Maryland has one of the oldest state constitutions in use today, as well as one of the longest Declarations of Rights. As such, it provides both the historian and constitutional scholar much to occupy their time. A detailed study of the rights of Maryland’s citizens will be time well spent.
Maryland was the seventh state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, on April 28, 1788. Two months later the U.S. Constitution went into effect with New Hampshire’s ratification on June 21. A study of the “Old Line State” (we’ll see where that appellation comes from in a moment) provides a convenient entry point to address several different constitutional topics; but first a little history:
It is August 27, 1776; the British have mounted their anticipated invasion of Long Island, New York. British General William Howe commits 20,000 of his best troops to the fight, including 8,000 Hessians, against approximately 6,000 ill-equipped and ill-experienced Americans (20,000 to 6,000; hardly seems a fair fight). Howe splits his forces across three fronts and executes a daring nighttime flanking maneuver that utterly surprises the American forces. The Americans are soon routed from their defensive lines and forced to retreat onto fortified Brooklyn Heights. To buy time for the withdrawal, Washington orders General William Stirling, commanding two units of the 1st Delaware Regiment as well as four companies from the 1st Maryland Regiment, to hold his line on the Gowanus Road. The 1st Maryland Regiment (part of the “Maryland Line”) is under the temporary command of Major Mordecai Gist (the unit’s commander, Colonel William Smallwood, is attending court martial duty in the city). The British attack up the Gowanus Road consists of 2,000 troops under the command of General James Grant. The Marylanders, soon reduced to less than 400 men (The Immortal 400)are ordered to hold the line near Vechte-Cortelyou house, a stone building commanding the strategic road and a bridge, the only escape route across the Gowanus Salt Marsh. Not only do Gist’s men hold off the British, they make six amazing counterattacks before being finally forced to scatter and make their own escape back to American lines. Only a handful of the Maryland men are successful. Watching from Brooklyn Heights, General Washington turns to General Israel Putnam and states: ‘Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.” The Maryland 1st Infantry will go down in history as “The Old Line,” giving Maryland its claim as “The Old Line State.” Historian, Thomas Field, writing his 1869 book “The Battle of Long Island,” called the stand of the Marylanders “an hour more precious to liberty than any other in history.” As we will see, Maryland will go on to make other important contributions to the establishment of the American union.
In 1632, Lord George Calvert, a convert to Catholicism, was granted a charter by King Charles I to establish “The Province of Maryland.” Actual settlement began two years later, first along the Chesapeake Bay and then proceeding slowly but inexorably westward. Calvert envisioned a colony where religious tolerance would prevail, especially towards his fellow Catholics. Accordingly, in 1649, the Maryland General Assembly passed an Act Concerning Religion which made it a crime to harass a fellow citizen of the colony over their religious preferences. Maryland would eventually gain the largest concentration of Catholics of any of the colonies, to include, in 1715, one John Porter, immigrant ancestor of the writer of this essay. Family legend holds that John was “asked” to leave England after composing and singing publicly a song not entirely complementary of the new reigning monarch: George I of Hanover, brought over from Germany the previous year to take the English throne.
With its moderate weather, 4,000 miles of shoreline and a fine port at Baltimore, Maryland grew to nearly 250,000 inhabitants by 1776. Maryland’s current boundaries were solidified following the settlement of a long-running dispute with Pennsylvania and completion, in 1767, of the Mason-Dixon Line, a project to which two sons of the aforementioned immigrant John Porter allegedly contributed as the surveying team reached the westernmost parts of the state. It would not be until 1820, however, that the term “Mason-Dixon Line” came into common usage. The Missouri Compromise used the term to define the boundary between slave territory and free territory (remember this, we encounter it again).
While no major battles of the Revolution were fought within the state (that would change with the War of 1812 and the Civil War), Maryland was an active participant in the events leading up to the Revolution. In 1776, its delegates, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, William Paca, signed the Declaration of Independence (with Carroll being the only Catholic to sign). “Charles Carroll of Carrollton” had been an early proponent of independence from the mother country, writing often in the Maryland Gazette under the pseudonym “First Citizen,” and serving on various Committees of Correspondence. A devout man, in a November 4, 1800, letter to James McHenry (of Fort McHenry fame) Carroll wrote: “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.” When he died in 1832, Carroll was the last surviving signer of the Declaration and acquired the distinction (dying at 95 years of age) of being the oldest lived Founding Father.
Like other states, Marylanders were bitterly divided as the Revolutionary War loomed; many Loyalists in the state refused to support the Revolution, and saw their lands and estates confiscated as a result.
Responding to a resolution of Congress of May 10, 1776, Maryland’s provincial congress recommended formation of a convention to form a new constitution to replace its royal charter. Fifty-three delegates assembled on August 14, and completed their work on November 8. While the new constitution kept most of the features of government intact, the state’s property qualification for suffrage was lowered from thirty to five British pounds, greatly expanding the electorate. Ironically, following the example set by Virginia earlier that year, on November 8, 1776, the convention put their new constitution into effect by voice vote, without bothering to submit the document to Maryland’s newly expanded electorate.
“Baltimore Town” served as the temporary capital of the confederated states from December 1776 to February 1777, while Philadelphia was occupied by the British. Towards the end of the war, from November 1783, to June 1784, Annapolis, briefly hosted the confederation government, and it was in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis on December 23, 1783, that General George Washington famously resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. It was there also, on January 14, 1784, that the Treaty of Paris was ratified, officially ending the Revolutionary War.
Maryland was the last of the thirteen states to ratify the Articles of Confederation, on March 1, 1781, and then only when France threatened to withdraw its treaty-guaranteed protection of the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland had been insisting that the territory north of the Ohio River be ceded to the confederation government by the several states which maintained conflicting claims on it. Virginia’s government agreed to cede its claim to the land but demanded that the claims of Maryland’s land speculators be declared void. Maryland objected, but faced with France’s threat, they ratified the Articles. The event was celebrated across the colonies with fireworks, bonfires, and the ringing of church bells.
In September 1786, Maryland played host to the “Annapolis Convention” which produced the famous call for a “Grand Convention,” to take place in Philadelphia the following May. On September 17, 1787, Daniel Carroll (a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton), Daniel Jenifer, and James McHenry (of Fort McHenry fame) would share the honor of signing the new constitution for their state.
On April 28, 1788, after a short, five day discussion, Maryland became the seventh state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, by a vote of 63–11.
According to the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17), the District of Columbia was to be formed from land donated by “particular States.” That turned out to be both Maryland and Virginia; and each state ceded the required land in 1790. But in 1846, with the capitol by now well established, but on only the north side of the Potomac River, Congress returned Virginia’s portion, leaving the District completely within Maryland’s former boundaries.
In August 1814, the state experienced, first-hand, a new war with Britain. In the Battle of Bladensburg,which saw the first appearance on a U.S. battlefield of a sitting U.S. President (second-term-President James Madison). British troops easily pushed back a hastily formed composite force of militia and regular troops and continued their march on “Washington City.” The following month, the unsuccessful British siege of Fort McHenry provided the backdrop for the composition of our National Anthem by Maryland native Francis Scott Key.
Forty-five years later, Maryland pondered whether to join the growing list of seceding states south of the now famous Mason-Dixon Line. The state had effectively legalized slavery more than one hundred years before (in 1752) when it prohibited the manumission of slaves, and many citizens were eager to join the confederacy. An early vote of the legislature, which might have gone for secession, was stifled by President Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law and his unconstitutional suspension of Habeas Corpus. When the Maryland legislature finally took up the matter, they voted 53-13 to remain in the Union. While many today claim that the (inaccurately named) Civil War settled the idea of secession, the issue, as we will see later, is still very much alive.
The first fatalities of the Civil War (called in the South, more accurately, the War for Southern Independence) occurred during riots which took place in Baltimore on April 18 and 19, 1861. Union troops moving from one train station to another to continue their journey southward to protect Washington, D.C. were confronted by an angry and armed mob. The troops, set upon with “bricks, paving stones, and pistols,” fired on the crowd. When the smoke cleared, four soldiers and twelve civilians had been killed. Small skirmishes between citizens and police occurred throughout the city for the next month.
Determined to keep a route through Maryland open for the transport of troops and supplies from the northern states, on April 27, President Lincoln authorized General Winfield Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus near any military supply line between Philadelphia and Washington “if the public safety required it.”
On September 17, 1862, Confederate forces were defeated at Antietam, just west of Frederick, Maryland (hometown of the then Chief Justice Roger Taney). Remembered as the “Single Bloodiest Day of the Civil War,” the Battle of Antietam (known in the South as the Battle of Sharpsburg) caused more than 23,000 casualties.
A week later, as a result of continued unrest, particularly in Maryland but elsewhere in the Union as well. Lincoln issued a proclamation stating that “all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of United States, shall be subject to martial law and liable to trial and punishment by Courts Martial or Military Commission.” Further, “That the Writ of Habeas Corpus is suspended in respect to all persons arrested, or who are now, or hereafter during the rebellion shall be, imprisoned in any fort, camp, arsenal, military prison, or other place of confinement by any military authority or by the sentence of any Court Martial or Military Commission.” (Emphasis added.)
Lincoln later explained his actions in a letter to Albert G. Hodges on April 4, 1864, by stating: “I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation.”
In July 1864, the little-known Battle of Monocacy was also fought on Maryland soil, again near Frederick.
The 1864 Maryland Constitution, ratified in October, freed the state’s slaves a year before ratification of the 13th Amendment. On April 14, 1865, Marylander John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln.
Today’s Maryland government is based on its 1867 Constitution, the last of four. The 1776 constitution was followed by a second in 1851, and a third in 1864. At approximately 47,000 words, today’s Maryland Constitution is much longer than the average length of a U.S. state constitution (about 26,000 words). By comparison, the United States Constitution, including amendments, is only about 8,700 words long.
When compared with the U.S. Bill of Rights, Maryland’s 1776 Constitution lacked specific protections for:
- Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly (U.S. 1stAmendment).
- A Right to Keep and Bear Arms (U.S. 2ndNote: Maryland is one of the few states still lacking the equivalent of the Federal Second Amendment).
- Right to a Grand Jury when Life/Limb is imperiled, protection against double jeopardy and protection of private property against government taking without compensation (all found in the U.S. 5thAmendment).
- Protection of unenumerated rights (U.S. 9thAmendment, this was added in the 1851 Constitution).
- Reservation of non-delegated powers to the states/people (U.S. 10thAmendment, this was added in the 1867 Constitution).
Conversely, Maryland’s Declaration of Rights today contains the following protections and principles not found in the U.S. Bill of Rights:
- A relief from taxation for all “paupers.” (Still there!)
- Protection of the common law of England. (Still there!)
- A right to trial by jury (this right is assumed by the Constitution but only secured for certain classes of citizens).
- Juries in criminal cases are declared to be judges of law as well as fact (jury nullification, added in the 1867 Constitution, see below).
- A statement that “all government of right originates from the people, is founded in compact only, and instituted solely for the good of the whole.”
- A statement that “the people of the State ought to have the sole and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and police thereof.”
- A statement that “all persons invested with the legislative or executive powers of government are the trustees of the public, and, as such, accountable for their conduct.”
- A statement that “every man, having property in, a common interest with, and an attachment to the community, ought to have a right of suffrage” (whether U.S. citizen or not?).
- A statement that “the legislative, executive and judicial powers of government, ought to be forever separate and distinct from each other.”
- A statement that no power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, unless by or derived from the Legislature, ought to be exercised or allowed.
- A statement that “no aid, charge, tax, fee, or fees, ought to be set, rated, or levied, under any presence, without consent of the Legislature.” (No taxation without representation!)
- A statement that “the levying taxes by the poll is grievous and oppressive.” (I.e. no poll taxes will be allowed.)
We should take a moment here to note the uniqueness of Maryland securing a right of jury nullification in its constitution. To my knowledge it is the only U.S. state to do so. In 2002, South Dakota voters rejected a state constitutional amendment to permit criminal defendants to argue in favor of jury nullification; and in 2012, New Hampshire passed a law explicitly allowing defense attorneys to inform juries about their right of jury nullification, only to have the New Hampshire Supreme Court effectively nullify the law.
The ability of a jury to refuse to return a guilty verdict because it feels the underlying law to be unjust has a rich history going back to at least Magna Carta (1215), if not before—the famous trial of William Penn being the perfect example. In this country, the practice was common from before the Revolutionary War to beyond 1850 when rampant jury nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act occurred throughout the North. The Supreme Court has never taken up the issue but Associate Justice Sonya Sotomayer apparently views it favorably.
The primary impetus for the 1851 Constitution was a desire to reapportion the Maryland General Assembly. This constitution also changed the status of the City of Baltimore and its relationship with the surrounding Baltimore County. The city was given the status of the (soon-to-be) 23 counties of the State and a provision for “home rule.” Growing criticism of the 1851 Constitution, especially relating to how the judiciary functioned, led to pressure for yet another revision.
The 1864 Constitution was written in the midst of the Civil War. Unionists controlled the Maryland government at the time and made some significant changes to the document. It was approved by a bare majority (50.31%) of the state’s eligible voters, which included Union soldiers from other states temporarily assigned to Maryland! Perhaps its most controversial feature was the temporarily disfranchisement of the approximately 25,000 Marylanders who were at that time fighting for or supporting the Confederacy.
Only three years later, the Constitution of 1867 was approved. As noted, it still operates today. Subsequent amendments have been approved which brought changes to the wording in the main constitution and amendments to the Declaration of Rights, the last of these occurring in 2010.
In 2019, Maryland is home to slightly more that 6 Million people. Interestingly, its state government has been continuously controlled by the Democratic Party for nearly 100 years. In 2013, frustrated conservatives in the five western-most counties famously mounted an effort to secede from the remainder of the state and form a new one, called Western Maryland. This call to secede joined similar efforts in California, Arizona, Michigan, and Colorado—proving that the issue of secession lives on.
The “Old Line State” has produced many noted politicians and four Supreme Court Justices. They include:
- Spiro T. Agnew, former Governor of Maryland and Vice President of the United States
- Sargent Shriver, former Vice Presidential candidate
- John Bolton, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations
- Steny Hoyer, current House Minority Whip, U.S. House of Representatives
- Nancy Pelosi, current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
- Samuel Chase, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
- Roger Taney, former Chief Justice of the United States
- Thurgood Marshall, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
- Brett Kavanaugh, current Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
The Old Line State provides both the historian and constitutional scholar much to occupy their time. With one of the oldest state constitutions still operating today, including one of the longest Declarations of Rights, a detailed study of the rights of Maryland’s citizens will be time well spent.
Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America.
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1 Some accounts put the unit at 260 remaining men, of which only a handful survived the day.
2 The story of the “Maryland 400’s” heroic stand is told by Patrick K. O’Donnell in Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution.
4 Named after the King’s wife, the former French princess Henrietta Maria, aka Queen Mary.
7 A “Civil War” is normally fought over who will control an existing government. The South had no interest in taking over the government of the Union.
8 Langley, Robert. “Why Did Lincoln Issue a Proclamation Suspending Habeas Corpus?“
10 Ratified on December 18, 1865.
11 “Jury Nullification.”
14 “Maryland Population 2019.”
The featured image, uploaded by Rudy Riet (https://www.flickr.com/people/rudiriet/), is a photograph of the Maryland State Capitol, Annapolis. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.