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Governor John Seymour and the Charters of Annapolis

Part 4. Reflections

Table of Contents
Part 1. Preliminary Observations
Part 2. The Act of 1696
Part 3. The Charters

 

        In spite of the changes that Governor John Seymour made in the first charter of Annapolis and the assembly's "explanation" of the second one, and in spite of the passionate claims of some modern Annapolitans, the government of Annapolis under the second charter was far from democratic.1 While under the second charter the freeholders and the "inhabitants" of Annapolis could vote for members of the common council and for delegates,2 the mayor, recorder, aldermen and members of the common council would still choose the mayor each year; the mayor and the aldermen would still choose future recorders and fill vacancies among the aldermen; only men who had already been elected to the common council would be eligible to rise further in the hierarchy;3 and voting for members of the common council and for delegates would be limited to freeholders who owned a whole lot of land with a house built on it and to "inhabitants" -- people who had visible estates of at least twenty pounds sterling.4 Thus the more privileged white adult male residents of the city could sort people out, and the mayor, recorder, and aldermen could sort them out further.

        While it would be a great mistake, therefore, to call the second charter of Annapolis democratic, its adoption still has an important political significance. The exercise over the charters was one of the early episodes in the long battle to limit the power of the executive in what became the United States. The men who insisted that they had a right to participate in such political decisions, and won that right, provided a real service for future generations not only of Marylanders but also of all Americans.

        While there is no way to know how many, if any, of the delegates' arguments against the second charter came from Thomas Macnemara's presentation to them against the first one, as the spokesman for and quite possibly the leader of the petitioners to the lower house he might deserve more credit for this early contribution to the legacy of a limited executive than anyone else. His job was to persuade the delegates, and he succeeded unanimously.

        The struggle over the charters, however, did not occur in a political vacuum but rather came in the context of other political issues as well as of the participants' political and personal ambitions and disappointments. By 1708 John Seymour had been for some time trying to consolidate his power at the expense of the delegates and the justices of the courts. The delegates and the justices objected. When the issue of the charters came up the delegates were already disgusted with Seymour because of his establishing the assizes over their objections and his claiming the right to admit and suspend attorneys, and Seymour's consistent arrogance toward the delegates probably did not help him any. Under the first charter many of the petitioners to the lower house, as well as many of the petitioners to Seymour himself, had lost the franchise that they had enjoyed under the act of 1696 and wanted to regain the franchise for themselves and other men as economically well off as they were. Thomas Macnemara might have been happy to get a little revenge against Seymour for the governor's disbarring him from the practice of law, for ordering him to sit in the stocks bare-breached for his impertinence, and for ordering him arrested three times during his troubles with his wife. Public policy became entangled with the personalities, the personal issues, and the personal ambitions of the participants.

        That often the men who in Maryland in 1708 were insisting on greater participation in government might not have had the purest of motives does not diminish the importance of their contribution to the legacy of a limited executive. Nor does the swaggering contempt that many of the most prominent American politicians -- as well as many other Americans -- have exhibited toward that legacy at the beginning of the twenty-first century diminish its importance. They might destroy it, but they cannot diminish its importance.

        The struggle continues.

 

Endnotes

        1 I point out that the second charter of Annapolis was not democratic only because on the website of Annapolis Alive for the celebration of the tricentennial of the second charter I see the astounding claim that "In 2008 and 2009, Annapolis will celebrate a most significant anniversary -- 300 years of democracy." [Visited on 2 July 2007] I explain this here only because an early reader of this article complained that when in my consideration of the political system of the early eighteenth century I use the term "democratic" I "extrapolate backwards." Return to text

        2 Second charter of Annapolis, in Chancery Record 2, pp. 598-599, 599-600. Return to text

        3 Ibid., p. 598. In both charters Seymour provided that the mayor would be elected for one year and could not succeed himself. First charter of Annapolis, in ibid., p. 591; second charter of Annapolis, in ibid., p. 598. Return to text

        4 Second charter of Annapolis, in Chancery Record 2, pp. 599-600. Return to text

 


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