By Jeffrey Garth Edmunds
The Central Rappahannock region produced many of the men who led the fight for independence and fashioned the new American nation. Some are remembered and afforded their due. Some, like John Francis Mercer, are not remembered - but should be….
To appreciate how the career of John Francis Mercer unfolded one must first understand the place he inherited in late-colonial Virginia society -- for he was no ordinary "Joe"!
John Francis's father was John Mercer (1704-68) who came to Virginia from Dublin as a youth, succeeded as a lawyer beyond the dreams of avarice and died (in fine Virginia fashion) simultaneously very wealthy and much in debt. It was John Mercer who established the family seat at Marlborough Point on the Potomac, in Stafford County.
John Mercer of Marlborough had four sons of note. The eldest, George Mercer (1733-84), served to the rank of captain in the Virginia Regiment during the French & Indian War. He was George Washington's aide-de-camp at Fort Necessity and was wounded there. He became a brother of Fredericksburg Lodge No.4 and a Virginia burgess. In 1763, he became the London agent of the Ohio Company. His appointment as stamp collector for Virginia in 1765 proved so disastrously unpopular that he spent the rest of his life in England.
John Mercer's second son, John Fenton Mercer (1735-1756) was also a captain in the Virginia Regiment. He was killed and scalped by Indians near Fort Edwards (in modern West Virginia) on 18 April 1756.
John Mercer's third son was Judge James Mercer (1735-93). Like his brothers, he was an officer in the Virginia Regiment and at one point commanded at Fort Loudoun (modern Winchester, Virginia). It appears to have been Judge James Mercer who succeeded to his father's estate and who lived at Marlborough during the Revolution.
Judge James was a Virginia burgess and a great man in the Rappahannock Valley for many years. During the Revolutionary crisis, he was a key member of the Virginia Committee of Safety. He was a highly influential Freemason. He not only served Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 as Worshipful Master in 1777, but he also went on to become the second Grand Master of Masons in Virginia from 1784 to 1786! He capped his public career serving on the Commonwealth's highest courts.
With the 3rd Virginia
Is it any wonder then that John Mercer's fourth son, John Francis Mercer, had no trouble gaining an officer's commission when he wanted one? John Francis Mercer was born at Marlborough on 17 May 1759 and educated by private tutors. He lost his father when he was only 9 years old. When the American Revolution erupted, he was at the College of William & Mary with his good friend James Monroe. Early in 1776, he wrangled military appointments with the newly organized 3rd Virginia Regiment, first as an officer cadet, and then as a first lieutenant in William Washington's Company. He was commissioned 26 February 1776 - at the age of 16. (It should be stated for the record that John Francis was not kin to the commanding officer of the 3rd Virginia, Colonel Hugh Mercer!).
He was presumably engaged at the Battle of Harlem Heights, 16 September 1776. He was certainly engaged and wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, 11 September 1777. He must have performed his duties well enough as a lieutenant, because after the battle he was promoted captain ("to rank from 27th June 1777"). He endured the hard winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge.
Loyal Friend to General (Charles) Lee
In June 1778, he left the 3rd Virginia Regiment to serve as aide-de-camp to General Charles Lee, at the rank of major. When that controversial officer was sacked after the Battle of Monmouth, Major Mercer resigned his own commission on 2 July 1779 and went home to Marlborough. General Lee never forgot Mercer's loyalty. In the General's will we find this: "To my friend John [Francis] Mercer of Marlborough, in Virginia, I give and bequeath the choice of two brood mares, of all my swords and pistols, and ten guineas to buy a ring. I would give him more, but, as he has a good estate and a better genius, he has sufficient if he knows how to make good use of them."
John Francis Mercer studied law under Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg, but not for long. The Revolutionary War was still raging, so he raised and equipped at his own expense (!) a troop of cavalrymen. Joining General Robert Lawson's brigade, he served at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781, and elsewhere until the brigade was disbanded. He then attached his command to the forces under the Marquis de Lafayette. Lt. Col. Mercer fought his last battles at Green Spring and at Gloucester Point, in late 1781. He was a witness to the British surrender at Yorktown.
His post-war career was distinguished. From 1782 till 1785, he was a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress. In 1785 he married into a wealthy Maryland family, removed to his wife's plantation, Cedar Park, joined the Freemasons, and became a leader in Maryland politics. Mercer was a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In fact, at 28 he was the second youngest of all the delegates. He quickly established himself as a vocal foe of big government. Like his kinsman George Mason of Gunston Hall, he believed that weaknesses in the proposed U.S. Constitution did not adequately protect the rights of ordinary citizens from potential government tyranny. He refused to sign it, and fought its adoption. He published many of his Anti-Federalist views under the pseudonym, "A Maryland Farmer."
As a Democratic-Republican critic of George Washington's presidency, he enjoyed great political success. Mercer served a term as a U.S. congressman, 1792-94; was governor of Maryland 1801-03; and spent many years in the Maryland state legislature. Governor Mercer was long a trusted personal and political friend of Thomas Jefferson. But he broke with the Democratic-Republicans when they backed war with Great Britain in 1812 - he opposed the war -- and allied himself for a time with the Federalists.
Ill health plagued him in his later years. He was in Philadelphia seeking medical advice when he died on 30 August 1821, aged 62. His remains rested temporarily in Philadelphia's St. Peter's Church before being removed to a permanent gravesite at his Cedar Park home in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland.
No monument in his memory has ever been raised. A rural county in northern Missouri was named in his honor in 1845 (for reasons not learned). A portrait of him hangs in the Maryland Statehouse.
A Footnote: Was Marlborough Attacked in 1776?
Marlborough overlooked the point where Potomac Creek empties into the Potomac River, in Stafford County. Now entirely vanished, it was an opulent estate.
Marlborough may even have been attacked! As reported in Purdie's Virginia Gazette, 2 August 1776, "Lord Dunmore with his motley band of pirates and renegadoes have burnt the elegant brick house of William Brent, esq., at the mouth of Aquia Creek, in Stafford County, as also two other houses lower down the Potomac River, both the property of widow ladies."
Nothing is said there of Marlborough but your author has seen, in the application for a widow's pension submitted by Mrs. Mary Posey in 1834, this interesting detail: "…my husband George Thornton [of Stafford County] was first a militia officer…; as such he was at the bombardment of Marlboro, the seat of Judge Mercer, on the Potomac, that again, being in the legislature of Virginia he was sent out against Lord Dunmore, that he returned home and shortly afterwards …was commissioned a major in the Virginia Line…." (See: Goode, Virginia Cousins, p. 213).
The application is vague about dates, but seems clearly to indicate that the Mercer family manse was one of the properties fired upon by Dunmore's motley "pirates and renegadoes" in July/August 1776, even while Mercer was under arms with the Continental Army!
King, George H. S. "Notes from the Journal of John Mercer, Esquire (1704/5-1768) of Marlborough, Stafford County, Virginia," Virginia Genealogist, Vol. 4, No. 3, July-September 1960.
A useful source for the Mercer family background by a Fredericksburg historian.
Miller, Helen Hill. "A Portrait of an Irascible Gentleman: John Mercer of Marlborough," Virginia Cavalcade, Vol. 26, No. 2, Autumn 1977.
An excellent and illustrated article on Mercer's wealthy father and family.
Rossiter, Clinton. 1787: The Grand Convention.
A fine study of the Constitutional Convention at which Mercer figured prominently.
Watkins, C. Malcolm. The Cultural History of Marlborough, Virginia.
An archaeologically oriented study of the now-vanished Mercer family seat.
Willis, Barbara Pratt. "John Francis Mercer - Delegate to the Constitutional Convention," in Foundation Stones of Stafford County, Virginia, vol. 2, pp. 24-8 (1992)
A good, local historian looks at Mercer.
Biographical Resources Online
What did John Francis Mercer Look Like?
Google Images provides access to a portrait.
John Francis Mercer's Works Online
A number of Mercer's Anti-Federalist Writings:
Reenactor Resources Online
Mercer's three older brothers all served under Col. George Washington in this regiment and fought to protect Virginia's frontiers from the French and the Shawnee. One of them was killed in action, at the so-called "Mercer Massacre." Modern Central Virginia re-enactors bring the regiment to life once more.