Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Robert M. McLane (1815-1898)
MSA SC 3520-1470


The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 201-205.

"ROBERT MILLIGAN McLANE, who distinguished himself more as a diplomat than as a congressman, politician and governor, was born in Wilmington, Delaware on June 23, 1815, the son of Louis McLane, who had been frequently and greatly honored by the State of Delaware and the Federal government. In 1837, the elder McLane had retired from public life and had come to Baltimore where he assumed the presidency of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Governor McLane’s mother was Catherine Mary Milligan, daughter of Robert Milligan of Cecil County.

"McLane received his early education from his tutor, John Bullock, a Quaker who had conducted an academy in Wilmington. McLane remained there until 1827, when he entered St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. Two years later his father was appointed United States Minister to the Court of St. James, and the entire family went with him to London. The elder McLane, however, sent his son to Paris, where he continued his education at the College Bourbon. Here he enjoyed the friendship of the Marquis de Lafayette. The McLanes remained in Europe until 1831, when the elder McLane was called back to America to become Secretary of the Treasury under President Andrew Jackson. At the same time, Jackson appointed Robert to be a Cadet at the United States Military Academy, from which he was graduated in 1837.  He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the First Artillery.

"He began his military career by being sent to Florida, where he saw service in the Seminole War under General Thomas S. Jesup. In the following year, his company joined General Winfield Scott’s Army which took part in the removal of the Indians to the West. Late in 1838, McLane was transferred to the newly organized Corps of Topographical Engineers under General Zachary Taylor in Florida. He remained with Taylor until 1841, when he was ordered to make a survey of the Northern Lakes. In January 1841, the Secretary of War commissioned him a fellow officer to go to Holland and Italy to examine the system of dykes and drainage in these two countries and then, to make a detailed report on them. While he was in Paris, he married Georgine Urquhart, daughter of William Urquhart, a Louisiana merchant, on August 2, 1841. They had two daughters. After his return to America, he remained in the Army for [p. 202] two more years, supervising the engineering work in the vicinity of New Orleans. In October 1843, he resigned his commission and took up his residence in Baltimore, where he began to practice law.

"In the presidential campaign of 1844, McLane actively campaigned for the Democratic candidate James K. Polk, building up for himself the reputation as an able public speaker and campaigner. As the result of this experience, McLane became a candidate for a seat in the House of Delegates from Baltimore City in 1845 and was elected.

"McLane served only one term in the Legislature, that of 1846. Because of the State’s financial predicament and Governor Pratt’s insistence that Maryland pay its indebtedness, even at the expense of additional taxation, McLane supported the governor’s program and worked actively for the passage of laws which maintained the State’s faith and credit. McLane also took an active interest in constitutional reform, especially supporting the viewpoint that the people of the State could amend the constitution by the calling of a convention for that purpose.

"As a result of his legislative record and the favorable impression he had created as a public speaker, McLane was elected to Congress from Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District in 1847. In the campaign which preceded his election, he was opposed by the Whig candidate John P. Kennedy, who campaigned on the issue of the administration’s Mexican War policy. McLane supported Polk with the result that he was victorious by a margin of about five hundred votes in a district which had been safely regarded as Whig. In Congress, McLane was very shortly recognized as an able debater, supporting even more strongly the Democratic position in the war. He was re-elected in 1849, serving in his second term as a member of the Committee on Commerce. He retired from Congress on March 4, 1851.

"After his congressional term had ended, McLane became counsel for a large mining company which was engaged in a lawsuit over its California properties. He remained on the Pacific Coast for over a year until the disposition of the litigation, not returning to Maryland until 1852, when he participated in President Franklin Pierce’s campaign as a Democratic presidential elector.

"President Pierce, shortly after he took office, appointed McLane as Minister to China for the purpose of securing a renewal of the existing commercial treaty with that nation. China, at that time, was in the midst of a revolution to overthrow the existing dynasty. McLane’s instructions were to negotiate with the rebels who were then in possession of the Empire’s ancient capital, as well as to maintain diplomatic relations with the Imperial Government. He also had to cooperate with the British Minister in joint efforts to secure the treaty’s renewal. McLane’s mission was successful. He secured for the United States the privileges which Great Britain already enjoyed. Because of ill health, he requested his recall in the summer of 1854 and returned to Baltimore.

"McLane returned to America in time to participate in the presidential campaign of 1856. He was active in the Democratic Convention which [p. 203] had assembled to nominate James Buchanan, and after the latter’s nomination he spoke in favor of his candidacy.

"In 1859, President Buchanan called upon McLane to perform another diplomatic mission. In June 1858, the Mexican government and the United States had broken off diplomatic relations. After this action, civil war broke out in Mexico, endangering the lives and property of American citizens who were residing in that country. Buchanan instructed McLane to recognize the government of President Juarez, if, after his arrival in Mexico, he should find that country entitled to diplomatic recognition, according to the established practice of the United States. After his arrival, McLane did recognize the Juarez government. This action by the
U. S. Government assisted in the more firm establishment of the Juarez regime.

"McLane dealt with the Mexican government for more than a year, and succeeded in gaining desirable concessions for the people of the United States. The new commercial treaty drawn and signed by him on behalf of the United States, met with hearty approval in Washington, for it secured for the citizens of the United States, the right of transit across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and from the Gulf of California into Arizona with goods and merchandise and with the privilege of establishing warehouses for the storage of goods for sale in Mexico. Before the treaty’s final ratification, however, Buchanan’s term had ended, and being satisfied that nothing further could be accomplished in Mexico at that time, McLane resigned his Mexican post and returned to Baltimore in December 1860.

"After his return to Maryland, McLane participated in the State conventions which assembled in the early months of 1861. When the Legislature met in May of that year, he was appointed one of the Commissioners to go to Washington to confer with President Lincoln about what the Legislature considered to be unconstitutional proceedings of the Federal authorities within Maryland.

"The commission reported to the Legislature, which concurred in the report, that Maryland should neither secede nor participate in military action against the rebelling states of the South. This decision reflected McLane’s beliefs that the Federal government had the right to execute the laws passed in pursuance of the Constitution, as they related to individuals anywhere and everywhere in the country. He felt, however, that the national government did not have the right to coerce a state into submission, insisting that the policy of coercion was the policy of disunion and war between states and the federal government to avoid which, the Constitution was framed to act upon individuals whereas the government of the old confederation could only act upon states. During the war years, McLane worked, although somewhat unofficially, in an attempt to reconcile the differences between the North and South. He concentrated his efforts, however, upon his law practice, for in the winter of 1863, he had become counsel for the Western Pacific Railroad in both San Francisco and New York. In this capacity, he traveled to Europe several times.

[p. 204] "After the war, McLane occupied himself almost exclusively with his law practice. He did not re-enter politics again until 1876. In that year, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention which met in St. Louis and nominated Samuel J. Tilden for the presidency. In the following year, he received the Democratic nomination for the State Senate from Baltimore City and was elected. He was one of the most important figures in the session which followed. In 1878, he resigned his seat to serve a second term in the House of Representatives. He was re-elected in 1880 and retired on March 4, 1883.

"In 1883, the Democrats nominated McLane as their candidate for governor, and was elected, easily defeating his Republican opponent, Hart B. Holton by over 12,000 votes. He was inaugurated on January 8, 1884, serving in that capacity for slightly more than a year. During his brief administration, several acts of long term importance were passed. Foremost among these was the creation of the Bureau of Statistics and Labor Information, passed in response to Governor McLane’s interest in workingmen. This agency, the forerunner of the present Department of Labor and Industry, and one of the oldest governmental agencies in this field in the United States, antedated the United States Department of Labor by one year. In addition, the Legislature passed an act providing for the publication program of the archives of the State by the Maryland Historical Society, a series which has continued to the present day. Acts which regulated the practice of dentistry and adopted a uniform standard of time throughout the State were also enacted. The one exciting event to occur in his term was the election of a United States Senator for the term beginning on March 4, 1885, to succeed James B. Groome. Ephraim K. Wilson was finally chosen, but only after an entire week of balloting. Finally, during his administration the state participated in the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans.

"Shortly after Grover Cleveland had been inaugurated as President of the United States in 1885, he nominated Governor McLane to be Minister to France. McLane’s special fitness for the post was universally acknowledged as he had been interested in the French nation all his life. He had also been educated in Paris, and had married his wife there. On March 27, 1885, Governor McLane resigned and Henry Lloyd, President of the Senate, succeeded him. McLane left for Paris the following May to begin his diplomatic duties, serving as Minister throughout the entire Cleveland administration. Even after he had been relieved in 1889, McLane continued to reside in France because of his wife’s ill health. Although he made his home in Paris, he continued to visit Baltimore taking an active interest in Baltimore politics. The Sun characterized him as a 'most acceptable representative, both to the French Government and to the large American colony in Paris. His familiarity with the language and all the prominent men of the country, as well as his intimate knowledge of politics and parties, made him one of the most valuable ministers ever sent by the United States to France, or, indeed, to any country.'1

[p. 205] "McLane’s health began to fail by 1891, so he had to restrict his traveling somewhat. After 1895, he did not return to Baltimore at all. He died in Paris on April 16, 1898. His body was returned to Baltimore, where, following services in the Emmanuel P.E. Church, he was interred in his family lot in Greenmount Cemetery.

"At his death, The Sun eulogized him as a man who had a 'long and most remarkable career. He occupied public positions of the highest trust, requiring in the discharge of the duties imposed upon him not only ability, but the ablest tact. In every instance he acquitted himself with credit.  . . His death removes one of the few remaining public men of the old regime who united old-fashioned grace and dignity of manner with careful training, real culture and strong natural ability.'”2

Notes on sources

Return to Robert M. McLane's Introductory Page

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