Saturday, November 1, 2014

Emancipation in Maryland 150: The Maryland Constitution of 1864

150 years ago today, a new constitution for the state of Maryland came into effect, abolishing slavery in the state. This article is a look at how that constitution came into being, and it places the events of 150 years ago in the context of the American Civil War...

The Maryland Monument at Antietam National Battlefield

Baltimore, Maryland. April 19, 1864…

Ladies and Gentlemen—Calling to mind that we are in Baltimore, we can not fail to note that the world moves. Looking upon these many people, assembled here, to serve, as they best may, the soldiers of the Union, it occurs at once that three years ago, the same soldiers could not so much as pass through Baltimore. The change from then till now, is both great, and gratifying. Blessings on the brave men who have wrought the change, and the fair women who strive to reward them for it.

But Baltimore suggests more than could happen within Baltimore. The change within Baltimore is part only of a far wider change. When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to—day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected—how much needs not now to be recounted. So true is it that man proposes, and God disposes.

But we can see the past, though we may not claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future.

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.

President Abraham Lincoln delivered these remarks in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 1864. Just 19 months before, in that same state, Union and Confederate forces clashed at the Battle of Antietam, leading to over 23,000 casualties and becoming forever known as the bloodiest single day in American history. Through all the bloodshed of September 1862 at Antietam, the battle there had afforded President Lincoln an important opportunity—it was a Union victory, as Confederate forces were effectively pushed out of Maryland after the guns fell silent. Five days after Antietam, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, setting the stage for the final version to be signed, issued, and placed into effect on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared that all slaves in those states then in rebellion would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Yet, as we previously discussed on our blog, Maryland was unaffected by this document because of its status as a Border State. Thus, when Lincoln spoke in Baltimore in April 1864, there was still more work to be done to advance the cause of freedom in Maryland.

A divided Border State during the Civil War, Maryland was the scene of both military and political struggles during the four year conflict. Early in the war, in April 1861, as Southern states were banding together and the onset of war was occurring at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the people of Maryland were caught up in the middle of the great secession crisis. Maryland shared strong ties with the states of the Southern Confederacy—of the nearly four million slaves in the United States at the time of the Civil War, over 87,000 lived within Maryland’s borders.

With numerous slave states breaking away from the Union in early 1861, Maryland felt the pull of her sister slave states to protect her interests and leave the Union behind. In fact, the same secession commissioners who journeyed through the South during the winter of 1860-1861 preaching secession, states’ rights, and slavery, also made their way to Maryland. In December 1860, Judge Alexander Hamilton Handy from Mississippi addressed large crowds in Annapolis and Baltimore. Handy was born in Maryland but moved to Mississippi several decades before the Civil War. Mississippi’s own declarations of secession made clear the purpose of their cause: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world."

In Baltimore on December 19, 1860, Handy spoke with similar language and purpose, declaring, “The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil—a great sin—by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.” There was no ambiguity; when Handy spoke of Northern Republicans and their intent to “overthrow the constitution and subvert the rights of the South,” the one right above all others which was in jeopardy was that “by which one man can own property in his fellow man.”

Three years later, when Lincoln spoke in Baltimore, enough history to fill three decades had occurred, and the situation in Maryland had changed dramatically. Because of political and military actions, Maryland did not follow the call of other slave states, and it remained in the Union. Lincoln himself was involved with this, suspending Habeas Corpus in Maryland in April 1861, after Union soldiers were attacked coming through Baltimore. General Benjamin Butler declared martial law in Baltimore, and the Maryland legislature’s convention on secession was moved to Frederick, a much more pro-Union location than Baltimore or Annapolis on the Chesapeake.

With Maryland still in the Union, it was a prime target for Confederate forces. In September 1862—with the goal of possibly peeling Maryland away from the Union in mind—Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia came north looking for a battlefield victory over Union forces on Union soil. His hopes for such a victory were dashed along the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, in the bloodiest single day in American history. After Antietam, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and everything changed once again.

After Antietam, pro-Unionists became increasingly powerful in the state of Maryland, taking greater control of the state government. Starting in 1861, Unionists made gains in the Maryland legislature. As a result, pro-Union representatives imposed harsh penalties on those who had Confederate sympathies, including loyalty oaths to the Union as a condition for future voting. Many pro-slavery Democrats fled for the Confederacy, leaving a mixture of conservative and radical Republicans and Unionists in Maryland. Through the course of the war, this mix led to a growing number of abolitionists—men who before the war never dreamed of abolishing slavery began to see it as a positive political move for the state. Of the two factions, two plans emerged.

The conservative plan, headed by Montgomery Blair, suggested a path toward emancipation that involved compensation for slave owners and was drawn out over time. Radicals in the legislature, led by Henry Winter Davis, favored an immediate and total emancipation of slavery in Maryland. In support of this latter plan, Davis declared that slave owners needed no further compensation for slaves, as the lands which had been farmed and cultivated for them for hundreds of years by slave labor was compensation enough. With increased gains in the 1863 elections, pro-abolition forces gained more control and power in the state. A convention was called to write a new constitution for Maryland in early 1864. President Lincoln himself weighed in on the issue, writing, “I am very anxious for emancipation to be effected in Maryland.”

The same month that Lincoln spoke at the Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, Maryland held a constitutional convention. Meeting in Annapolis on April 27, 1864, the convention lasted for several months, wrapping up its work on September 6, two years to the day from when Confederates under Lee came north on their way to Antietam. The end result of the convention was a constitution with provisions declaring the immediate emancipation of all slaves in Maryland. All that was necessary was a public vote, scheduled for October 12, to ratify the new document. Now, for over 80,000 slaves in Maryland, freedom would be determined by the ballot box.

The day of the scheduled vote—when the people of Maryland went to the polls to decide the future of freedom in their state—a major figure who had influenced national policy on slavery for decades passed from the scene. Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Roger Brooke Taney died on October 12, 1864. The author of the infamous Dred Scott Decision, it was Taney whose words had spelled out the increasing plight of sectionalism and slavery in the years before the Civil War. In the 1857 case, Taney declared that property rights of slave owners precluded any restrictions on where they could and could not take their slaves, seemingly opening the door for slavery to spread throughout the land. Taney’s court had also ruled that blacks were never intended as citizens of the United States, and thus had no right to sue for their freedom. Taney passed at the age of 87—he was born the year after the Declaration of Independence—and his passing served as a reminder that the old Union, one where the Dred Scott decision was issued, was quickly fading, giving way to a new Union that was made possible by the sacrifices of soldiers on the battlefield and political advances throughout the nation.

On October 12 and 13, Marylanders went to the ballot box. Across the state, in the varied political climate of wartime Maryland, individuals decided the fate of the new constitution. In Washington County, where the Battle of Antietam was fought just two years before, the constitution received significant support, with 2,441 for and 1,633 against. Washington county had seen a sharp drop in the number of slaves in the years prior to the Civil War: in 1820, out of a population of 23,075, there were 3,201 slaves and only 627 free blacks. Forty years later, when Lincoln was elected and the secession of the South began, out of 31,417 people, there were 1,435 slaves and 1,677 freed blacks. Clearly, Washington County was a strong example of Maryland’s trend toward being a Unionist state.

Elsewhere, the vote totals did not go as well for the pro-emancipation side. Overall, of the civilians voting in Maryland, the tally was 27,541 for, 29,536 against the new constitution. Based solely on this, the 1864 Constitution would have failed.

However, much as would happen in the presidential election just a few weeks later, the soldier vote made a tremendous impact on the final count. Maryland sent nearly 80,000 men off to war in between 1861 and 1865, many of whom fought for the Union. Of the nearly 60,000 votes that were ultimately cast for the 1864 Constitution, roughly 3,000 were absentee ballots from soldiers in the field. Of that number, 2,633 were in favor if its passage, and only 263 were against. This made the final count 30,174 in favor, and 29,799 against. The 1864 Maryland Constitution passed with a margin of fewer than 400 votes.

On October 29, Governor Augustus Bradford, who had only until recently been opposed to emancipation in his state, declared that the new constitution passed. The document was to take effect on November 1, 1864. On October 31, 1864, Frederick resident Jacob Engelbrecht recorded his feelings in his diary, proclaiming, “The foul blot of slavery will be stricken from the Constitution of Maryland, Huzzah for Liberty!”

The reaction to the new Constitution reflected its importance for the state. In Baltimore, the act was greeted with proclamations and a salute of five hundred guns. The Baltimore American and Commercial Adviser editorialized on the magnitude of the occasion:

This is the birth-day of Maryland freedom. This day the shackles fall from the oppressed within our borders. The bonds are broken forever, and the captive is set free. This is a proud day for Maryland. It is the day of her regeneration. It is the dawn of a new regime and a healthier existence. The triumph of justice is consummated; the aims of a sound economy are satisfied. Henceforth the first of November will be a blessed day in the calendar. It will be commemorated with thanksgiving and praise.

Later that month, Frederick Douglass—a man who was born in Maryland, lived in slavery in Maryland, and successfully escaped from Maryland—spoke in Baltimore on the coming of emancipation within his native state.

What a wonderful change a few short years have wrought! I left Maryland a slave; I return to her a freeman! I left her a slave state; I return to find her clothed in her new garments of Liberty and Justice, a free state! My life has had two crises—the day on which I left Maryland, and the day on which I return… The Common Council and city authorities have promised to be present at the next meeting in Baltimore. I shall be glad to see them. I shall return to them with freedom in my hand, and point to her Free Constitution, and as the olive branch was a sign that the waters of the flood were retiring, so will the freedom which I shall find there be a sign that the billows of slavery are rolling back to leave the law blooming again in the purer air of liberty and justice.

The same day the new constitution took effect, President Lincoln also offered his thoughts on what the day meant for both Maryland and the nation. Addressing a group of free blacks who had gathered at the White House, Lincoln spoke in broad terms, both expressing his joy at the occasion and his desire to see the end of slavery:

It is no secret that I have wished, and still do wish, mankind everywhere to be free. And in the State of Maryland how great an advance has been made in this direction. It is difficult to realize that in a state, where human slavery has existed for ages, ever since a period long before any here were born—by the action of her own citizens—the soil is made forever free. I have no feeling of triumph over those who were opposed to this measure and who voted against it, but I do believe that it will result in good in the white race as well as to those who have been made free by this action of emancipation….

Lincoln’s words described the magnitude of the event, placing it in historical context. An institution which had held people as slaves for generations had been eradicated by the people of a slave holding state. Certainly, the vote was close, and it had required the soldier vote to push over the margin of victory, but the political process had resulted in a move toward freedom in Maryland.

Yet, while these oft quoted remarks are indeed a reminder of how important the Maryland Constitution was, perhaps Lincoln’s remarks the day before, on October 31, 1864, while addressing the soldiers of the 42nd Massachusetts, are yet an even more fitting summation to the story of freedom finally arriving in Maryland. As Lincoln spoke to the men from Massachusetts, soldiers whose enlistments were coming to an end, he praised them and those like them who had served in the long and grueling war. Lincoln was sure to note the link between service and sacrifice on the battlefield and the advance of freedom across the nation. Without battles such as Antietam, fought within the state of Maryland, the momentous occasion would not have occurred. Lincoln said as much when speaking to the soldiers:

Tonight, midnight, slavery ceases in Maryland, and this state of things in Maryland is due greatly to the soldiers. Again I thank you for the services you have rendered the country.

Without the measures to keep Maryland in the Union, the bloodshed of Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the political maneuvering by radicals and Republicans, the new constitution of 1864 would have never been possible in the state of Maryland. The constitution was not perfect—it still only allowed while males the right to vote—but it was a major step in a state that just a few years before had seriously considered joining the Confederate States of America, which itself had a constitution forever protecting the institution of slavery. The Maryland Constitution was in some ways a precursor for the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. It reminds us that the long road towards freedom and progress is always complicated, never easy, and only made possible through hard work and sacrifice.


Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Volume 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Dew, Charles. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Flood, Charles Bracelen. 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.

Levine, Bruce. The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South. New York: Random House, 2013.

Mitchell, Charles, ed. Maryland Voices of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Oakes, James. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

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