The political climate of Baltimore in 1776

An illustration from 1777 drawn by British printmaker Matthew Darly. It is captioned: “Poor old England endeavoring to reclaim his American children and therefore is England marred and forced to go with a staff.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Baltimore Town was more than a diverse and pre-industrial port town that sat on the Patapsco River. It had numerous sentiments, ranging from the pro-revolutionary, some of which were militant in their beliefs, to support for the British Crown. This article continues the series about Baltimore Town by focusing on the town’s political climate in 1776. You can read our other posts about Baltimore during the Revolutionary War period here.

The structures governing the town’s 6,700 inhabitants included a board of commissioners which were handpicked by the general assembly in Annapolis, a development which irked Baltimoreans. [1] This was countered by a powerful alliance between merchants and mechanics on efforts for increased local independence for the town and united in the town’s Whig Club. [2] The Baltimore Whig Club was an organization fanatically dedicated to the revolutionary cause and made up of officers of the First Maryland Regiment, mechanics and merchants. Ultimately, inhabitants of Baltimore Town were allowed to vote for representatives of Baltimore County in the Convention of Maryland. [3] Demands for local independence were so strong that state elites gave the town two seats in the assembly, just like the city of Annapolis. [4]

While Baltimore was a “Whig stronghold” and the First Maryland regiment was also stationed in the town, like Annapolis, there were numerous differences. [5] Annapolis, within the rich Anne Arundel County, had a established planter gentry and served as a huge marketing center for the state’s agriculture. [6] The Revolutionary War gave the merchant community an advantage since it became a distribution center for military supplies, and an armed camp, with troops stationed in the city throughout the war. [7] By 1776, the merchants allied with the British Crown had left or were pushed out, leaving Annapolis to give determined and concentrated support to the revolutionary cause. [8]

Baltimore and Annapolis had a feud which was not healed by 1776. For instance, Baltimoreans were mad that the state assembly perceived them as a backwater village.[9] Relatively, Annapolis had a higher level of affluence than Baltimore and not only were merchants “flush with wartime profits” by the end of the war but the city’s maritime culture prospered. [10]  In this commercial and bustling port city, delegates, as part of the Convention of Maryland, met and declared that Marylanders have “no security for their lives or liberties” under the rule of the British Crown. [11]

The Whig Club, which absorbed and represented much of the pro-revolutionary sentiment, was not the only organization with same sentiment in town, or even the first. For example, the Sons of Liberty existed in the town at the same time. [12] As for the Whig Club, its activities ended in April 1777, but it became a manifestation of a new order in Baltimore and set the stage for the post-war environment.

In 1775, the precursor to the club was created by town mechanics. These mechanics were skilled laborers in the clothing, construction, food, and shipbuilding trades. [13] The group was called the Baltimore Mechanical Volunteers. It was the descendant of the Baltimore Mechanical Company, the “closest thing that Baltimore had to representative town government” in the 1760s. [14] The Volunteers was an organization which allowed mechanics to gain confidence in themselves, “their abilities to command and their right to be heard” in the political scene in Baltimore Town. [15]

These Volunteers transformed again as the war progressed forward. In 1775, Baltimoreans proudly organized a Baltimore Mechanical Volunteer Company, a group of militia to defend the town in case of a British invasion, and many of the company’s members were mechanics themselves. [16] This not only politicized the town’s mechanics but the company provided many of the officers who later became part of the Baltimore Whig Club. [17] Later in the war, Baltimorean mechanics also fought as part of the Continental Army.

There were also sentiments favoring the British Crown despite the strong bloc of revolutionary sentiment. Even David McMechen, a member of the town’s Whig Club and a soldier in the First Maryland Regiment, wrote in 1776 that he could not “stay in such a violent place” as Baltimore since he had “too many enemies.” [18]

It is interesting that McMechen said this because in late 1776, supporters of the Crown took up arms after being harassed by the Baltimore Whig Club. [19] British supporters were pushed back until they received support from “the town’s free Negroes who offered protection in their quarters,” and they remained there until they could depart secretly and safely to New York. [20] Still, McMechen could be partially correct. In July 1776, Samuel Purviance, an eminent merchant, wrote that restrictions on trade with Britain were viewed less favorably in Baltimore County, which the town was then part of, than elsewhere. [21]

In the early months of 1777, Baltimore was shaken by disruptions to public order. On January 11, Captain Alexander Furnival complained that his soldiers, including William Grimes, had the “hard duty” of keeping guard in Baltimore Town “over the public Stores,” meaning supplies. [22] As a result, some of the local militia were used to take the place of Furnival’s men. Seven days later, the Baltimore County’s Committee of Observation ordered that the artillery companies commanded by Nathaniel Smith and Alexander Furnival, and William Galbraith’s Company of militia in the Baltimore Town Battallion be put on guard to preserve stability in the town. [23] The Committee gave these companies the duty of ending “all Riots and Tumults within the said County, or Baltimore Town” if necessary. [24] Around this same time, three soldiers of Smith’s Company, two of whom were named David Welsh and a drummer named Harry, searched the house of a wealthy merchant, who favored favoring the British Crown, named Melchior Keener. [25]

In line with the tactics used by militant revolutionaries in the town, the soldiers allegedly came in with muskets and bayonets drawn, searching the house in a “Riotous manner, and were guilty of divers irregularities.” [26] Not long after, the Council of Safety wrote to the Committee, describing the following:

“We are much concerned that we have cause again to trouble you on behalf of Melchior Keener, who hath lately been very ill used as he alleges, by some Soldiers of Capt. Nathl Smith’s  Company, and others who came without any authority or war- rant that he knows of, to search his house, and committed divers irregularities, two of the Soldiers were David Welch [or Welsh] and Harry the drummer…the Whig club…had no hand in this riot. We wrote to Capt Smith, and request you would with his assistance inquire into the affair and see that the peace is preserved. If Keener be guilty of any offence, let him be prosecuted according to law…We must observe once for all that mobbing men of doubtful principles is not the way to gain friends to the cause of America…What you tell us of the people framing a petition to Lord Howe and the Riots complained of in Baltimore Town have induced the Council of Safety to pass an order…inclosed to you and to each of the Captains.” [27]

While David Welsh’s name does not reappear in Volume 16, it is likely that he is the same as David Walsh, one of the 74 enlisted men who said they were committed to defending “libertys of the country.” [28]

Keener, president of the Baltimore Mechanical Company before the war, had experienced similar treatment. In the fall of 1776, The Whig Club had branded him a traitor and faced with their threats, Keener fulfilled their demands, returning to the town that December. Keener was not the only one threatened in this blazon manner. In March 1777, William Goddard, a well-off printer who rhetorically battled with the Whig Club, was “forcibly haled out of his own House and taken down the street to Mr. Rusk’s Tavern” by a pro-revolutionary mob. [29] The militia of William Galbraith, who were supposed to stop this, allying themselves with these militant revolutionaries, who were part of the town’s Whig Club.

In this contentious environment in Baltimore, the Continental Congress, still sitting in the town, ordered that signed copies of the Declaration of Independence be printed. These copies were printed by publisher and bookseller Mary Katherine Goddard and distributed across the thirteen colonies. The political climate in Baltimore was undoubtedly lively despite the disappearance of the Whig Club in mid-1777. For example, the mechanics, who had worked with the Whig Club, were forming a “new collective identity.” [30]

As the war continued, Baltimore Town changed with the establishment of a new political order, and gained an important economic position, which situated it well in the postwar environment.

Burkely Hermann, Maryland Society of the Sons of American Revolution Research Fellow, 2016.


[1] Charles G. Steffen, The Mechanics of Baltimore: Workers and Politics in the Age of Revolution, 1763-1812 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 4, 10.

[2] Ibid, 11; Paul Kent Walker, ‘Business and commerce in Baltimore on the eve of independence,’ Maryland Historical Magazine Vol. 71, no. 3, fall 1976. pp. 296, 300-301; Tina M. Sheller, ‘Freeman, Servants, and Slaves: Artisans and the craft structure of Revolutionary Baltimore Town,’ American Artisans: Crafting Social Identity, 1750-1830, ed. Howard C. Rock, Paul A. Gilje and Robert Asher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 22-23.

[3] Robert Purviance, A Narrative of Events Which Occurred in Baltimore Town During the Revolutionary War (Baltimore: Jos. Robinson, 1849), 43.

[4] Steffen, 10-11, 72.

[5] Purviance, 61; Keith Mason, “Localism, Evangelicalism, and Loyalism: The Sources of Discontent in the Revolutionary Chesapeake.” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 1 (1990): 24.

[6] Alice Hanson Jones. Wealth Estimates for the Southern Colonies About 1770 (Chicago: Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, 1973), 34; Steffen, 9, 122; Edward C. Papenfuse. In Pursuit of Profit: The Annapolis Merchants in the Era of the American Revolution, 1763-1805 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 6. It is also worth noting that in 1776, there was a large amount of British-held debt in Maryland as Papenfuse notes on pages 40-41.

[7] Papenfuse, 2, 78, 80, 86, 83; Rosemary F. Williams, Maritime Annapolis: A History of Watermen, Sails & Midshipmen (London: The History Press, 2009), 24; Elihu S. Riley, “The Ancient City”: History of Annapolis, in Maryland (Annapolis: Record Printing Office, 1887), 182. On July 10th, six companies of the first regiment of Maryland troops commanded by Col. Smallwood headed up the Chesapeake Bay and were joined by three companies in the same regiment stationed in Baltimore.

[8] Papenfuse, 50-51; Williams, 88; Riley, 165.

[9] Steffen, 10, 24, 60, 63.

[10] Papenfuse, 2.

[11] “A Declaration of the Delegates of Maryland July 6,” July 7, 1776, Maryland Journal Vol. III, issue 135, Baltimore, Maryland, pp. 539.

[12] Steffen, 66.

[13] Ibid, xiii, 14, 27, 95-96, 112, 171. Most of the mechanics were propertyless. Like other laborers, mechanics were divided by class position, with some with more wealth than others.

[14] Ibid, 53-54, 57, 171.

[15] Ibid, 53. It is not known if the mechanics, rejected the “selfish principles of corrupt oligarchy” as strongly as the mechanics in the city of New York in June 1776 as noted in the Address of the Mechanics of New York City (June 14, 1776) to the Colonial Congress Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America (Reprint, ed. Hezekiah Miles, New York: A.S. Barnes & Co. Publishers, 1876), 176. In later years, the Volunteers would be a militia unit that defended Baltimore from British invasion during the War of 1812 as noted by the National Park Service, the Historical Marker Database, and other sources. There were other companies of the same name in the 1820s and 1840s. They also were well-honored enough to be mentioned in laws passed by the General Assembly in 1792, 17931797 along with laws passed in 1758, and in 1768.

[16] Ibid, 61.

[17] Ibid, 61, 63, 66, 69. Apparently, some Baltimoreans went further, taking matters into their own hands, possibly engaging in acts of violence, since they felt “pinned between a tyrannical [British] government abroad and a submissive one” in the state itself.

[18] Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette Annapolis, July 9, 1776 Vol. II, issue LXII, pp. 3. For these reasons and others, there was a new police force, made up of adult males, in Baltimore created around the same time which had night watchpersons to preserve “the good order and peace” (Clinton McCabe. History of the Baltimore Police Department (Baltimore: Allied Printers, 1907), 15-16).

[19] Ronald Hoffman, A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics and the Revolution in Maryland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 184.

[20] Ibid. John C. Rainbolt adds on page 435 of his “A Note on the Maryland Declaration of Rights and Constitution of 1776” (Maryland Historical Magazine Vol. 66, no. 4 (Winter 1971)) that later on in 1776 the committee pushing for independence removed a section from the Maryland bill of rights which made a declaration against the slave trade, proving that there was greater reception for newer political values than “racial and religious values of the enlightenment.” This was likely influenced by the fact that the Black community on the Eastern Shore, thanks to Dunmore’s Proclamation, allied with those favoring the British Crown, participating in an insurrection that was put down by “organized military force” (Hoffman, 184-185). As  Donald Marguand Dozer put it in Portrait of the Free State, “in Baltimore…the Whig Club assumed the authority of government and drove the Tories out of Town” (pp. 259). Other writers claim their were “battles” in Baltimore between the Whig Club and “armed loyalists” but never explain if these battles were ideological or pitched street fights (Robert J. Brugger, Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634 – 1980, 123).

[21] Purviance, 61.

[22] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 40, 41.

[23] Heitman, 340, 505; Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 363, 384; Steffen, 70, 72.

[24] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 58. By August of that year, there is still discussions of whether supplies can be left in Baltimore Town safely “or removed to the Fort” (Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 325). The worries about security in Baltimore continued to even December 1777 (Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 436).

[25] Steffen, 60, 69.

[26] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 58.

[27] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 59, 60.

[28] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 73, 74. All of these men are asking to be discharged, then re-enlist a second time as long as they receive rations they need, have higher wages, and bounty “given in other Companys.” Later on, Smith said his troops were “troublesome” but he was keeping them in order (Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 139).

[29] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 89190, 225; Steffen, 65, 70-74, 90. The tavern, where Goddard was brought to “stand trial,” was owned by David Rusk who not only was committed to pro-revolutionary sentiment and a member of the Mechanical Company (Steffen, 71-2; George Washington McCreary, The Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company of Baltimore (Baltimore: Kohn & Polleck, 1901), 25-26). The Whig Club also had meetings in the house of Rusk, who was a member of the club at the time. Goddard bated radicals throughout the war in his newspaper. Due to this environment it isn’t surprising that the Council of Safety said that Scottish prisoners should be removed from Baltimore as soon as possible, that a jailkeeper named Thomas Dewitt was arrested, likely because he was seen as allied with the British Crown, and that there was “an Insurrection in the upper Part of that [Baltimore] County” suppressed, in part, by Andrew Buchanan (Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777 Archives of Maryland Online vol. 16, 229, 231, 246, 272, 388, 389, 390). It is important to note that Goddard is not the same as the Massachusetts printer who has the same name.

[30] Steffen, 70-71, 276. In 1800, the next organization of the mechanics dissolved and they moved into the political arena with candidates (Steffen, 172).


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