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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

 * William Grason, Governor

Salisbury Times - April 26, 1962

Under the State Constitution of 1776 the governor of Maryland was elected annually by a joint ballot of the two houses of the General Assembly. By an amendment to the Constitution in 1838, the election of the governor was placed in the hands of the people. The term of office was to be three years, and the State divided into three gubernatorial districts, from each of which the governor was required to be chosen in turn.

The Eastern Shore counties composed the first district, and under this system the first governor in the rotation plan was to come from the Eastern Shore. William Grason of Queen Anne's County, the 28th governor of Maryland, was the man chosen for this honor.

THIS FACT alone probably makes him worthy of a place in this column; but there are also other interesting facts about this election, the people of Maryland, and William Grason. Heinrich E. Buchholz, an ardent student of Maryland governors, once wrote an interesting view on Maryland politics and the election of 1838 in particular.

"Of all the sorts of men that go to make up the human family, there is none more discredited, less loved, or as much abused as the clan of Jeremiahs. Their office of lamenting strikes no responsive note in the average bosom, for they see only the ills of the world, while the people are striving to forget that there is aught of unpleasantness in life. The ordinary man finds a mountainous argument in favor of optimism in the mere fact that it is more cheerful than pessimism; and therefore the painstaking being who has smoked his glasses that he may see the truth clearly is either shoved to one side by the masses or greeted with derision, while he who wears the rose-tinted spectacles has ever at his heels a respectable mob."

The people of Maryland in the first half of the last century were chiefly optimists, although the course which public affairs were taking then was destined to lead to financial disaster. It seems inconsistent, therefore, that they should have chosen as their first popular governor a pessimist, for Mr. Grason throughout his administration seldom emerged form the role of a political Jeremiah. The fondest delusions of the people he shattered as easily as one might prick a bubble, and the thing which had for years been worshiped as prosperity he labeled 'failure.' As governor, at least, Mr. Grason was a destructionist; but the result of his efforts along this line were more beneficial to Maryland in the long run than many times as much constructive work of his predecessors."

WILLIAM GRASON, son of Richard Grason a prosperous farmer, was born in 1788 at Eagle's Nest on the Wye River. After receiving his early education in the schools of the locality, he entered St. John's College in Annapolis. Although he completed his course at St. John's, his major interest was not in the academic field. Seemingly form childhood Grason had a bent in the direction of the sea, and the fact that Annapolis was an important port helped to develop this ambition for a seaman's career.

After his college days were over he secured an appointment as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. But as is often the case, once we have achieved our so-called desire, it is no longer what we really like or want. Grason's naval career was rather short, and he returned to his home on the Eastern Shore.

In 1812, although at the time he probably did not realize it, he built up a major political asset for a later date. In that year he married Susan Orrick Sulivane (Sullivane), a daughter of James Bennett Silivane of Dorchester County. And, for a couple of years, living at the home of his bride, he engaged in agriculture. After this brief residence, the Grasons returned to Queen Anne's County, where they spent the remainder of their lives, except when governmental duties carried them to Annapolis.

IN HIS NATIVE County, Grason cultivated not only the crops of the soil but also a career in politics. Even though seemingly he was happiest as a gentleman farmer, with manners and intellectual taste above the average, the call of politics was also very strong within his breast. Before long he had served in a number of local public offices and showed a definite interest to hold other offices of government.

Although by the time Grason became really active in politicks the Federalist Party was on the decline, his affiliations were with this party of the Founding Fathers. The fact that he had been a Federalist and supported their opposition to the War of 1812 was a political liability in later campaigns. By switching in time to the Democratic Party and advocating the doctrines of Jacksonianism he was able to weather the political storms of 1820's and 1830's.

In the election of 1828 we did not yet have to two parties-Whigs and Democrats; most of the local political states were made up of either Jackson or anti-Jackson candidates. On the legislative ticket of Queen Anne's was the name of William Grason as a Jacksonian. When the votes were counted, Grason had received the highest number of all the candidates. He was re-elected the next time; but by 1833 he was after bigger game. He sought his party's nomination for Congress in 1833, but delegates turned him down. Two years later, in 1835, he represented his party for Congress against the Whig candidate, James An. Pearce, who was elected by a small majority of 123 ballots. In 1837 he was again elected to the General Assemble. During this term in office he was active in the movement to provide for the direct election of the governor and the creating of three gubernatorial districts, and the constitution was amended to that effect.

In the election of 1838 the Democrats nominated William Grason for governor and the Whigs named John Nevett Steele of Dorchester County. Thus, for the first popular gubernatorial contest in Maryland both of the candidates were from the Eastern Shore. The campaign was the usual one for Maryland-excessive bitterness, vilification, and charges of dishonesty, fraud, and corruption levied against anybody and everybody associated with the parties.

CONSIDERING the fact that the entire state could cast votes, Grason's majority of just 311 votes were very slight. On Jan. 7, 1839 Grason was inaugurated for a three-year term, only to find that the opposition party, the Whigs, had a slight control of the legislature. Even this situation is often standard for Maryland politics.

From the beginning to the end of the term, Gov. Grason's administration was marked by friction with the legislature. At the same time, as Buchholz has stated, Grason's "voice gave expressions to one endless Jeremiad." Gov. Grason wanted to be realistic and practical in his policies, especially economic and financial policies. The government and people of Maryland had been reckless in appropriating funds and over expanding for internal improvements for sometime. Neither had really taken time to consider what was going to happen when the day of reckoning came-the day when both interest and principal must be paid. Up until this time the people had experienced relatively light taxation. The situation facing the new governor was one of a heavy state debt and an unwillingness of the citizens to submit to a major change in taxation to a discharge the obligations-a serious financial crisis.

When Gov. Grason first faced the General Assembly he brought this to the attention of the delegates, and stated that the situation would become worse unless there was a radical change in policy and attempts were made to redeem the public debt. To those of the legislature who wanted to repudiate the debts rather than tax an unwilling people, Grason declared that the debt had been contracted, and confirmed by successive legislatures sanctioned by the people themselves, in the continued re-election of representatives who were most prominent in creating it, and that the obligations of the state were in the hands of men who relied upon good faith, and whose borrowed money had been expended on her words. He said it was impossible to question the validity of the debt, and unreasonable to plead inability without first making an effort to discharge it. What Grason spoke was unpleasant truth, and the legislature would not heed, and nothing was done during his term of office to solve the problem.

Pessimist or not, Grason was a fighter for what was the honest and realistic road to follow. And, he did not add to his popularity or political strength by opposing the questionable practices of such powerful business interests as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the management of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

After his retirement form office in January, 1842 (he was not eligible for re-election), Grason returned to his farm in Queen Anne's County but he did not retire form politics. In 1851 he was a delegate to the convention which framed a new constitution for the state. In the same year he was elected to the State Senate, but failed in his bid for that office again in 1857. In 1860 he was chosen as a delegate to a convention in Baltimore to decide what course of action Maryland should take in light of the "emergency" created by the election of Lincoln. In fact, he was chosen to preside over this conference, but ill health kept him from doing so.

This pessimistic but courageous Eastern Shoreman spent the last years of his life in Queen Anne's. He died at the age of 80 on July 2, 1868.

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