Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thomas G. Pratt (1804-1869)
MSA SC 3520-1458

Governor of Maryland, 1845-1848

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 129-133.

"THOMAS G. PRATT, who placed the State upon a firm financial basis, and eliminated the possible threat of repudiation of the public debt, was born in Washington, D. C. in that portion of the city known as Georgetown, on February 18, 1804, the son of John Wilkes and Rachel (Belt) Pratt. Although he was not a Marylander by birth, his ancestors had been prominent residents of Prince George’s County. His parents afforded him every opportunity to acquire a liberal education and after he had completed his elementary training, they sent him to Georgetown College. It is probable also that he went to Princeton, although this cannot be proved. While he was in Washington, he read law in the office of Richard S. Coxe, and in 1823, he moved to Prince George’s County and opened his law office in Upper Marlboro. Shortly thereafter, he became acquainted with Governor Joseph Kent, whose daughter, Adelaide MacKubin Kent, he married on September 1, 1835. They had six children. From the time of their marriage until his death, Governor Pratt’s home was famed for its hospitality and the character of the guests which they entertained.

"Pratt was chosen a member of the House of Delegates in 1832, serving for three years. He was a member of the Electoral College of 1836, when the revolt of the 'Glorious Nineteen' Democrats who objected strongly against the inequitable system of representation occurred. He was, however, one of the twenty-one Whig members. In the same year, he was chosen as a Whig presidential elector and although Maryland gave its votes to William Henry Harrison, the national Whig ticket was not victorious in that election. In 1838 he was named the President of the Governor’s Council and he served until the Council was abolished in that year.

"After his service on the Council had ended, Pratt was elected to the State Senate, serving a six-year term in that body. He was the first Senator to be popularly and directly elected from Prince George’s County as the result of the newly adopted constitutional amendments which allotted one Senator to each county. Pratt served in the Senate at a time when Maryland faced a gloomy financial outlook. Because of the lavish expenditure of funds for internal improvements, the Treasury was nearly empty, and as the State could neither pay the interest on its debt nor [p. 130] could it reduce the amount of its indebtedness, many legislators seriously considered repudiation of the debt.

"In 1844, he was the strongest candidate whom the Whigs could find in the middle gubernatorial district which had the responsibility for nominating a candidate in that year. To oppose him, the Democrats nominated James Carroll of Baltimore. Pratt campaigned vigorously on a platform which advocated the unequivocal payment of the State’s debts, and defeated his opponent by the extremely close margin of 548 votes, after an unusually bitter contest.

"Governor Pratt took office on January 6, 1845. In his inaugural address, he made several long-range recommendations which were later adopted. First he called for the immediate payment of the State debt. 'No people on earth could feel more deeply than the people of Maryland, the degrading position now occupied by the State in reference to this subject, and no people in the civilized world could be more unanimously determined to wipe off this, the only stain which has ever rested upon the honor and integrity of their government.'During his administration, 'Governor Pratt had the nerve to withstand what some falsely supposed to be the popular sentiment of the day, and .. . recommended and carried into execution a system of direct taxation by which the threatened calamity was happily prevented, and public confidence restored.'2

"Pratt also advocated the creation of a board of public works, a step adopted by the Constitution of 1851. This board, he said, would 'induce the practice of greater economy in the expenditures of those [internal improvement] companies, and would for the future secure to the State the application of the revenues of those companies, in accordance with the provisions of the law.'3

"Pratt further favored the extension of the elective franchise. 'Where the permanency of the government depends upon the will of the people, it is all important that they should be thoroughly satisfied that the ballot box has fairly expressed their wishes, and that those who are to rule over them are in truth the choice of a majority of the citizens of the State.'4

"He experienced difficulty over the enforcement of the fugitive slave law and this, perhaps more than anything else, caused Pratt, who had up to that time been a Whig, to become the Democrat of later years. Several slaves had escaped from Maryland into Pennsylvania so he made requisitions upon that state for their return in 1847. The Governor of Pennsylvania refused to comply with Pratt’s demand, accompanying one of his refusals with the opinion of his Attorney-General, declaring that the 1838 act of the General Assembly of Maryland was regarded as unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania authorities.

"Governor Pratt had his second dispute with the Pennsylvania author- [p. 131] ities on the same subject. Shortly after this first instance, several slaves belonging to Washington County owners, had escaped from them and had made their way into Pennsylvania. The owners, in compliance with an act of Congress, went to Pennsylvania to claim their property and attempted to return to Maryland with them. En route, the party was stopped by a group of Pennsylvanians who seized some of the slaves and set them free. In the confrontation, a Mr. Kennedy, one of the Marylanders was killed, an action which only increased tensions between the two states.

"Pratt’s final dealings with Pennsylvania concerned Isaac Brown, a fugitive slave belonging to Alexander Somerville of Calvert County. Brown had attempted to kill his master and had fled. Governor Pratt, therefore, issued a warrant for Brown’s return. He was arrested in Philadelphia, and after a lengthy trial, the court ordered him delivered to the Maryland authorities, but immediately, thereafter, a writ of habeas corpus was issued by some other court than that which had tried the case, and the fugitive released. Governor Pratt protested bitterly about these three violations pointing out that slaveholders had received adequate protection until 'the spirit of abolition became an active political element in some of the non-slaveholding States, the plain requisition of the constitution and law of the United States upon this subject was conformed to by the authorities and citizens of all the States. But since the introduction of this fanatical spirit the harmony . . . has been frequently interrupted, and now the constitutional right of the citizen of a slave State to demand and receive his slaves when they escape to a non-slaveholding State, if not disregarded by the authorities, is successfully resisted with impunity by the citizens of that State.'5

"During Pratt’s term, the United States and Great Britain had difficulties over conflicting claims to the Oregon Territory. Pratt fervently hoped that the two countries could successfully negotiate the points of contention because 'no administration . . . could stand against the general indignation which would follow the loss of life and property, consequent upon a war with Great Britain, entered upon without warning; and without any, the slightest preparation for defense.' Maryland would then be exposed to the enemy’s depredations, a belief which Maryland governors had shared since the invasion of 1814. In such a case, he warned the Legislature that “no part of the Union would, in the event of war, be more exposed than Maryland; and if you should have less confidence than I have in the wisdom of the Federal Executive, it will be your paramount duty to make some provision for placing our State in a posture of defense.'6

"Pratt had very definite views upon the system of internal improvements. He felt that the primary argument was whether the people of the State would submit 'to a perpetual taxation to the amount of $400,000, the annual interest in the investment in the canal.'7 He believed that [p. 132] the system was devised to develop the resources of the whole State, and as the result, the people 'looked beyond the limits of Maryland for the sources of wealth and prosperity which were commensurate with the magnitude of their undertaking.' 'The canal,' he insisted, 'may now be considered as fixed.' He went on to say that 'it must for our day and generation continue within the limits of our State; but its eastern terminus will conform to the original design. . . . We must consequently look to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and its extension to the Ohio River, as the only means of securing to the State the great advantages which were contemplated from the gigantic scheme in the prosecution of which the means and credit of the State have been for the time so completely exhausted.'8

"The Mexican War occurred during Governor Pratt’s administration. Shortly after the call for troops, he declared that 'the sons of Maryland have always obeyed the call of patriotism and duty, and will now sustain the honor of the State by enabling her to be the first or amongst the first to offer the Federal Executive, for muster into the service of the country, her quota of the volunteer force which has been called for.'9 His prophecy was fulfilled. The Baltimore-Washington Battalion, one of the very few Eastern units to participate in the war, served with great distinction in General Zachary Taylor’s campaigns as well as in General Winfield Scott’s march from Vera Cruz to the Mexican capital.

"Pratt’s term expired on January 3, 1848. To him must go the honor of being one of the State’s most outstanding statesmen. He initiated the change from a period of commercial stagnation to one of business prosperity, a factor which more than anything else, saved Maryland from taking the easy course of repudiating its debts. During his three years in office, he was untiring in his efforts to have Maryland resume its interest payments, but this did not occur until after he had left office. During his administration he enforced the law relating to the collection of taxes, and whether or not the people favored repudiation made little difference to Governor Pratt, who charged that Maryland’s failure in 1842 to pay the interest on her debts was due largely to the ineptitude of government officials who failed to enforce the laws.

"Although Pratt attempted to live in and resume his law practice in Annapolis, he was not allowed to do so. In January 1850, the General Assembly elected him to be Reverdy Johnson’s successor in the United States Senate since the latter had resigned to accept the post of Attorney-General in President Zachary Taylor’s cabinet. At the close of the unexpired term he was elected for the full six year term, during which seven year period he represented his state creditably.

"In 1856, when the Whig Party ceased to exist, the new Republican Party nominated John C. Fremont as its standard bearer. Even though he had been a Whig, Pratt supported James Buchanan, the Democratic nominee, and was even more radical than Buchanan in his attitude towards slavery and secession.

[p. 133] "Pratt returned to his Annapolis home in 1857 and lived there until 1864. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the Northern authorities who regarded him with suspicion because of his pro-slavery attitudes, arrested and confined him in Fortress Monroe for several weeks. Although he never joined the Confederate Army, he spent the remainder of the war actively supporting the Southern cause and gave a son to it.

"In 1864, Pratt moved to Baltimore where he made his home until his death. In the same year, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention which was held in Chicago, and in 1866 he attended the Union Convention in Philadelphia.

"He again became a candidate for the United States Senate in 1867, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Two years later, on November 9, 1869, he died at his home in Baltimore. Following funeral services at his home at 35 St. Paul Street, his body was taken to Annapolis where he was buried in the Cemetery of St. Anne’s Church.

"At his death, Governor Pratt was remembered primarily for the single service he rendered the people of the State by the inauguration of a financial policy which re-established the State’s credit between the years 1845 and 1848. In doing so, he prevented the State from averting the dishonor of repudiation. As governor he prevented the threatened calamity and restored public confidence. At a meeting of the bench and bar of Baltimore City he was eulogized as one who 'in the darkest hour of the financial history of Maryland, was foremost among those who maintained her honor. We remember with gratitude and hold up with pride, as an example to citizens and rulers, the noble disregard of personal popularity, the scorn of individual and partisan temptations, and the subordination of political and personal consequences to the discharge of duty . . . when, . . . he linked his name forever with the re-establishment of the good faith of the State.'”10

Notes on sources

Return to Thomas G. Pratt's introductory page

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