Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

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Oden Bowie (1826-1894)
MSA SC 3520-1465

Governor of Maryland 1869-1872

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 173-177.

"ODEN BOWIE, like his predecessor Thomas Swann, a successful railroad executive, was born at 'Fairview,' Prince George’s County, on November 10, 1826, the son of William D. and Eliza (Oden) Bowie. The only Mexican War veteran to have been elected governor, he descended from a long line of ancestors who had distinguished themselves in public service, and had long been prominent in Prince George’s County. His father had served as a member of the County Levy Court, a two-term member of the House of Delegates, and a colonel of militia. His mother was the daughter of Benjamin Oden, a landholder with mercantile interests.

"Oden Bowie received his early education at home under a private tutor. When he was only nine years of age, he was sent to the preparatory school of St. John’s College in Annapolis. He remained there for several years. Then he entered St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, from which he was graduated in 1845. Shortly after leaving college, he enlisted as a private in the Baltimore and Washington Battalion, a military organization which was one of the very few Eastern units to have been recruited for service in Mexico. During the war, he participated in some of the more important battles. At Monterey, he displayed such bravery that he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Later, President James K. Polk appointed him a captain of Voltiguers, of which Joseph E. Johnston, who earned fame during the Civil War, was the lieutenant colonel. The climate of Mexico, however, seriously affected his health, so he was compelled to return home before the close of the war. The Legislature subsequently passed resolutions expressing 'the thanks of his native State for distinguished gallantry displayed during the three days’ siege of Monterey.'l

"Following his return from Mexico and the restoration of his health, Bowie entered polities in 1847, becoming a candidate for a seat in the House of Delegates from Prince George’s County but he was defeated. As he was not quite twenty-one years of age, his opponents used his youth against him by raising doubts about his eligibility with the result that he lost by only ten votes. In 1849, he was once more a candidate for the House of Delegates and was the only Democratic candidate to be elected from Prince  [p. 174] George’s County in that year. He served during only one session, that of December 1849, because the adoption of the Constitution of 1851 cut short all terms of office. Two years later, on December 3, 1851, he married Alice Carter, the daughter of Charles H. Carter, of neighboring 'Goodwood.' They had seven children, and Oden and Alice Bowie made their home at 'Fairview,' the governor’s ancestral estate of about one thousand acres which he had inherited from his father, living there for the remainder of their lives.

"Bowie was inactive politically between 1849 and 1861. During that interval, he became associated with the old Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Company, becoming its president in 1860. The work on the road was interrupted by the Civil War, but it was completed after 1865 as the result of Bowie’s dynamic management. He held that office until his death, even after that road had become a part of the Pennsylvania Railroad system. Largely because of his efforts, the Pennsylvania Railroad secured permission to extend its Pope’s Creek Branch into Washington, a move which later precipitated a railroad war with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

"Although Bowie had served in the House of Delegates for one term prior to 1860, it was not until after that date that he became a State-wide political leader. In 1861, he was a candidate for the State Senate from Prince George’s County as a 'Peace Democrat,' but he was defeated because of military interference by the Federal troops in the State election. Although he was an ardent Democrat and a warm sympathizer of the South, he had opposed secession. During the war, he used his efforts to preserve the Democratic party organization, and it was in part due to his efforts that the party was later enabled to regain control of the State. He was chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee during the war and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1864 which nominated George B. McClellan for President.

"The Constitution of 1864 provided for a governor and a lieutenant governor. In the only election to be held under this document, the Democratic Party nominated Bowie for Lieutenant Governor, but he was defeated by Christopher C. Cox, the Union Party candidate, who polled 41,828 votes to Bowie’s 32,178.

"In 1867, Bowie was elected to the State Senate from Prince George’s County, where he served on several important committees including that of federal relations. Early in the same year, the people of Maryland had approved the calling of a constitutional convention to revise the Constitution of 1864, and when the new Constitution was adopted in September of 1867, it restored the franchise to many thousands of Marylanders. At the election of November 5, 1867, Oden Bowie who had been to a great extent instrumental in bringing about the change, was the Democratic nominee for governor. Out of the 85,744 votes cast, he received 63,694, and he carried into office with him a Legislature which contained no Republican members.

"Under a provision of the Constitution of 1867, the first elected governor was to serve for three years, while all future governors were to [p. 175] serve full four-year terms. Bowie qualified as Governor on January 8, 1868, although he was not inaugurated governor until January 13, 1869. He continued in office until January 10, 1872, when William Pinkney Whyte succeeded him.

"In his inaugural address, he pleaded for reconciliation, for like several of his successors he had to face the problem of the restoration of the State’s services after a war. 'National legislation must be directed not only to the restoration of the dissevered States to their proper orbits, and to the pacification of the country, but its financial condition and necessities. The burdens of war must be relieved by the return of peace.'2 He went on to warn his fellow Democrats that 'an excess of power [is] dangerous to all parties.' He cautioned 'against political excesses and any divergence from right in the mere interest of party or person.'3 Pleading for the union, he told the members of the Legislature 'of fanaticism, of crime, of bloodshed we have had more than enough— enough of self-debasement for self-advancement —too much of mere party strife. Patriotism should now awaken us to the true and material interests of the country.'4

"Just as later Governors Emerson Harrington and Herbert O’Conor had to face the problems of restoring State government services after a major conflict, so Oden Bowie had to face those dealings with those needs interrupted by the Civil War. Unlike the first two who had to settle issues growing out of global conflicts, Bowie had to resolve those dealing with internal strife. Harrington and O’Conor had occupied the governorship both before, during and a short period after the war, while Bowie’s administration did not start until nearly four years after the end of the Civil War.

"During his administration, Bowie had to solve problems of a business nature. Among the leading issues settled during his term of office was that pertaining to the dispute with Virginia over the oyster beds. He also took the lead in the collection of arrearages from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad together with the repayment of money loaned by Maryland to the United States government during the war. He opposed the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in its fight to block the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad from linking New York with Washington by direct railroad line. He advocated a free railroad law under which citizens might construct a railroad whenever they desired and could furnish the necessary capital, converted the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal into a paying enterprise, and took the initiative in the passage of legislation dealing with road improvement and the betterment of public education. He proved to be an able governor and an able business man.

"During Bowie’s administration, the new Government House was completed, because the State had sold the former Executive Mansion. It had [p. 176] not been completely furnished when he left office, since like so many building projects, it 'has cost more than was originally designed.'5

"Bowie favored the public school system which had been instituted under his predecessor. But, he urged that the taxes being paid by colored taxpayers for educational purposes, be set apart for the education of the colored children 'and that educational facilities be extended to this class of our population and such encouragement given as will show that we have due concern for their welfare and prosperity.'6

"At the close of his administration when he retired from politics, he became the President of the City Passenger Railway Company which had the franchise to operate the street railway of Baltimore City. At that time the value of the railway’s stock was low; the company had paid no dividends for several years. The company also owed the city its park tax arrears, while its equipment and trackage was in poor condition. Under Bowie’s management, the company changed from horse to rapid transit operations, reduced its park tax arrearages, and enhanced the value of its stock. Bowie managed the company for over twenty years and under his guidance it flourished.

"In 1870, while he was still governor, Bowie became the president of the Maryland Jockey Club. He was instrumental in the acquisition of Pimlico Race Track by the Club, while the meetings at Pimlico under his management drew national attention.

"Governor Bowie loved horses and during his lifetime he was a noted owner and breeder of famous racers. At one time, his stables contained such horses of national reputation as 'Crickmore,' 'Catesby,' 'Compensation,' 'Oriole,' 'Bessie,' and 'Belle.' Bowie had a nervous breakdown in 1890 following which his physician ordered him to give up his horse racing at once. However, even after he sold his stables, he continued to breed horses and other animals, all of which earned many prizes at agricultural exhibitions.

"While Bowie devoted much time to his business interests in Baltimore, he continued to reside at 'Fairview.' He was an almost daily passenger on the Pope’s Creek train commuting between Baltimore and his home near Collington, during which he invariably occupied his favorite seat, the third from the rear on the left-hand side of the last coach of the train. He was so anxious to secure this seat that he would usually send a boy from his office to board the train and to occupy the seat until he arrived.

"Bowie was outspoken to all persons and on all occasions. The Sun told the story that while he was attending church near his home, he felt the minister had preached too long. He became restless during the sermon, and taking his watch out of his pocket several times, he snapped the case shut very loudly before he returned it to his pocket. After the service, [p. 177] the clergyman came up to him and asked him how he enjoyed the sermon. 'Too long, too d— long; why one-half of these people (pointing to the congregation) will get home to cold dinners.'7 The Sun went on to note that in spite of his outspokenness, the two were the closest of friends and Bowie was a most liberal supporter of the church.

"Oden Bowie died at 'Fairview,' on December 4, 1894, after a short illness. After funeral services at his home, he was buried in the family cemetery situated several hundred yards from the house where he was born, lived and died.

"He was mourned as a 'public spirited citizen and [one who was] intensely loyal to his State. He was a man of strong convictions, strong likings and antipathies. Whilst courteous he was perfectly frank and outspoken and entirely too courageous to be deceitful. He had no fancy whatever for being conspicuous or appearing in the public prints, but much preferred being let alone. He was a good citizen and an honest man, and many friends will mourn his death.'"8

Notes on sources

Oden Bowie's inaugural address

Return to Oden Bowie's' introductory page

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