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Thomas Johnson (governor)

Thomas Johnson (1732-1819) was an American jurist with a distinguished political career. He was the first elected Governor of Maryland, a delegate to the Continental Congress and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

by Charles Willson Peale
Maryland State Archives

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Revolutionary Years
3 The Federal Years
4 Later Life
5 External links
6 Further reading


Johnson was born in Calvert County, Maryland on November 4, 1732, the son of Thomas and Dorcas Sedgwick Johnson. His grandfather, also named Thomas, was a lawyer in London, England who emigrated to Maryland sometime before 1700. He was the fourth of ten children, some of whom also had large families. (His brother Joshua's daughter Louisa Johnson married John Quincy Adams.)

The family, including Thomas, were educated at home. The young man was attracted to the law, studied it, and was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1753. By 1760, he had moved his practice to Frederick County, Maryland. He was also elected for the first time to the provincial assembly in 1761. This Thomas Johnson married Ann Jennings, the daughter of an Annapolis judge on February 16, 1766. The couple had four children: Ann, Rebecca, Dorcas, and Jashua.

The Revolutionary Years

In 1774 and 1775 the Maryland assembly sent him as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In the Congress he was firmly in the camp of those who favored separation from England. It was his voice that nominated George Washington to be the head of the Continental Army in June of 1775.

He returned to Maryland and continued his work in the Assembly so he didn't have a chance to join in the United States Declaration of Independence. But, in 1775 he did draft a declaration of rights adopted by the Maryland assembly. The declaration was later included as the first part of the Constitution adopted for Maryland by the state's constitutional convention at Annapolis in 1776. He also began his service as Brigadier General in charge of militia units in Maryland. Besides his political activities, he supported the revolution by manufacturing rifles. The remains of his factory is just outside of Frederick, Maryland.

As Maryland began to exercise its newly declared autonomy, they elected Thomas as their first Governor in 1777. He served as governor until 1779. In the 1780s he held a number of judicial posts in Maryland, and served in the assembly in 1780, 1786, and 1787. In 1785 he was one of the commissioners from Maryland and Virginia that met at Mount Vernon to agree on jurisdiction and navigation rules for the Potomac River. He attended the Maryland Convention in 1788, where he successfully urged the ratification of the United States Constitution.

The Federal Years

In September of 1789, President Washington nominated him to be the first federal judge for the district of Maryland, but he declined to take the state bench. In 1790 and 1791 he was the chief justice of Maryland's state supreme court. Then in 1791 Washingon appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court after John Rutledge resigned. He was the author of the Court's first written opinion, Georgia v. Brailsford in 1792. He served on the court until February of 1793 when he resigned due to poor health. His health also made him decline Washington's offer to make him Secretary of State in 1795.

On February 28, 1801 President Adams named him chief judge for the Territory or the District of Columbia. As such he was a member of the board of Commissioners for the new federal city, which he suggested be named Washington.

Later Life

His daughter Ann had married John Colin Grahame in 1788, and in his later years he lived with them in a home they had built in Frederick, Maryland. The home, called Rose Hill Manor, is now a county park, and is open to the public. Thomas was in very poor health for many years. He did deliver a eulogy for his friend George Washington at a birthday memorial service on February 22, 1800. He died at Rose Hill on October 26, 1819 and is buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick.

External links

Further reading