Johnson, Thomas

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Johnson, Thomas

Thomas Johnson was the first governor of Maryland. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates in the early 1780s and was chief judge of the Maryland General Court from 1790 to 1791. Johnson was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1791, where he served a brief and uneventful term before resigning because of poor health.

Johnson was born November 4, 1732, to Thomas Johnson and Dorcas Sedgwick Johnson, in Calvert County, Maryland. Johnson was one of twelve children, and he received no formal education as a child. His parents sent him to Annapolis, Maryland, to work as a registry clerk at the land office under Thomas Jennings. Following his apprenticeship, Johnson began to study law in the office of Stephen Bordley, an Annapolis attorney. He was admitted to the bar in 1760, and practiced law before entering politics.

In 1766 Johnson married Ann Jennings, the daughter of his former instructor at the Annapolis land office. They were married for twenty-eight years, until Ann died. They had eight children.

From 1762 to 1773, Johnson was a member of the Maryland colonial assembly. In 1765 he became famous for his strong opposition to the Stamp Act, which was the first tax imposed on the colonists by Great Britain. Johnson was named a delegate to the Maryland convention in 1774, and a Maryland representative to the First Continental Congress, in Philadelphia. He also served on a committee that drafted a petition of grievances to King George III. Johnson formally nominated George Washington before the Continental Congress in 1775 for the position of commander in chief of the Continental Army.

"America[ns] wish … to preserve the constitutional liberty … handed down to us by our ancestors. If our petition is rejected by … our friends in England, will not our very moderate men on this side of the water be compelled to own the necessity of opposing force by force?"
—Thomas Johnson

Johnson supported the Declaration of Independence, although he was not present in Philadelphia on the day it was signed. He voted for Maryland's independence on July 6, 1776, and contributed to the new state constitution that year. During the American Revolution, he served in the Maryland militia as first brigadier general. In 1777 Johnson led nearly two thousand men from Frederick, Maryland, to General Washington's headquarters in New Jersey. Also in 1777 Johnson was elected the first governor of Maryland, from which position he was able to provide crucial assistance in keeping Washington's army peopled and equipped. Johnson continued to serve as Maryland's governor until 1779, when he declined a fourth term. He entered the Maryland House of Delegates in 1780.

Johnson also pursued interests outside of politics. In 1785 he helped organize the state-chartered Potomac Company. This company grew from Johnson's idea to improve navigation along the Potomac River and open a passageway to the West Coast. Johnson began the company with the help of his good friend Washington, who served as president of the company. In the end the enterprise proved unprofitable.

In 1788 Johnson supported ratification of the U.S. Constitution at the Maryland Constitutional Convention. From 1790 to 1791, he served as chief judge of the Maryland General Court. In 1791 President Washington nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Johnson was hesitant to serve on the Supreme Court because at that time each justice was responsible for riding circuit court duties. Chief Justice John Jay assured Johnson that every effort would be made to relieve the rigors of the circuit court duty, but Johnson was assigned to the Southern Circuit, which included all the territory south of the Potomac. Johnson sought a reassignment. When Jay refused to accommodate that request, Johnson resigned, citing poor health. He had served as an associate justice for just over one year. During his brief and uneventful Supreme Court tenure, he had authored only one opinion.

Johnson continued his public service, becoming a member of the board of commissioners of the federal city, appointed by President Washington to plan a new national capital on the Potomac. That commission voted to name the new city Washington and selected a design submitted by Pierre L'Enfant. Johnson was present in September 1793 when the cornerstone for the new Capitol was laid.

President Washington nominated Johnson to serve as Secretary of State in 1795, but Johnson declined. Instead, Johnson retired to Frederick, Maryland, where he died October 26, 1819.

Further readings

Witt, Elder, ed. 1990. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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