Thomas Kennedy was born in Scotland in 1776, but decided to emigrate to America when he was just 19 years old, in 1795. He arrived in Georgetown, and eventually moved to the Williamsport area, after he married a woman named Rosamond Thomas who was from Frederick. There he owned a saw mill, and was a well known member of the community. He served in the militia during the War of 1812 (in the 1814 Defense of Washington). He also wrote poetry.
Thomas was interested in many different things, especially politics and social issues. In 1817 he was elected to serve as a Delegate in the Maryland General Assembly. At that time in Maryland to hold elected office a person had to swear allegiance to the Christian religion. This meant that Jewish people were not allowed to hold office.
Article 6, Section 3 of the US Constitution states, “No religious test shall ever be required for any office or public trust under the United States.” Additionally the first Amendment to the Constitution promises freedom of religion for all people. Thomas Kennedy felt that the Maryland requirement was incorrect and unfair, and should be eliminated.
In 1818 he sponsored a bill that would allow “people professing the Jewish religion the same rights and privileges that are enjoyed by Christians.” It became known as the “Jew Bill.” A lot of people didn’t trust this idea, and were angry with Thomas Kennedy. They called him names and said he was an enemy of Christianity. The bill was defeated, but not Thomas Kennedy. In the next session of the legislature he introduced the bill again and it was again defeated. People continued to be angry with Kennedy so in 1823 he was not reelected to the General Assembly.
Even though he was not in office Kennedy talked to people about how unfair the laws were. He said “although exiled at home, I shall continue to battle for the measure, aye, until my last drop of blood.”
In 1825 he ran again and this time was reelected. Soon after he reintroduced the bill and this time it passed! A few months later, people in Baltimore elected two Jewish men to serve on the City Council.
It had taken eight years to convince people that the law was needed and Thomas Kennedy never gave up. He said to people:
“Even on a dying pillow, it will comfort to think that we have done at least one good act in our lives, that we have been instrumental in establishing religious freedom in Maryland, that we have broken the yoke of superstition and prejudice, and let the oppressed go free, and that we have caused happiness to many an anxious heart.”
Thomas Kennedy continued to serve in the legislature but he also did other important things in our community. Since another interest was writing, he helped established the Hagerstown Mail newspaper and served as its editor. He died in 1832 during an Asiatic cholera epidemic in Hagerstown. Today, he is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery. In 1918, Jewish citizens from all around Maryland contributed to a monument to be built on his burial site. On it are inscribed the words “One who loved his fellow man.”
Today in the Maryland House of Delegates an award is given every year to a member or former member who is recognized for his or her outstanding contribution to the democratic process, it is called the Thomas Kennedy Award. It is known to be the highest honor in the General Assembly. In 1995, the first year that the award was given, one of Western Maryland’s Delegates, Casper Taylor explained that Thomas Kennedy’s work explains two things, “that democracy works, but only if you work at it, and that to be an effective member of this House requires patience, persistence, and a lot of hard labor.”