Maryland’s road to independence | COMMENTARY

John Trumbull'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. In the months that would follow, neither King George III’s promises to crush the rebellion among the “deluded multitude” by sending more troops, more ships and, potentially, foreign fighters nor acts of ruthlessness like the shelling of Norfolk changed their minds. 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:

'Ardently wish for reconciliation'

"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. …"


University of Pennsylvania historian Richard R. Beeman ranks Maryland's 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.


'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.

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.

'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."

Adams sought to stir the pot in the Continental Congress, orchestrating in May a resolution that included a list of grievances that would be echoed two months later in the Declaration of Independence. It was so at odds with the instructions from Maryland's provincial convention that state's delegation walked out of Congress. On May 21, 1776, Maryland's leaders in Annapolis reiterated their instructions of the previous December and forbade a vote for independence.

'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 planter class, which had a more positive history when it came to British rule than did the leaders in some other colonies.

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


As the spring wore on, it became increasingly clear that popular opinion was with the merchants, not the planters.

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 of 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. The Charles County declaration concluded:

"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."

'Free and independent'

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 … be authorized and empowered to concur … in declaring the united colonies free and independent states.”


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 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 — 245 years ago.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.