Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Francis Thomas
MSA SC 3520-1457

Governor of Maryland, 1842-1845

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 123-126.

"FRANCIS THOMAS, probably the only occupant of Government House to have been involved in a serious domestic scandal, was born in Frederick County on February 3, 1799, the seventh child of John and Eleanor (McGill) Thomas.  There is no information about how he acquired his early education, but he attended St. John's College in Annapolis where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree.  Because of incomplete college records for the period, the exact date is unknown.  After he had completed his education, he returned home, and applied for admission to the Frederick County Bar in the fall of 1819.1

"Thomas entered politics in 1822 when he was elected to the House of Delegates from Frederick County.  He was elected again in 1827, and in 1829.  During the latter session he served as Speaker.  In the fall of 1830, he received the Democratic Party nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was elected, beginning his term in March 1831.  He served continuously until March of 1841.

"During his congressional career, Thomas participated in the drafting of the resolutions adopted by the nineteen Democratic State senatorial electors who refused to take their seats in the Electoral College in 1836.  Even though he was not a member of the State Senate, but a U.S. Congressman, Thomas came to Annapolis after the 'Glorious Nineteen' had agreed to boycott the sessions and assisted in the development of the Democratic strategy which led to the passage of the desired reforms.  The Whigs, as a result, subjected him to a barrage of attacks during the next Congressional campaign, but these did not prevent Thomas from being re-elected.

"Between 1839 and 1841, Thomas served as the President of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, during one of the most difficult periods in history.  In 1839, a new board of directors had been elected to attempt to liquidate the company's debts, a process which proved 'most disastrous and painful,' according to Sanderlin. Thomas, having been elected to the board, was chosen as President.  Almost single-handedly he [p. 124] negotiated with the company's creditors and experimented with the use of paper money to pay off the debt, a move which resulted in charges of financial irresponsibility being levelled against him.  This action on his part, a somewhat desperate move, merely involved the company in more legal and financial difficulty.

"When the Democratic State Convention met in 1841 to select its gubernatorial candidate, it chose Thomas. In this election, because of the 1838 amendments to the Constitution, both candidates had to be nominated from the Western Maryland district. He defeated his Whig opponent, William Cost Johnson also from Frederick County and his Congressional colleague, by the narrow margin of slightly over six hundred votes, and was inaugurated as governor on January 3, 1842.

"Until this time, Thomas had been a bachelor. On June 8, 1841, he married Sally Campbell Preston McDowell, the daughter of Governor James McDowell of Virginia. At that time he was forty-two years of age, while his bride was twenty. Within a short time, a violent disagreement broke out between the two, so their marriage lasted only a short time. 'While he had a strong and vigorous intellect,' states one of his biographers, 'it became more and more apparent that his mind was ill balanced.'3 Shortly after his term had ended, he and his wife were divorced following an unpleasant scandal during which he issued a pamphlet, Statement of Francis Thomas (1845), fully describing all the events leading to his domestic tragedy. The quarrel resulted in ruining Thomas’ hopes of being nominated President of the United States in 1844, for up to that time he had been a leading candidate.

"During his term, Thomas seems not to have allowed his personal problems to interfere with his official duties. He continued the 'Jeremiah-like' pronouncements of his predecessor William Grason, by strongly opposing the repudiation of the State debt. He too, upbraided the Whigs for their advocacy of the system of internal improvements which had brought the State to the verge of financial ruin. 'We were, at one and the same time, projecting or constructing a rail road to Annapolis, a rail road from Baltimore to Washington, a rail road from Baltimore to the Susquehanna, a rail road on the Eastern Shore, a rail road from Baltimore to the Ohio, and a magnificent canal from tide water on the Potomac to the Ohio river. If the people of the State had then comprehended, as they do now, the means by which this grand system was to be conducted, it is not to be doubted, but that they would have risen in their strength and have swept from power, everywhere, all its authors,' he told the Legislature in December 1842.4

"Finally, the great public debt had apprized the people of their dilemma. Thomas charged his predecessors with neither maintaining the faith of the State nor of discharging its financial commitments. He went on to exhort the Legislature to take some steps to meet its obligations.  'Any [p. 125] movement to avoid the responsibility of so doing, cannot but re-act, most prejudicially, upon the good name of our State,' he declared.5 Thomas failed to understand why the State had amassed such a debt which he termed 'premature, unwise, inexpedient and unconstitutional.' The choice to him was either that of 'repudiating our debt, or, of submitting to the exactions of the tax gatherer.”6

"Thomas proposed to pay off the debt by the levy of a direct tax upon the people. This would have maintained the public credit, but the people to a great extent refused to pay it. As the State was then unable to pay interest on its bonds, the Governor suggested that the coupons be accepted as currency. In 1842, however, Maryland was forced to suspend payment on its bonds which greatly increased the agitation for repudiation. It was not until Governor Pratt’s administration that the State’s debts were finally paid off.

"In his farewell message to the Legislature, Thomas noted the threats uttered about the dissolution of the Union. He noted that when Louisiana was purchased in 1803, there were just as many threats as there were in 1844 during the agitation over the annexation over Texas. These threat which he described as 'impolitic and undignified proceedings, did not then deter, they will not now intimidate, those who have in charge the most important question of the day,' he predicted.7

"Thomas also noted that slavery held another Serious objection against annexation. Texas law had authorized the importation of slaves from Cuba so annexation would superimpose United States laws over those of Texas 'forbidding the importation of slaves from abroad,' and arresting 'the further progress of that policy.' He further declared that 'while it promises homes for a portion of the slaves of their own country, more appropriate than those they now have, it will relieve to some extent, Africa from the horrors of a traffic condemned by nearly all the civilized world.' The end result would be the addition of millions of persons who enjoy 'the blessings of living under the administration of the best forms of Government known amongst men.'8

"Thomas also opposed slavery which 'is altogether unworthy of enlightened statesmen, and should be by all patriots repudiated.' The slave population would be sparse when compared with the population of the free states while immigrants 'naturally prefer to become citizens of those States where there are none other than free laborers.' The Congress would then be chosen by the free States and 'armed with these conservative powers protect themselves, and their domestic institutions against all improper and unconstitutional interference from the Government of the Union, our northern States, we may hope, will cease to resist [the annexa- [p. 126]  tion of Texas] under fears of a political preponderance, they have not the least cause to apprehend.'9

"Thomas was succeeded as governor by Thomas C. Pratt on January 6, 1845. For the rest of his life, from 1845 to 1876, except for the years when he emerged from retirement, he lived almost as a recluse. Between 1849 and 1850, for example, he took part in the constitutional reform movement and served as a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1850. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he espoused the Union cause and helped to raise a regiment to fight in the northern armies.  He also emerged from retirement to serve again as a member of Congress between 1861 and 1869 and even though he had been a Democrat until 1861, he now became a staunch Republican and remained so until his death.

"At the completion of his Congressional term, President Grant appointed him Collector of Internal Revenue for the District of Maryland in 1870. He held this position for two years, following which he resigned in March 1872 to accept the post of Minister to Peru. He remained in South America until 1875, when he again retired from public life and resumed the practice of law in Western Maryland. He also engaged in lumbering and wool growing on his extensive farm in Garrett County, for while he had been in Peru he had become interested in Alpaca sheep and had brought a number to Maryland hoping to propagate them.

"For about a year he devoted his attention to his estate near Frankville, where he planned to live. While overseeing improvements to it on January 22, 1876, he was struck by a railroad locomotive and was killed instantly. His body was taken to Petersville for burial in the St. Mark’s Church graveyard, where over his grave there was erected a stone bearing the inscription which he was said to have written himself: 'The author of the measure which gave to Maryland the Constitution of 1864 and thereby gave freedom to 90,000 human beings.'10 At his death, The Sun described him as one who 'in the legislative and congressional halls and in the gubernatorial chair made his mark in an incisive manner. As a political orator he had few equals, and his elocution was so ringing and clear as to obtain for him the title of ‘silver tongued!’"11

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