the senate, except what relates to supplies, which ought to be laid before the house of delegates.' The Committee went on to insist 'that all applications and addresses to the governor be made jointly, or separately, as occasions and circumstances may require; and when the governor would personally communicate any business to both houses, he may repair to the senate, who shall appoint two of their members to acquaint the house of delegates, that the governor requests their attendance in the senate house.'6

"In the summer of 1777, the British fleet under Admiral Howe sailed [p. 6] up the Chesapeake, creating consternation everywhere. Governor Johnson issued a proclamation, in which he called upon the people to lend their aid to repel any possible invasion of Maryland. 'To defend our liberties requires our exertions,' he declared. 'Our wives, our children and our country implore our assistance: motives amply sufficient to arm every one who can be called a man.'7 Here was no mincing of words. The British headed for Philadelphia, but Johnson’s proclamation stirred the people to determined resistance.

"The term of governor under the Constitution of 1776, was only for one year and a governor could not be re-elected to serve more than three consecutive terms. Johnson was re-elected unanimously both in November 1777 and in November 1778. He devoted his first year in office to the prevention of a Tory insurrection on the Eastern Shore, and combatting the invasion of the State by Lord Howe. In his second term, he considered such problems as frustrating disloyalty among the people, as well as attempting to secure arms, clothing and equipment for Washington’s Army. In his final year in office, he had again to face the problem of possible British invasion of the State, and supplying the army. Johnson was succeeded on November 12, 1779 by Thomas Sim Lee, after which he retired to Frederick County where he had decided to make his home.

"Upon his retirement as governor, the General Assembly passed a resolution in appreciation of his public service. On November 17, 1779, the General Assembly expressed its thanks to Johnson by complimenting him upon the 'prudence, assiduity, firmness and integrity, with which you have discharged, in times the most critical, the duties of your late important station.' These, asserted the Assembly, 'have a just claim to our warm acknowledgements and sincerest thanks.' The Address went on to extoll him further: 'While dissipation and avarice have too generally prevailed, your conduct, Sir, has afforded a conspicuous example of unwearied attention and close application to the public welfare, and of disinterestedness, in foregoing those profits your known industry, knowledge of business and of your profession, could not have failed of securing. We approve and admire that consistency of conduct and uniformity of character, which distinguish a life, devoted, from a very early period, to the true interests of your country, steadily and invariably pursued through a variety of important trusts; and relying on this your ruling passion, the love of your country, we have the best founded hope that you will not suffer to remain long inactive, in the retirement of private life, those abilities which have often been so serviceable to the state, and of which it never than at the present time stood in greater need.'8

"To all this, Johnson modestly replied on March 28, 1780: 'I cannot flatter myself but that in appointing me to some of the important trusts with which my country has honoured me, she has overrated my abilities; they have been faithfully exerted to their extent with a view of her good, nor am I conscious of having preferred, in any instance, a particular to the general interest: and I hope whether I remain in the calm walk of [p. 7] private life,—the most agreeable to my own inclination,—or should fill a public station, I shall continue to the last, to wish and endeavour to promote her happiness and prosperity.

“'The favourable light in which you have been pleased to accept my endeavours for the public service is the most noble and pleasing reward you could bestow; and I return you my sincerest thanks for the very ample and honourable testimony you have given of my conduct as a man and a magistrate; it highly gratifies my ambition in handing me down as approved of by you and deserving well of posterity.'9

"Johnson was not destined to remain long in retirement. Immediately after he had surrendered the governorship, he had left for Frederick where he had purchased 'Richfield,' and had erected a beautiful mansion. In December 1779, he was elected to represent Maryland in Congress, an honor he declined. In October of the following year, he was again offered a seat in Congress, which he again declined. Instead, he accepted a seat in the House of Delegates from Frederick County, taking his seat on December 2, 1780. It was through his urging that the deputies from Maryland were instructed to vote in favor of the Articles of Confederation, Maryland having first refused to join in the Confederation unless Virginia should agree to release all lands west of the Ohio River.

"Johnson declined re-election to the House of Delegates in 1781. Instead, during the years 1782 to 1786, he concentrated on his law practice as well as his business affairs. After the Treaty of Paris had been signed he helped his close friend, George Washington, to organize the 'Potowmack Company,' a group which attempted to build a canal to make the Potomac River navigable. Johnson was largely instrumental in 1785 in persuading the General Assembly to pass the articles of incorporation and was chosen as a member of the company’s Board of Directors. The project subsequently failed, not but because of its lack of ingenuity, but because of the unavailability of labor and other problems.

"In 1786 and 1787, Johnson again served as a member of the House of Delegates. Following his term of office as governor, and his attempted retirement, Johnson had been repeatedly urged to return to public life, but he refused most of these invitations. Finally, undoubtedly because of his interest in the 'Potowmack Company,' he accepted election to the House of Delegates. Once more, he used his influence to extend the life of the company’s charter.

"In 1787 and 1788, Johnson urged Maryland to adopt the new Federal Constitution and used his energies in its behalf. Frederick County, early in April 1788, elected him as one of its delegates to the State Convention of Maryland which assembled to ratify the document. Johnson, elected as a Federalist, favored prompt and unconditional ratification. Just as the Convention assembled, he received a letter from George Washington, warning that if the Maryland Convention failed to act promptly or attempted to adjourn, this action 'will be tantamount to the rejection of [p. 8] the Constitution.'10 Johnson, undoubtedly, did not need this reminder from Washington, and the Maryland Convention approved the Constitution by an overwhelming vote.

"As soon as ratification had been assured, Johnson threw his support to his close friend, George Washington, for the presidency. In the meantime, in November 1788, however, the General Assembly again chose Johnson to become governor, to succeed William Smallwood. Again he declined, probably because of preoccupation with his personal business, legal and 'Potowmack Company' affairs. He was considered as a presidential elector, but again his wishes for retirement from public life were respected.

'In 1789, Washington asked him to serve as United States District Judge for Maryland. Again, he declined. On April 20, 1790, Governor John Eager Howard, appointed him Chief Judge of the General Court, which post Johnson for some unknown reason accepted. He served in that capacity until October 1791, when Washington appointed him to the United States Supreme Court. During his short tenure which lasted only until January 1793, he had to decide several cases which called for the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Several months previously, in January 1791, Washington appointed him as the head of the Board of Commissioners of the Federal City. With Daniel Carroll and Dr. David Stuart, the Commissioners agreed upon a site for the new national capital and named it 'the City of Washington.'

"When Edmund Randolph resigned as Secretary of State in 1795, Washington turned to Johnson once more offering him that position. 'The office of secretary of state is vacant,' he wrote, 'occasioned by the resignation of Mr. Randolph. Whill you accept it? You know my wishes of old to bring you into the Administration. Where, then, is the necessity of repeating them? . . . No time more than the present ever required the aid of your abilities. . . .'11 Johnson declined the offer, stating that he felt . . .
'real Concern that my Circumstances will not permit me to fill the important Office you propose to me. I am far from being out of Humor with the World on my own Account; it has done me more than Justice in estimating my Abilities, and more Justice than common in conjecturing my Motives. I feel nothing of fear either in hazarding again the little reputation I may have acquired for I am not conscious of having sought or despised applause. But, without Affectation, I do not think I could do credit to the Office of Secretary; I cannot persuade myself that I possess the necessary Qualifications for it and I am sure I am too old to expect Improvement. My Strength declines, and so too probably will my mental powers soon. My views in this world have been some time bounded chiefly to my children, they yet for a little while may have me to lean on, being constantly with them adds to their Happiness and makes my chief comfort.'12

"Johnson spent his later years in retirement at his home in Frederick. [p. 9] His last public appearance was on February 22, 1800, when he delivered the funeral oration on the day of prayer and mourning in memory of George Washington. In this solemn panegyric he eulogized the first President and outlined his long career of public service. He concluded with these words: 'Let our hearts, my hearers, glow with gratitude to the Supreme for the blessing bestowed on us in Washington: like this sound philosopher and practical Christian, let us refer the gift to the hand of Him whose governing Providence rules the fate of individuals and of nations: let us feel the weight of his advice, not disregard his exhortations to union.'13

"At 'Rose Hill,' the home of his daughter Anne Jennings Grahame in Frederick, Governor Johnson died in his eighty-seventh year, on October 26, 1819. No more fitting comment on his life can be found than that recorded in his obituary notice in the Fredericktown Herald, as copied in the Maryland Gazette for November 11, 1819:

“'Mr. Johnson was among the first in the Union to assert the just claims of his country against the tyranny and oppression of Great Britain, and was early in life honoured with the most important and arduous trusts which his countrymen could confer. He . . . enjoyed without solicitation, every honour which his native state could bestow . . . . His deeds are inscribed in the imperishable archives of his country; his wisdom, impartiality and integrity in the records of justice; his worth & virtues are preserved in the hearts of his countrymen; his kindness, affection and friendship in the memory of his family, relatives and friends; his trust for immortality rested in his Savior and God.'14

"He was buried in the family vault in the Episcopal graveyard in Frederick, but in 1913 his body was removed to Mt. Olivet Cemetery where a monument was erected over his grave."

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