Maryland Debt Repudiation Movement Tries Tax Refusal

An editorial in the New York Morning Courier included these remarks:

The people of nearly all the States are now oppressed with direct taxation, for State and local purposes, to the utmost limit of their endurance. Indeed, in some of them they have resisted the collection of taxes and defeated, at least temporarily, the operations of the law; in some cases, by the resignation of officers whose duty it was to collect the taxes and in others by the refusal of the people to elect the proper officers for that purpose. In a portion of the State of Maryland, resistance to the tax laws has assumed a revolutionary character, and a meeting of “Democratic citizens of Carroll county,” adopted, among others, the following resolution, which was advocated by two of the Locofoco Senators of that State.

These are modern instances of the tone of American feeling on this subject, but those who are familiar with the condition of things during the late war with Great Britain, know that when contributions were levied upon the people for the purpose of defending their firesides, and sustaining their rights, and the national independence, they were collected with the greatest difficulty, and were the occasion of most exasperated and bitter feeling towards the Government. Direct taxation could not be resorted to, on the part of the General Government, with any prospect of realising an amount sufficient for its wants, nor without destroying the attachment of the people to their Government and creating a feeling which would, in its result, be destructive to our institutions.

Intrigued, I tried to hunt up a little more about this tax revolt. Niles’ National Register tut-tutted as follows:

Symptoms Of Repudiation.

There is no state in this union where a more sovereign aversion to repudiation is entertained by the great body of the people, than in Maryland, and yet there is perhaps no state in which there is a more distinctly organized and active party operating to effect repudiation if they can.

“Repudiation” here means individual states defaulting on their debts. The United States in were something like the European Union in  — overextended, out of money, with failing institutions, a public unwilling to tighten the belts and pay off their creditors, and a central government reluctant to be the financial backstop. Some states ended up flatly repudiating their debts, and a number of others (including Maryland) partially defaulted.

In Maryland’s case, the debts had largely been racked up by government investments in canals, which were the bullet train boondoggles of their day — launched with promise of great benefit to the taxpayer (“they’ll pay for themselves!”) but mostly benefiting government contractors and kickback artists.

This party embraces men high in authority, wielding no small share of party influence as well as official power. Their measures heretofore have been covert and insidious — such as throwing every possible obstacle in the way of enacting salutary laws, in the first instance — then by obstructing the enforcement of such laws as are enacted to sustain the credit of the government, by sowing discontent amongst the people, and finally by intimidating men from accepting or attempting to execute the laws of the land. The progress of these efforts we have watched with deep anxiety. The effect of it has been to paralyze in a great measure the otherwise wholesome demonstrations of those who are zealous in maintaining the integrity and character of the state.

At length however some of the leaders of this movement have distinctly exhibited their designs and hoisted their colors.

This party, composed to some extent of members from each of the great political parties which divide community, has nevertheless such a preponderating proportion of one party only in their ranks, that the other party (though whigs) may be said to be prepared to act in body and unbroken phalanx upon the question; their opponents, calling themselves “democrats” are seriously embarrassed by the defection of so considerable and influential a section from their unity. Yet as a party, the great majority are sound in principle, upon this question.

These preliminary remarks are made in order to enable distant readers to understand the true posture of affairs, of which the following proceedings are the exponents. We are mortified at the necessity for recording such documents — and nothing but fidelity to the duty of being faithful chroniclers of passing events, would induce us to insert them.

The fact that the authorities of some three of the counties of the state neglected to take efficient measures to have the state tax collected from their people, last year, was one of the greatest difficulties which surrounded the legislature of the state at its last session in relation to ways and means to sustain public credit. Most of the counties had paid either the whole or a considerable portion of that tax — and they demurred at paying more unless all were compelled to bear their proportion. The measure of coercion which the occasion required, was the difficulty. Some were for a decisive course — others for temporizing, under an idea that a better temper and better times would insure the payment in future. — A medium course was adopted. To insure the collection of the state tax, it was conceived that to compel the county collectors to bond for the payment of that as well as of the tax required for county purposes, and to forbid by law the collection of the one unless the other was collected, would be conclusive. This therefore was the course adopted. It was a plausible expedient, — but has failed. Those counties that so easily enjoyed immunity from the state tax last year, by neglecting to obtain collectors, were in no humor to pay double tax this year, and accordingly they endeavor to find new expedients to avert the imposition. Other counties seem determined not to have all the tax to pay, whilst these are allowed to go free — and so we go.

Worcester, Somerset, and Calvert, were the defaulting counties last year. All of which — or the two first at all events, had real excuse in the successive of failures in their crops, — the last year’s especially. Calvert, we regret to learn, has again failed to obtain the services of a collector.

A meeting was called upon the subject by the leaders of the party who call themselves “democrats” in Harford county on the at which Alexander Norris, esq. presided, Henry Macatee and William L. Forwood vice presidents, John R. Nelson, secretary. The meeting was addressed by Otho Scott a Van Buren state senator from Harford county, and William P. Maulsby, a Van Buren state senator from Carroll county, two of the leading men of that party in the legislature of Maryland. Amongst the proceedings of the meeting, were the following preamble and resolutions, which were adopted, signed and published.

The Cecil Democrat of contains a formal account of what it represents as a “large and respectable” meeting of the “democrats” of that county, called with the design of sustaining the position assumed by the meeting in Harford. According to statements given in the Baltimore papers however, and respectably vouched for, it appears that efforts were made during court week in Cecil, to get up a repudiation meeting — but in vain. Mr. Forwood who distinguished himself during the session before the last of the legislature, in repudiating speeches and propositions, was indefatigable in his endeavors to get a meeting. He had been defeated at the election on the ground of having maintained such doctrines. As a meeting could not be mustered, a committee, it would appear — though it is difficult to tell how, got into existence some way or other from which the proceedings, resolutions, &c. that are published in the Democrat, were the produce. A meeting was attempted to be convened to countenance said resolutions. Two persons besides the committee attended, but one of them having come there under the impression that it was to be an anti-repudiation meeting, retired as soon as he was undeceived. Such is said to be the progress of this attempt at manufacturing “public opinion.”

On a meeting of the opponents of the tax was held in pursuance of public notice in Talbot County, at which Foster Maynard, esq. presided, John Talbot secretary, and the following was unanimously adopted:

The committee appointed in pursuance of the fourth resolution is composed of the following individuals: Edward Lloyd, Nicholas Martin, Thorn Pierson, and Dr. James Dawson. The resolution itself is in direct opposition to the act of the legislature relating to the collection of state and county taxes.

These meetings, and especially the one in Harford county, being called under the appellation of, and with a view of identifying as far as was in their power those movements as being the movements of the “democratic party,” were objectionable to the great body of that party in the city of Baltimore. A meeting of the party was called at Monument Square the , the following proceedings of which; we extract from the Baltimore Republican of the .

I can’t figure out how that timing is supposed to work so that a paper published on the 10th covers the proceedings of a meeting held on the 11th. I suspect they just got it backwards.

I’m pretty sure, also, that Niles’ is sometimes confused as to its “instant” — sometimes this means June, but sometimes this means May.

But anyway, this is what the Baltimore Republican reported, according to Niles’:


In consequence of a call for a town meeting having been published by order of the Baltimore democratic convention, a numerous assemblage of persons convened at Monument Square last evening to take into consideration the subject for which they were called together. The meeting was organized, on motion of col. Wm. Fell Giles, by calling JOHN NELSON, esq. to preside, and appointing the following named gentlemen as officers for the occasion:

Vice presidents. Wm. Geo. Read, Robert Howard, Joseph White, B.I. Sanders, H’y. R. Loudenrman, Daniel Bender, John King, Mark Grafton Ant’y Millenberger, John I. Donaldson, Wm. J. Wight, William Krebs, Richard Marley, Elijah Slansbury, Jr.

Secretaries. Frederick I. Dugan, Wm. D. Roberts, Philip Muth, Jr., Benj. C. Presstman.

The organization being complete, Wm. Fell Giles, esq. addressed the meeting with much eloquence and feeling, and submitted the following preamble and resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:

These resolutions having been read and adopted, Benjamin C. Presstman, esq., made an address of considerable length to the meeting, appealing to their love of principle, patriotism, honor, and justice; and called upon them to stand by their time-honored state in her hour of difficulty. The following resolutions were submitted to the meeting by Mr. P:

These resolutions having been unanimously adopted, and the remarks of the speaker received with great unanimity and decided approbation, the meeting adjourned.

So how did that work out for the Democratic Party machine that, with Whig assistance, got Maryland into its debt mess, and for the Locofoco Democrat insurgents who were trying to lead the party on a path of debt repudiation and free trade?

Well, Maryland had already partially defaulted on its debts by halting payment in . It tried to make up some of the difference by selling off its interest in the canals, but nobody wanted to buy them. Eventually the state managed to push new taxes through, but it wasn’t until that it formally resumed paying interest on the debts. But the repudiation party never won their case.

As for the Locofocos more generally, I don’t hear much about them after , and I’m not sure to what extent this means they were absorbed into another party, or their concerns went mainstream, or they evaporated, or what. Histories of the Democratic Party of Maryland are not easy to find, and I’m not sure I’d really want to thumb through one if I did find it.