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  • The Baltimore Bank Riot: Political Upheaval in Antebellum Maryland
  • Hugh Rockoff
Robert E. Shalhope . The Baltimore Bank Riot: Political Upheaval in Antebellum Maryland. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 208 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03480-0, $50.00 (cloth).

In August 1835, the city of Baltimore was convulsed by one of the worst riots in the United States before the civil war. Mobs roamed the city, and splendid homes of some of the wealthiest men in the city [End Page 648] were vandalized. Afterward, the municipal authorities conceded that five people were killed and twenty injured, but the true figures were probably much higher.

The cause was the failure of the Bank of Maryland. The Bank, the oldest in the state, had been chartered in 1790. In 1831, it came under the control of a local merchant, Evan Poultney, and two young lawyers, Reverdy Johnson and John Glenn. The Bank of Maryland expanded rapidly under its new management. It attracted large amounts of deposits, including deposits by the working class, by offering high interest rates, and it issued large amounts of bank notes in part by following the well-known strategy of setting up distant branches for the purpose of getting its notes into circulation. Its loans went to the insiders, Poultney, Johnson, Glenn, and their cronies, who used the money for various speculative schemes including an investment in Tennessee bonds and in a newly established insurance company. When these speculations soured, the insiders could not make their loan payments, and the bank could not meet its interest payments on deposits. The bank experienced runs and was forced to close its doors. Eventually, the bank's creditors were paid in full. But long before this occurred, many small note holders and depositors had sold their claims at a steep discount to Johnson and Glenn, who had purchased these claims because they could be used at par to repay debts to the bank.

The proximate cause of the riot may have been the issue of a lengthy pamphlet by Johnson and Glenn placing all the blame on Poultney, who in fact appears to have been an honest businessman. The public was not taken in. They attacked the homes of Johnson and Glenn, and when a mounted guard set up by the mayor to prevent damage to the homes of Johnson and Glenn rode into the crowd, the rioters became incensed. But as angry as they were with the bank directors and forces of law and order, the rioters never behaved as wild-eyed radicals attacking all men of property but rather concentrated their fire on the people they thought had directly wronged them. When embers from the fire consuming Johnson's home threatened to spread to nearby properties, bucket brigades were formed to save them (61). Eventually, General Sam Smith, a veteran of the war of 1812, assembled a large force of volunteers that restored order.

In the last chapter, the author tells us what happened in the wake of the bank riot. One of the most interesting stories is about a career that literally rose from the ashes. Reverdy Johnson was one of the villains in 1835, at least as far as the mob that burned his house was concerned, but his future career would be remarkable. He would serve twice in the United States Senate, as Attorney General of the United States and as ambassador to Great Britain. He would represent [End Page 649] the slave owner in the Dred Scott case, oppose Maryland's secession, and serve on the committee that drafted the fourteenth amendment to the constitution. The riot naturally produced calls for political reform. Many Baltimoreans believed that the failure of the state legislature to do more for the typical holder of the bank's liabilities was the result of conservative rural districts having excessive power in the state legislature. The reformers made some gains, but the democratic revolution they sought was blocked. Shalhope also makes an interesting conjecture about Maryland in the civil war. Perhaps Marylanders learned something from the riot about the dangers of mob action. Perhaps they learned that it was better to let the law take its course...


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