Maryland's road to independence [Editorial]

John Trumbell's painting "declaration of Independence" depicts the presentation of a draft of the document to the Second Continental Congress. It hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

Within months of the first shots of what was to become America's Revolutionary War, Maryland mustered troops to join the Continental Army and help newly appointed general George Washington drive the British from Boston. But the willingness to support the armed struggle did not correspond with an inclination toward independence. As was the case generally throughout the colonies in 1775, Maryland's leaders remained steadfast in their hope for a redress of grievances with Great Britain and a peaceable reunion with the crown.

During the summer of 1775, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, sent to London what has become known as the Olive Branch Petition — essentially, a request for reconciliation. King George III refused to receive it or respond to it. Two months later, in October, King George III gave an address to Parliament in which he concluded that the rebellion in the colonies "manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire" — that is to say, if the colonists themselves thought their aim was a fairer place in the British Empire, the king did not see things that way and was prepared to crush the rebellion among the "deluded multitude" by sending more troops, more ships and, potentially, foreign fighters.


News of that speech reached the colonies at about the same time that British forces shelled the city of Norfolk, Va. Coupled with other acts of ruthlessness by the king's army, talk of independence began to grow more common. But still not yet in Maryland. The Conventions of the Province of Maryland met in Annapolis in early January, 1776, and issued a set of instructions to the colony's delegates to the Continental Congress reminding them of the blessings of British government and explicitly forbidding a vote for independence. Here is what they wrote:

'Firmly united to Great Britain'


"The convention taking into their most serious consideration, the present state of the unhappy dispute between Great Britain and the united colonies, think it proper to deliver you their sentiments, and to instruct you in certain points, relative to your conduct in congress, as representatives of this province.

"The experience we and our ancestors have had of the mildness and equity of the English constitution, under which we have grown up to and enjoyed a state of felicity, not exceeded among any people we know of, until the grounds of the present controversy were laid by the ministry and parliament of Great Britain, has most strongly endeared to us that form of government from whence these blessing have been derived, and makes us ardently wish for a reconciliation with the mother country, upon terms that may insure to these colonies an equal and permanent freedom.

"To this constitution we are attached, not merely by habit, but by principle, being in our judgments persuaded, it is of all known systems best calculated to secure the liberty of the subject, to guard against despotism on the one hand, and licentiousness on the other.

"Impressed with these sentiments, we warmly recommend to you, to keep constantly in your view the avowed end and purpose for which these colonies originally associated, the redress of American grievances, and securing the rights of the colonists.

"As upon the attainment of these great objects, we shall think it our greatest happiness to be thus firmly united to Great Britain, we think proper to instruct you, that should any proposition be happily made by the crown or parliament, that may lead to or lay a rational and probable ground for reconciliation, you use your utmost endeavors to cultivate and improve it into a happy settlement and lasting amity, taking care to secure the colonies against the exercise of the right assumed by parliament to tax them, and to alter and change their charters, constitutions, and internal policy, without their consent — powers incompatible with the essential securities of thee lives, liberties, and properties of the colonists.

"We further instruct you, that you do not without the previous knowledge and approbation of the convention of this province, assent to any proposition to declare these colonies independent of the crown of Great Britain, nor to any proposition for making or entering into alliance with any foreign power, nor to any union or confederation of these colonies, which may necessarily lead to a separation from the mother country, unless in your judgments or in the judgments of any four of you, or of a majority of the whole of you, if all shall be then attending in congress, it shall be thought absolutely necessary for the preservation of the liberties of the united colonies, which may necessarily lead to a separation from the mother country, then we instruct you immediately to call the convention of this province, and repair thereto with such proposition and resolve, and lay the same before the said convention for the consideration, and this convention will not hold this province bound by such majority in congress, until the representative body of the province in convention assent thereto."

Maryland's instructions to its delegates that January may have been particularly enthusiastic in their wishes for reconciliation with Great Britain — University of Pennsylvania historian Richard R. Beeman ranks them as among the most "emphatic and sincere" of the statements made by the colonies then — but the upshot of its stance was not unusual. Talk of independence was still confined to the radicals. But two major developments began to turn the tide.

One was the news, which reached the colonies in February, of the Prohibitory Act, which had been passed by Parliament in late 1775. It essentially removed the protection of the British crown from the Americans and treated them as common enemies. It called for a blockade of American ports, a prohibition on all trade from the colonies and decreed that any ship found in violation of that ban "shall be forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies." In the minds of some colonists, it transformed the fighting from something akin to a family quarrel to one between foreign nations, and one in which Britain appeared determined to stop at nothing to win and win viciously.


Common Sense

The second major development was the publication on Jan. 10, 1776, of the pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a recently arrived immigrant from England. It took the argument about independence from the realm of the highly educated elites into the popular discourse. Rather than incorporating references to political philosophy or ancient Roman precedents, as was customary among the more learned treatises on the question of independence, Paine relied on simple language and Biblical concepts. He tackled directly the idea that Britain's form of government was anything to be lauded and attacked at length the whole notion of hereditary monarchy — "In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it."

Common Sense is unlike the recitations of grievances that the colonists had sent to Britain, and as such is all the more powerful. It suggests that the conflict between the colonies and the mother country was not a matter of present circumstances or even the perfidy of one king or parliament but rather the result of permanent conflicts of interest. Paine writes:

"I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge; not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for buy them where we will.

"But the injuries and disadvantages which we sustain by that connection, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance: because, any submission to, or dependence on, Great Britain, tends directly to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do, while, by her dependence on Britain, she is made the makeweight in the scale of British politics."

Paine framed the question of independence as not a question at all, instead casting the debate as an absurdity in the most visceral of terms: "Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant."


The effect of the pamphlet was electric. Initially printed anonymously, it sold at least 100,000 copies, and by some estimates far more than that, within months of its publication. Some newspapers printed it in its entirety. It is generally considered to have been the most influential writing of the revolutionary era, in no small part because, by dint of its style and focus, invited a broader electorate into the conversation about independence.

'So excentric a Colony'

During the spring months of 1776, the New England colonies and the Southern ones moved steadily toward the idea of independence, while the Mid-Atlantic colonies, including Maryland, lagged behind. As John Adams put it in a letter to James Warren of Massachusetts, "Maryland ... is so excentric a Colony — some times so hot — sometimes so cold — now so high then so low — that I know not what to say about it or to expect from it. I have often wished it could exchange Places with Hallifax."

Meanwhile, the authority of governing bodies in the colonies, like Maryland's provincial convention in Annapolis, was increasingly murky. On May 10, Adams introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress calling on the colonies, "where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general."

That was something of a revolutionary act, in that it rested on the notion that proper authority derived from the people and not the crown or a colonial charter, but the preamble to that resolution, adopted five days later, was a bombshell that pointed squarely toward independence:

"Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore, resolved, &c."


That statement was so at odds with the instructions from Maryland's provincial convention that state's delegation walked out of Congress. Five days later, the preamble reached Annapolis, but still Maryland's leaders would not entertain the idea of independence or even the need to establish a new state government. On May 21, 1776, they took the following action:

"Resolved unanimously, That as this convention is firmly persuaded that a re-union with Great Britain on constitutional principles would most effectually secure the rights and liberties, and increase the strength and promote the happiness of the whole empire, objects which this province hath ever had in view, the said deputies are bound and directed to govern themselves by the instructions given to them by this convention in its session of December last, in the same manner as if the said instructions were particularly repeated."

'A little obstinate to be sure'

If the earlier resolution had put Maryland in the mainstream of colonial sentiments, this one placed it distinctly behind the times. During the next few weeks, John Adams would exchange a flurry of correspondence with Samuel Chase, a pro-independence delegate from Maryland, urging him to convince his countrymen to change course. Adams' frustration was evident: "I have never had the Honour of knowing many People from Maryland, but by what I have learnt of them and seen of their Delegates they are an open, sincere and united People — a little obstinate to be sure, but that is very pardonable when accompanied with frankness," he wrote on June 17.

Still, sentiment in Maryland in the spring of 1776 was not so stagnant as the May 21 resolution might have suggested. The Annapolis convention still reflected elite opinion, dominated by the plater class, which had a more positive history when it came to British rule than did the leaders in some other colonies. Because Maryland was a proprietary colony — that is, it was granted to a proprietor (initially, Cecil Calvert, Second Baron of Baltimore) — it operated with something of a buffer between its citizens and the British crown. And the royal governor at the time, Robert Eden, was generally popular.

The merchant classes in Baltimore, however, were a hotbed of radicalism, according to Edward Papenfuse, who retired last year after a long career as Maryland's state archivist. They were an adventurous and enterprising lot who had long been chafing under the restrictions of the British mercantilistic restrictions on trade, which had only become worse as a result of the Prohibitory Act.


In April of 1776, patriot forces in Virginia intercepted letters to Eden from British Colonial Secretary Lord George Germain, which provided evidence that Eden had been collaborating with the British government in ways the colonists had not realized — including perhaps passing along information to foster a British landing of troops in Maryland or Virginia. Historian Ronald Hoffman, in his book "A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics and the Revolution in Maryland," writes that this set off a round of intrigue including an aborted attempt to kidnap Eden by pro-independence forces from Baltimore that provoked mild censure from the more cautious — or, as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a participant in the scheme put it, "namby pamby" — members of the Annapolis convention.

However, according to Mr. Hoffman's account, the moderates in the planter class recognized the increased radicalism in Baltimore as posing a threat to their economic and political position and led to a recognition that standing in the way of independence was likely futile and self-destructive. The idea that the moderates were on the opposite side of popular opinion became increasingly clear as the spring wore on.

In her 1997 history, "American Scripture," MIT historian Pauline Maier writes of the importance of local declarations of independence adopted by cities and counties throughout the colonies in the months leading up to the national debate that would take place in July, 1776. She writes that at least 90 of them were adopted, including four from Maryland counties: Anne Arundel, Charles, Frederick and Talbot.

As it happened, the resolutions from Charles and Talbot counties were printed in the Maryland Gazette on July 4, 1776. Here's what the Charles County declaration said:

"... The experiences we have had of the cruelty and injustice of the British government, under which we have too long borne oppression and wrongs, and notwithstanding every peaceable endeavor of the United Colonies to get redress of grievances, by decent, dutiful and sincere petitions and representations to the king and parliament, giving every assurance of our affection and loyalty, and praying for no more than peace, liberty and safety, under the British government, yet have we received nothing but an increase of insult and injury, by all the colonies being declared in actual rebellion; savages hired to take up arms against us; slaves proclaimed free, enticed away, trained and armed against their lawful masters; our towns plundered, burnt and destroyed; our vessels and property seized on the seas, made free plunder to the captors, and our seamen forced to take arms against ourselves; our friends and countrymen, when captivated, confined in dungeons, and, as if criminals, chained down to the earth; our estates confiscated, and our men, women and children, robbed and murdered. ...

"We must, for these reasons, declare that our affection for the people, and allegiance to the crown of Great-Britain, so readily and truly acknowledged til of late, is forfeited on their part. And as we are convinced that nothing virtuous, humane, generous or just can be expected from the British king, or nation, and that they will exert themselves to reduce us to a state of slavery, by every effort and artifice in their power, we are of opinion that the time is fully arrived for the colonies to adopt the last measure for our common good and safety, and that the sooner they declare themselves separate from, and independent of the crown and parliament of Great-Britain, the sooner they will be able to make effectual opposition and establish their liberties on a firm and permanent basis.


"We therefore most earnestly instruct and charge you to move for, without loss of time, and endeavor to obtain positive instructions from the convention of Maryland to their delegates in congress, immediately to join the other colonies in declaring, that the united Colonies no longer owe allegiance to, nor are they dependent upon, the crown or parliament of Great-Britain ..."

'Free and independent states'

To be sure, this was not an entirely organic endeavor, as pro-independence leaders from Massachusetts to Virginia encouraged the efforts, including Samuel Chase, who wrote to Adams on June 21 that "a general dissatisfaction" with the Annapolis convention prevails and that he had "appealed in writing to the people" with the effect that "county after county" is instructing the convention to authorize independence. Moreover, the rest of the Mid-Atlantic colonies were falling into line. On the morning of June 28, according to Mr. Hoffman, Chase read a message from Adams who said that New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania had all decided to vote for independence, leaving Maryland and New York as the only stragglers. Months earlier, Adams had predicted of Maryland, "When they get agoing I expect some wild extravagant Flight or other from it. To be sure they must go beyond every body else, when they begin to go." When the convention voted on June 28, its reversal could not have been more complete:

"Resolved unanimously, That the instructions given by the convention of December last (and renewed by the convention in May) to the deputies of this colony in congress, be recalled, and the restrictions therein contained removed; that the deputies of this colony attending in congress, or a majority of them, or any three or more of them, be authorized and empowered to concur with the other united colonies, or a majority of them, in declaring the united colonies free and independent states, in forming such further compact and confederation between them, in making foreign alliances, and in adopting such other measures as shall be adjudged necessary for securing the liberties of America, and this colony will hold itself bound by the resolutions of a majority of the united colonies in the premises: provided, the sole and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and police of this colony be reserved to the people thereof."

News of the resolution was carried to Philadelphia by express rider, and it arrived on the morning of July 1, just as Congress was about to embark on what John Adams called "the great debate." The Continental Congress would vote for independence the following day 12-0 with one abstention (New York) and adopt the formal declaration (with substantial editing of Thomas Jefferson's original draft) two days later, on July 4, 1776 — 238 years ago today.

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