Rev. Thomas Bacon (c.1710-1768)

Publisher, musician, composer & educationalist.

Rev. Thomas Bacon, by Alexander Hamilton

Rev. Thomas Bacon from a caricature by Alexander Hamilton of the Tuesday club

Thomas Bacon was in his life a merchant, a customs official, an author, a bookseller, an auctioneer, a newspaper publisher, a minister of the church, an educationalist, a musician, composer and poet, and a pioneer of slave reform. Like his brother Anthony Bacon, M.P., he achieved much in his lifetime and yet is almost forgotten now. Possibly his only legacy is that he compiled the laws of Maryland.

This is an example of how quickly history can be lost - even with someone who rose to great prominence - his early life is very sketchy. No record of his birth in Whitehaven can be found but his father William Bacon, a merchant captain resided here, his mother Elizabeth Richardson was from Whitehaven and his brother Anthony Bacon, the great merchant and industrialist was born here in 1716. They were cousins of John Spedding, Lowther's agent, who ran Whitehaven in his absence.

The first reference to Thomas Bacon is that he was running a store of coals in Dublin for the Whitehaven merchants. Hutchinson's history says that he was appointed by his townsmen to this task - indicating that he was not only from Whitehaven but had gained considerable respect by this stage. The shipping of coals from Whitehaven to Ireland was reliant on the weather and sometimes ships could be stuck in port for weeks. To maintain a constant supply of coal a reserve pool of coal was created at either side. The hurries that supplied the coal to the ships in Whitehaven harbour had a magazine that could store 6,500 tons of coal. At the other end in Dublin, Thomas was in charge of a similar store and therefore possibly acted as broker between the English and Irish merchants. The need for this reserve seemed to dwindle and Thomas went into the service of the British Customs and Revenue department. This led to him publishing his first major work in 1737 with the catchy title of :-

A Compleat System of the Revenue of Ireland, in its Branches of Import, Export, and Inland Duties, Containing I. An Abridgement of English and Irish Statutes Relating to the Revenue of Ireland II. The Former and Additional Book of Rates Inwards and Outwards, etc. III. A View of the Duties which Compose the Revenue of Ireland, etc. IV. The Method of Making Entries, etc.

Revenue of Ireland

Facsimile of sections of the title page of the Revenue of Ireland.

The work was commissioned by his bosses but aimed at the mercantile profession, to enable them to better understand the complex nature of law and taxation and thus benefit trade, and so he put the legal definitions in alphabetical order, followed by numerous tables of taxation rates. This was obviously a complex work to attempt and would have involved a large amount of research, and the formation of an editorial skill he would later apply to the even greater challenge of the Laws of Maryland. This year also marked a change in career as he was made a free citizen of Dublin, which entitled him vote and to special rights of trade. He obtained this by a combination of paying a fine and by grace especial, a kind of honorary award, possibly in respect of the major work he had just completed.

Around this time it appears he married a smart widow with whom he ran a coffee shop on Essex Street in Dublin, which was at that time a thriving commercial district. This was at a time when a coffee shop would not only be a social hub but also a commercial centre and a forum for news. Whilst managing the shop he also acted as its auctioneer selling everything from books, to silk stockings, to Italian paintings. More importantly, after apparently working as a press corrector, in 1741 Thomas Bacon set himself up in the printing trade and ended up publishing two of Ireland's premier newspapers. The first was the Dublin Mercury, which was a literary paper, and the second was the Dublin Gazette, which was Ireland's principal newspaper of the day. This career seems quite short - he was publishing the Mercury in January of 1742 and publishing the Gazette from September of that year until the following July.

Dublin Mercury

Facsimile of the Dublin Mercury masthead. An original is held in the British Library.

When Handel's Messiah received its debut performance in Dublin it was under a certain amount of controversy and therefore it seems almost certain, with his love of music and as the publisher of a leading paper, that Thomas Bacon was there to witness this great work. It also premiered just around the corner from his shop at the Neal's Music Hall on Fishamble Street. As Handel was a bit of an impresario it is quite likely that he would have even met with Thomas Bacon in the hope of receiving a favourable review. A month later his paper the Dublin Mercury also reported on the first performance of the Clarinet in the British Isles. This kind of anecdote would no doubt have put Thomas in a great position amongst the socialites when he arrived in Maryland.

As a printer he had been approached by Samuel Richardson to print his ground breaking novel Pamela. At that time, Ireland had a rule that whoever first posted the title page of a literary work in a prominent place, and could prove they had the manuscript or an original London edition, had the right to publish that work and gain the proceeds. Thomas Bacon found that another publisher had done this to him and Richardson decided to help him and confound the 'pirate' by sending 750 copies of the London edition for him to sell in advance of his illegitimate rival. The Irish booksellers considered that Thomas was an agent for the English working to undermine their trade. As he had come from the Customs House it is easy to see how they might think this. Thus, Thomas became involved in the book wars that eventually led to copyright laws that are still contended to this day. Another legal wrangling over priority went against him and in 1743 his business failed. It would seem for this reason that he left the book trade and Ireland to follow a more spiritual vocation as missionary in the colonies. At this time he had an apprentice called William Bacon, said to be his son but more likely his brother as there is no further mention of him.

Thomas Bacon left Ireland and went to the nearby Isle of Man. Here he studied under the well-respected Bishop Thomas Wilson of Sodor and Man with the intention from the outset that he was destined to preach in the plantations of Maryland. This is probably why American biographies state that he came from the Isle of Man. Thomas Bacon was ordained as a Deacon on the 23rd September 1744 and six months later on the 10th March 1745 became a priest.

Thomas Bacon in Maryland

Thomas Bacon sailed shortly after this for the port of Oxford on the Choptank River and a letter from Henry Callister in Maryland to Hugh his brother in the Isle of Man, eagerly anticipated his arrival. The town of Oxford was important for exporting tobacco. His younger brother, Anthony, had already been in business there since about 1733 where he had initially worked for their uncle, Anthony Richardson. After the death of his uncle, Anthony had gone to London to further his business but still traded with Maryland. Thomas had brought letters for Henry Callister from his family in the Isle of Man. Henry who had worked for Anthony and now worked for Foster Cunliffe and Sons became friends with Thomas immediately. With many other Whitehaven people residing in Maryland, he would have found it easy to integrate into local society - especially as Callister described him as "very much esteemed by the best of our people, and almost universally he is esteemed a clever fellow, and I believe a good man." It seems he enjoyed this sociability, as he moved next door but one to Callister, in Oxford, some 6 miles from the church.

Oxford Maryland

His first parish was St. Peter's in Talbot County and his church at White Marsh was one of the oldest in colonial America having been built around 1665. It may have been sobering for him to see the graves of both his uncles there. Thomas Richardson had died aged only 41, in 1734, only 6 years after the death of his wife Mary and baby daughter Abigail. His other uncle Anthony Richardson had died even younger at 39 years in 1740. Another Whitehaven merchant John Thomson, aged 26, was also remembered by the stone erected by his brother, Anthony Bacon, 2 years after that date.

Initially, Bacon was curate to the Rev. Daniel Maynadier, an old Huguenot who had escaped from Louis XIV's Catholic France and served the Maryland parish for 29 years. When Maynadier died on 23rd February 1746, Governor Thomas Bladen appointed Bacon as parish rector and Callister described him as "the worthiest clergyman I ever knew." He also seemed respected and popular by his new flock, which rapidly expanded, to the point where his restoration work on the church included an extension, doubling its size, to accommodate them.

Bacon the musician and composer at the Tuesday Club

Henry Callister being something of a musician himself had remarked how excellent Thomas Bacon was on the Violin and Cello and that he also had a good collection of music. The two had played several duets together at each other's houses.

The time of Thomas Bacon's arrival in Maryland roughly coincided with the inauguration of an influential social, music and literary club known as the Tuesday club. The elite men of Maryland would meet to eat, drink and entertain each other at a member's house every fortnight on Tuesday. By November 1745 Bacon had been invited as a guest of the club, no doubt because news of his prowess as a musician had spread. His playing of the violin delighted the club and he became a member. He didn't entertain them again for a year but after that became a more regular guest. Also working for Foster Cunliffe and Son. was Robert Morris Sr., father of the man of the same name who would finance the revolution and become a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Bacon, Robert Morris and the Rev. John Gordon became known as the Eastern Shore Triumvirate.

In November 1749 he invited his brother, Anthony Bacon, as a guest who was then asked to procure a seal for the club on returning to London. Another of his guests was John Bacon, his son. He featured as a vocalist and was given the nickname John Gabble. The club was very satirical and mocking of the Old World order and establishments. This included a rule that anyone discovered talking seriously of politics, and the like, should be laughed down by the rest. To promote this ideal they were all given self-mocking pseudonyms and Thomas Bacon became Senior Lardini when composing music for the club. These compositions are some of the earliest secular pieces composed in America, thus making Thomas Bacon possibly the earliest American composer. His music was in the baroque style not unlike that of Handel and he played both the violin and the viol de gamba (an earlier bowed instrument with 6 gut strings that gave a softer, vocal sound)

Thomas Bacon and Education

Thomas Bacon possibly also arranged the first charity gig in America. He was very concerned about the lack of education for the children of poor families in Maryland and the black slave children. To this end he arranged concerts with the Tuesday club and started a subscription to finance the building of a school. He was generally troubled by the lack of civilisation in Maryland and much of it came from the missionary point of view that the poor heathen savages must be saved by the knowledge of a Christian God. However, it was more than that, as he stipulated that the school was to also teach poor children to read, write and account and also that they learn physical work to be of use to society in later life. Most importantly this was to be free and open to all without bar due to sex, race or state of servitude. He was thus one of the first proponents of equality and social reform.

He started his campaign in 1950 and within months was successful in producing an annual subscription sum of $284 plus another $164 of donations. By 1751 the school was in operation but Thomas aimed at getting a proper permanent building, to which end he procured in 1753 the farm of David Robinson, about a mile west of the church, on which he was to develop a brick built schoolhouse. Lord Baltimore not only gave his full enthusiastic support for the project but also in 1794 donated 100 guineas plus an annual amount of £20 and a further £5 from Lady Baltimore. Bishop Wilson provided £50 with the suggestion that it could be used to purchase a black boy and girl that could be used as servants for the school once educated.

Thomas Bacon and Slavery

This gives an indication of how far away they were from modern ideals of abolition and equality. Thomas Bacon also had 3 slaves himself but what better way to improve their lives than take them from the tobacco fields and use them as domestic servants. Bacon's relative, Sheriff James Dickinson, freed 6 of his slaves during life and the rest after his death - possibly indicating that some of the Cumberland immigrants had difficulty with the idea of slavery. In fact, Thomas Bacon had delivered a series of sermons that were considered so important that they were printed and even distributed back in Britain. Yet in them, one of the themes was that God placed man in his position on earth, whether it was slave or master, but that at the end of life they would all have to answer to their true master, God. This was even taken out of context by later proponents of slavery to indicate that it was God's will that certain groups of people should be condemned to a life of servitude. This has led to him being described by some later writers as pro-slavery.

Realising that many of the poor and black slaves were unable or unwilling to attend church he had gone out to their homes to preach and approached them in the street or at work to spread the word of God. In a Maryland where the slavery was not questioned and considered necessary for the tobacco trade, he would have had to be very careful how he broached the subject with the slave owners. It was probably for this reason he used the pulpit as his platform. God fearing people would be less able to contradict a clever sermon wrapped up in biblical references but still it would have been a leap too far to even suggest abolition at that place and time. From this we might also regard him as an astute politician.

The fact that he referred to the slaves as his "black brothers and sisters" gives some idea of his sentiments. The title of one of his sermons "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in Heaven" indicates the direction he was taking. A later writer described him as one who was so far ahead in this regard that others who followed did not even find his footsteps. Two of his sermons were published in London in 1749 based on Ephesians 6:8 emphasised the duty of masters to educate their slaves in the Christian God saying that currently the greater majority of them were heathen. Four more sermons published in 1750 based on Colossians 4:1 talked about how masters should observe that slaves were human not a different species as they were sometime regarded. In fact he said that if they didn't show their servants love and gratitude they would have to answer to God. He observed that a few slaves, once educated, could be used to instruct the others. He had himself at this point baptised some 20 slaves.

Troubled times for Thomas Bacon

In 1754, a woman called Rachel Beck, who was unmarried and of mixed race (then referred to as mulatto), named Thomas Bacon in a case of the paternity of her bastard child. Thomas Bacon, horrified by the slander against his previously good character, sued her for defamation. Unfortunately, his wife died before he cleared his name and one wonders if the stress caused by the scandal had a detrimental influence on her health. When the local sheriff James Dickinson formed a jury for the trial, Beck successfully had them dismissed on the grounds that Dickinson was the cousin of Bacon, being the son of his aunt Jane. He had originally moved to Maryland to work for Thomas's brother Anthony. Eventually, Thomas won the case and was awarded £100 damages.

He was to receive more bad news in the death of his son. John Bacon, who had become a Second Lieutenant in the Independent Maryland Foot Company of Foot, was scalped by Indians about 4 or 5 miles from Cumberland Fort in the war against the French. He had also buried his friend, the merchant, Robert Morris Snr. at White Marsh church in 1750 after a bizarre fatal accident. A ship's Captain had decided to salute Morris with cannon but an eager crew member had mistaken the captain swatting a fly for the signal to fire, whilst they were still too close. A piece of wadding broke Robert Morris's arm and it became infected and he died a few days later. Dr. Alexander Hamilton, another friend and founder of the Tuesday club, also died young in 1756. Thomas Bacon also apparently suffered malaria at this time which seemed to lead to a permanent decline in health.

However, despite these set backs he decided to re-marry but this immediately led to more legal problems. His wife, Elizabeth Bozman, had just escaped from a bigamous marriage at which he had officiated but in neither instance had the bans been read or publicly announced. The fine for each was 5000 lbs. of tobacco. He lost the case for his own marriage and also had to pay costs. For not reading the bans for the bigamous marriage his prosecutor, acting for the proprietor, was the same lawyer that had acted for Rachel Beck but after 2 years he dropped the case. This left Thomas Bacon in a desperate financial state and in very low spirits. In 1957 he wrote to his old friend Henry Callister begging for a spade and some seed, to tend a small plot of land that he had, and other basic provisions.

Thomas Bacon at All Saints Parish

The fortune of Thomas Bacon took another twist in 1760 when he was made Rector of All Saints Parish in Frederick County (named after the then Proprietor), which was said to be the best living in the colony. This was said to be worth that of a Bishopric back in England at £1000. It was a very large parish spread across such a distance that it later crossed 5 separate counties with 2 of the churches 40 miles apart. He had also become Baltimore's domestic chaplain in Maryland.

Laws of Maryland

Facsimile composite of sections of the Laws of Maryland title page.

Back in 1753 he had started to compile an Abridged compilation of the Laws of Maryland in alphabetical order which he had essentially completed by 1758. He had then approached the Legislative Assembly to permit and fund him to have published and printed the Laws of Maryland. Apart from the literary difficulty of collating all the separate statutes into one volume this was beset with problems. There was the difficulty of raising money for such an ambitious undertaking, the fact that new laws would be passed during the long process but not least of all the political disputes between the elected lower house seeking to rebel against the appointed upper house and the proprietor, Lord Baltimore, in the early rumblings of the revolution. He refused to leave out two laws disputed by a political group known as the Patriots and they did everything they could to block the publication.

Eventually the bill to publish was passed and funding was found to the estimated £1000 required in the form of subscription and this included from Lord Baltimore himself the sum of £100 which on completion he turned into a gift for Bacon along with a gold snuff box. Many other subscribers had been members of the Tuesday club.

Thomas Bacon used his time at All Saints in Frederick to finish this great work of all Maryland's laws since the first in 1638 and included the Maryland Charter and other useful appendices. It was 1762 before the manuscript had been verified with the original statutes and was ready to print although printing was apparently delayed by lack of suitable paper and the quality type, incidentally being supplied by his brother Anthony from England. It was 1765 before it was printed by Jonas Green in Annapolis and another year before the bound copies were ready. The eventual work was 1000 pages on the largest paper and was of a quality unsurpassed in America at that time. It became a very important historical document of the formation of Maryland.

In 1764 two articles questioning and criticising the proprietary government of Maryland appeared. The rather fancy language used appeared to emanate from the pen of Benjamin Franklin. A reply was published that defended the Proprietor, Lord Baltimore, and his government. It is thought that this reply which ran to 160 pages, was drafted by Thomas Bacon and edited by Cecilius Calvert. It was much more plain-speaking, but none the less cutting, and basically branded the other author as a liar of the lowest kind. He starts off with:-

"…good and generous men would unite in discountenancing and despising those pests of society who first suppose and then circulate their poisonous suppositions…"

then gives answers to the questions and provides rebuttals to the criticism and finishes with:-

"… [I] have laid open and exposed to public view their [Franklin's] ill-grounded suspicions, false facts, and fallacious reasonings. The envy, hatred, and malice interspersed throughout their puerile performances, have carried them beyond all bounds. By frequent innuendos, and sometimes by open, barefaced calumny, they have endeavoured to traduce and asperse the character of the present Lord Baltimore…"

Lord Baltimore had always supported Bacon but one wonders if Thomas would have returned the compliment had he known the full extent of Frederick's debauched lifestyle back in Europe.

Shortly before his death Thomas Bacon was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.

After publication of his great work his health declined and he died on 24th May 1768. He left his wife Elizabeth and three daughters. His estate was modest but included portraits of his brother and Bishop Wilson plus his harpsichord and 2 violins. The eldest daughter Elizabeth went to stay with her Uncle Anthony in Wales who bequeathed her £10,000 and she married Geo. Price Watkins and lived until 1843. Rachel married Rizden Bozman Harwood a wealthy landowner from Talbot County who produced two daughters that went to live in Baltimore. The last daughter Mary, known as Polly, married into another mercantile family in Dorchester with her marriage to Moses Passapa on 13 Oct 1784.

A hundred years after his death his school still stood but since before the revolution it had become a house for the poor.

Thomas Bacon and his brother Anthony were incredibly successful in different ways but both were almost forgotten by history especially in their home town of Whitehaven because their triumphs were largely elsewhere. Thomas has his name preserved by the books he wrote but little else. However, Dr. Griswold of the Towson Early Music Ensemble has uncovered Bacon's music and revived it in recitals. Thus the man who at his lowest point wrote to his friend Henry Callister , "Music has departed, and gone into another world, from me", can now be heard after his death.


Excerpts of Bacon's music.

Return to Whitehaven People

ref: Hutchinson's History of Cumberland 1794
Rev. Thomas Bacon - Ethan Allen (1865) Library of Congress
Archives of Maryland Online
The Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800 - Pollard

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