Who’s Who in Maryland History: Founding Father Who Opposed the Constitution
Soldier, delegate, and governor, John Francis Mercer is one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers of Maryland. During his service as a delegate of Maryland, Mercer was one of the members who opposed the Constitution. An Anti-Federalist, he believed that a centralized government would threaten the autonomy of the states and individual rights and perpetuate despotic governance not unlike the rule of Great Britain. Mercer was the second youngest delegate (at twenty-eight) in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Although they had failed in blocking the ratification of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists succeeded in pushing forth the Bill of Rights—amendments that protect the rights of individuals.
Born on May 17, 1759, in Marlborough, Virginia, John Francis Mercer was the son of Anne and John. John was a migrant from Dublin, Ireland, who brought wealth and prominence to the ruined town of Marlborough and became a magistrate in Stafford from 1748 to 1766. Mercer was one of the family’s nine children. He studied at the College of William and Mary and enlisted in the Third Virginia Regiment a year after his graduation in 1775. He served as first lieutenant in 1776 and was later promoted to major when he became aide-de-camp to Gen. Charles Lee. Because of his loyalty to General Lee, Mercer left his commission upon the general’s court martial in 1779. The following year, he studied law at his previous college. He rejoined the army as lieutenant colonel of the Virginia Calvary under Gen. Robert Lawson’s service. Upon the corps’ disbandment, Mercer went to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to practice law. In 1781, he once again joined the military as colonel, briefly serving as Lafayette’s aide-de-camp.
Mercer was chosen as one of the Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress in 1782. He served in the position for three years before he moved to Maryland. There, he met and married Sophia Sprigg in 1785 and settled in Cedar Park, Sprigg’s inherited estate from her father’s side. Not long after, he became the youngest member of Maryland’s representatives. In 1787, he was one of Maryland’s delegates at the Federal Constitutional Convention. Mercer opposed the adoption of the Constitution and left the convention, not waiting for the conclusion of the proceedings. He continued to express his disapproval of the Constitution, with Luther Martin, one of the Founding Fathers of Maryland who opposed the Constitution, and another delegate from Maryland.
From 1778 to 1779, 1791 to 1792, 1800 to 1801, and 1803 to 1806, Mercer was a member of the Maryland of Delegates and the Republican Party. He served as a member of the US House of Representatives beginning 1792 until 1794. On November 9, 1801, Mercer was chosen as Maryland’s governor and held the position till 1803. He was a staunch Anti-Federalist, but later joined the Federalists to prevent another conflict with England. During his service as governor, Mercer “took giant strides toward the elimination of aristocratic control.” His administration also saw “the abolition of the property qualification for voting and the adoption of the secret ballot.” (White 1970).
After his political career, John Francis Mercer retired in Cedar Park, where he spent his remaining years living with close family and friends, furthering his love for classical literature, and pursuing charitable causes. He was in Philadelphia to see his doctor when he died on August 30, 1821, due to a poor health condition. He was buried at St. Peter’s Church temporarily before he was permanently laid to rest in the cemetery in his Maryland home. Though not as well-known as his contemporaries, Mercer’s contributions and deeds have earned him to right to be called a Founding Father of Maryland and of the United States.
Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series). 2005. “John Francis Mercer.” Accessed May 8, 2017. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/000900/000904/html/904bio.html.
Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series). 2005. “John Francis Mercer.” Accessed May 8, 2017. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/000900/000904/html/904extbio.html.
National Archives. “The Founding Fathers: Maryland.” Last reviewed September 29, 2016. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/founding-fathers-maryland
National Governors Association. 2015. “Governor John Francis Mercer.” Accessed May 8, 2017. https://www.nga.org/cms/home/governors/past-governors-bios/page_maryland/col2-content/main-content-list/title_mercer_john.default.html.