Steady Hand at the Wheel

Thomas Johnson was born in Calvert County, Maryland, on his father’s lands near the mouth of St. Leonard’s Creek. He was the son of Thomas and Dorcas Sedgwick Johnson and the grandson of Thomas Johnson, barrister, who was the first of the line to reside in Maryland, having fled there after running away with a chancery ward. All of these Johnsons were descendants of Sir James Johnson of Yarmouth, Norfolk-shire, a favorite of Queen Anne. Governor Thomas Johnson was educated at home and in the Annapolis law chambers of Stephen Bordley. Though his father was a cautious man (a member of the Provincial Assembly, 1725-1732) and his Johnson ancestors enemies of Cromwell, young Thomas was a strong Whig from the beginning of his political career, being first elected to the Assembly from Anne Arundel County in 1762. He was opposed to privileges for placemen, the Fee Bill, the Stamp Act and the Tea Act from the time they were first mentioned, despite the favor that he might have won through greater docility.

While still a very young man, Thomas Johnson helped to draft a statement of Maryland’s view of “the constitutional rights and privileges of the freemen of the province” and a 1768 memorial to King George III. Though never a favorite of Governor Eden or the Loyalists, Johnson did not, however, rush toward revolution. Like John Dickinson, he was attached to the tradition of the English common law: to the British Constitution and to “constitutional liberty…handed down to us by our ancestors.” He declined to appeal to abstract theoretical “rights by nature,” but he honored “the greatest and first law of self preservation” and therefore accepted a seat in the first Maryland Convention of May, 1774, since royal authority had to be replaced. By this body he was chosen to be a Maryland delegate to the original Continental Congress and was reelected for a second term. Johnson had a large role in persuading Maryland to adopt the Association, the agreement not to trade with England, and he stood behind the Olive Branch Petition, the final effort by the North American colonies of Great Britain to achieve a settlement of their dispute with George III and his ministers without reaching for independence. But he expected nothing to be achieved by such a gesture. His reason for supporting this ploy was the hope that the failure of British authorities to respond moderately to a plea for accommodation would produce a unified firmness in American sentiment. Out of that kind of spirit he declared that “the first Hessian soldier who puts foot on American soil will absolve me from all allegiance to Great Britain.”

It was Johnson who moved the nomination of George Washington to be commander-in-chief of American armies. When Congress voted the Declaration of Independence, Johnson was absent; but on July 6, 1776, he persuaded Maryland to reaffirm the confederal decision with a document of its own.

In effect, Thomas Johnson was the most active of Maryland’s leading men in the struggles during the first years of the Revolution. He served on the Maryland Committee of Correspondence, helped secure the passage of a new state constitution and commanded the state militia. Brigadier-General Johnson mustered and delivered the Maryland forces to Washington’s command immediately after the victory of Trenton. While in camp with the army, Johnson was informed he would have an even larger task than that of being the voice of Maryland in the Continental Congress. In March of 1777 he was inaugurated as the first governor of an independent Maryland. In November of 1777 he was reelected, and chosen again in November of 1778. Being precluded by law from further consecutive reelections, Johnson was dispatched in 1780 and 1781 to the lower house of the Maryland legislature. In addition he was vigorous in his efforts to restrain local Tories. His record in collecting supplies and recruits for the American armies was exceptional and his organizational skill well demonstrated.

Thomas Johnson, with the goals of the Revolution for the most part accomplished, retired for a time to private life. He moved westward to Frederick, where he had (with his family) an ironworks, a cannon foundry and other interests. He became the most popular figure in this portion of his state. There he built a great house and became involved in a plan to extend Chesapeake Bay navigation beyond Alexandria–a project in which George Mason and General Washington were among his partners. Eventually Johnson became a director and then president of the Potomac Company.

But he was too influential a citizen to avoid politics altogether. It was Johnson who arranged for Maryland’s adoption of the Articles of Confederation-after he had been satisfied regarding the question of the distribution of frontier lands in the West. And it was the 1786 return of Johnson to the state legislature that signalled the movement of a reluctant Maryland toward consideration of a firmer union than the Articles had produced. Johnson saw in the proposed U.S. Constitution, once it was available for scrutiny in Maryland, a check upon the advocates of fiat money and easy credit who, under the leadership of Samuel Chase, had threatened the economic stability of that commonwealth. Johnson did not attend the 1786 conference at Mount Vernon, but he was an organizer of Federalist forces in the campaign leading up to the Maryland ratification convention. Unlike some of his compatriots in that cause, he was wise enough to recognize that a very large majority for the Constitution was needed to establish the authority and facilitate the orderly operation of a new government. Therefore, Johnson did not wish to see the Maryland ratification convention proceed in haste, without hearing out the objections of its Antifederalist minority or attempting to pacify some of their anxieties concerning the new form of government with proposals for subsequent amendments. Daniel Carroll, writing to Madison, criticized Johnson for this temperance, reporting of the April, 1788 sessions in Annapolis that Johnson’s “accommodating disposition and respect to his character led the Majority into a situation out of which they found some difficulty to extricate themselves.” All of which is somewhat misleading since, like Thomas Jefferson, many Maryland Federalists agreed with their Antifederalist adversaries concerning the propriety of a Bill of Rights, the necessity of limiting the jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court and the Congress to those powers “expressly delegated,” and other restrictions in the scope of the Federal powers. They were silenced by a gag rule and a fast gavel. Maryland voted for adoption and against subsequent amendments-over the objections of William Paca, Thomas Johnson, and many other of her most distinguished citizens.

The consequence of this display of partisan enthusiasm was largely of hard feelings in Maryland politics of precisely the sort Johnson had foreseen. On April 20, 1790, Thomas Johnson became Chief Judge of the General Court of Maryland. In January, 1791 he was appointed Commissioner of the Federal City. From August, 1791 to January, 1793 he served as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. But for the most part, Thomas Johnson’s later years were spent in private circumstances, at Rose Hill plantation or at one of his other properties. After pleading the infirmities of age to excuse himself from judicial duties and to refuse (in 1795) an appointment as Secretary of State, he outlived his honored friend and benefactor and, at Frederick on February 22, 1800, he delivered a eulogy on the occasion of Washington’s death.

Thomas Johnson’s panegyric on our first President contains elements which will serve rather well in a summary or overview of his own career. He was a devout Anglican and therefore emphasized Washington’s Christian resignation in the hour of his death. As he cultivated composure in his own conduct, so he praised Washington for being not only brave but also cool and circumspect. Yet his great theme in the eulogy is public virtue, selfless patriotism of the “Old Roman” variety.

Johnson died at Rose Hill at the age of eighty-six. Though not a politically ambitious man and not a source of ingenious innovation, he had a right, as the shadows lengthened, to be proud of his public service. For he deserved the deference which Maryland and the nation extended to him as a personification of the corporate character of the world which he had acted to preserve.

The article was originally published in Second Quarter 1990 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.

About M.E. Bradford

Melvin E. "Mel" Bradford (1934-1993) was a conservative political commentator and Professor of Literature at the University of Dallas.. He was the author of A Better Guide than Reason: Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the Constitution, Founding Fathers: Brief Life of the Framers of the Constitution, and The Reactionary Imperative: Essays Literary & Political. More from M.E. Bradford

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