Although it generally disappears from the narratives of American history once the seat of national government departs Philadelphia in 1800, Pennsylvania was quite simply the ground floor of American democracy. The Keystone State produced no Jeffersons or Adamses, and its only president (James Buchanan) ranks comfortably in the bottom three, but this was the state where democratic politics, American-style, was invented. Given that Pennsylvania had early America's least stratified, most ethnically diverse electorate and most consistently liberal suffrage requirements, it should come as no surprise that such long-term features of American democracy as the political party, the presidential campaign, the nominating convention, and the partisan newspaper all started here.
Pennsylvania's fractious political history begins with the conflict over the state's ultraradical constitution of 1776. Written under the direct influence of Thomas Paine and the plebeian and middle-class militiamen who spearheaded Pennsylvania's belated independence movement, the 1776 constitution dispensed with the classical republican ideal of "mixed government" and vested nearly all power in a unicameral assembly elected under conditions of almost universal white manhood suffrage. That is, all "freemen" aged twenty-one or older who paid taxes or whose father paid taxes could vote and hold office. The legislature was constitutionally required to meet with its doors open to the public at all times. There was no upper house to check the people's annually elected representatives, and a chief executive called the president was elected by the legislature and had no veto power. The constitution would be enforced not by unelected judges but, rather, by a popularly elected Council of Censors that would convene to revise the constitution every seven years.
Bitter divisions over the constitution of 1776 and its radically democratic ideals defined the first party battle in Pennsylvania state politics and formed the backdrop for all further developments, as Philadelphia radicals and their rural allies tried to keep the state's uniquely democratic and egalitarian revolutionary legacy alive and others tried to curb or squelch it. No one dared to attack democracy or equality in principle, but many of Philadelphia's most prominent and erudite men, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, Judge James Wilson, and Chief Justice Thomas McKean, became harsh detractors of the 1776 constitution, pushing for a more conservative and conventional government with a bicameral legislature, a stronger executive, and a more independent judiciary. After more than a decade of opposition, these so-called Republicans finally succeeded in getting the new state constitution they wanted in 1790; many were also strong supporters of the new, less democratic federal Constitution that was written in Philadelphia. The radicals who defended the original document were known as Constitutionalists, a confusing appellation because many Pennsylvania Constitutionalists leaned against the generally antidemocratic federal Constitution.
The 1790 constitution created an assembly with annual terms and a state Senate whose members were elected to four-year terms. The old state "presidency" was replaced with a governor who was elected by the people every three years and had both the authority to veto legislation and the power to appoint an extensive array of state and county officials, right down to local recorders of deeds and justices of the peace. Judges in the expanded state court system were appointed by the governor and served for life ("during good behavior"). Although many Constitutionalists continued to prefer the old system, conflicts over the state government died down during the nine-year governorship of Thomas Mifflin, a popular war hero generally supported by all factions. Increasingly, over Mifflin's term, the real power accumulated in the hands of his right-hand man, Secretary of the Commonwealth Alexander J. Dallas, an ambitious lawyer recently emigrated from Jamaica.
Dallas was deeply involved in the emergence of the new political division that emerged in the 1790s, this time stemming from Philadelphia's status as the seat of national government. The "national" political controversies that broke out in the Cabinet and the Congress between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and their followers were also local ones in Philadelphia as they spilled out into the streets and the press. The nascent national political parties (the Federalists who supported Hamilton's policies and thought of themselves more as friends of the government than as a party per se, and the Jeffersonian opposition who usually referred to themselves as Republicans but were often referred to by their enemies as "democrats or "Jacobins") battled over Philadelphia's Bank of the United States and fought for public approbation through Philadelphia newspapers that circulated nationally. When Citizen Edmond Genêt arrived and sparked the formation of the Democratic-Republican Societies, Philadelphia had the largest and most active ones.
As the epicenter of national political conflict, Philadelphia, followed by the rest of the state, led the nation in the development of party politics. Republican John Swanwick won one of the first clearly party-contested congressional elections in 1794, and a coterie of Philadelphians led by Clerk of the House of Representatives John Beckley and the Aurora newspaper mounted the first serious popular presidential campaign, for Thomas Jefferson, in 1796, carrying the state and almost the election for the opposition leader.
The Jeffersonian Republicans finally took power in the state in 1799, when Chief Justice McKean beat Federalist James Ross of Pittsburgh in the race to succeed Mifflin. A key factor in McKean's victory was the swing of many German Lutheran voters away from the Federalists in the wake of the offensive Direct Tax of 1798 (called the "Window Tax" for the one of the methods that assessors used to determine a taxpayer's wealth) and the overzealous, xenophobic suppression of Fries's Rebellion in the German areas of eastern Pennsylvania.
The Federalists remained competitive in certain areas of the state (especially the southeast) through the 1820s, but after 1799 they were reduced to playing spoiler or kingmaker in statewide elections. In 1800, Federalists in the state Senate prevented Pennsylvania from holding a popular presidential election at all, so certain were they of losing again. Luckily for the Federalists, the majority Republicans (increasingly either adding "Democratic" to their name after 1800 or switching to "Democrat") were plagued by factionalism. The old divide between Constitutionalists and Republicans reemerged with a vengeance after 1802, as radicals led by Aurora editor and Irish political refugee William Duane and Congressman Michael Leib clashed with McKean over impeachments and reforms of the court system and constitution designed to help more litigants avoid the need to hire lawyers, make judges more democratically accountable, and reduce the governor's appointment powers. McKean's vetoes of the reform legislation and his widely reported remarks about the "clodpoles and ignoramuses" who supported the reforms led to an 1805 reelection challenge by Speaker of the House Simon Snyder, a German of rural working-class roots who became the state's most popular political figure in the early nineteenth century. McKean barely won the 1805 election, but only by gaining support from Federalists and a breakaway faction of so-called "Constitutional Republicans." They were led by Alexander Dallas and consisted mostly of wealthier men, attorneys, and officeholders grown conservative in power and restive under the "tyranny of printers" such as Duane. The Aurora labeled the schismatics Quids, meaning "a hermaphrodite thing, partaking of two characters, and yet having neither!"
In 1808, all the Republicans united behind Snyder, who trounced James Ross in a campaign managed by Snyder's friend, editor John Binns of the Democratic Press, an immigrant radical like Duane but much more ideologically flexible. Relations cooled quickly between Duane's Philadelphia radicals and the more rural Snyderites, amid disagreements over the Republican establishment's increasing enthusiasm for banks and other economic development schemes that "Old School" Democrats such as Duane considered corrupt unless tightly controlled. The "New School" of Binns's Snyderites, allied with Dallas's Quids, dominated the state during most of the War of 1812 era and won recognition from the James Madison administration as the regular Democratic-Republican organization in Pennsylvania. The Old School men even cooperated with certain Federalists for a time in efforts to replace Madison with De Witt Clinton in the presidential election of 1812. Trying to break the New School's stranglehold on offices and patronage, Duane's Old School repeatedly challenged the prevailing legislative caucus system of nominating candidates for high office. The caucus was especially aberrant in Pennsylvania, where local public meetings had been the major form of party nominations since the 1790s.
The Old School Democrats' anti-caucus campaign finally met with some success after the War of 1812 during the misnamed Era of Good Feeling. A group of Old School men and disaffected Federalists meeting as "Independent Republicans" held Pennsylvania's first two-party conventions at Carlisle in 1816 and 1817 and nominated Joseph Hiester, who narrowly lost to the New School's man William Findlay, state treasurer under Snyder but a creature of the state's burgeoning business interests. Financial scandals in Findlay's administration, together with the Panic of 1819, enabled the Old School to run Hiester successfully in 1820. Thanks to a generational turnover in leadership, the regular, New School Democrats were increasingly known as the "Family" party after the three Philadelphia brothers-in-law who were its leaders: Postmaster Richard Bache, leading attorney Thomas Sergeant, and Alexander Dallas's son, future Vice President George Mifflin Dallas.
Left leaderless by Hiester's distaste for party politicking and Duane's financial collapse, the remnants of the Old School (including Duane's son and other Aurora veterans) could not prevent the Family's return to power in 1823. Yet that same year, they were crucial to the surprise launch of Andrew Jackson's presidential candidacy by a political convention in Harrisburg that upset the Family's plan to throw the state behind John C. Calhoun. The next decade saw a vicious factional battle for the mantle of Pennsylvania Jacksonianism that the Family, or "Eleventh-Hour Men," eventually won.
- Baumann, Roland M.
"John Swanwick: Spokesman for 'Merchant Republicanism' in Philadelphia, 1790–98."Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 97 (April 1973): 131–182.
- Brunhouse, Robert L.
The Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1776–1790.Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1971.
- Ferguson, Robert J.
Early Western Pennsylvania Politics.Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1938.
- Higginbotham, Sanford W.
The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800–1816.Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1952.
- Kehl, James A.
Ill Feeling in the Era of Good Feeling: Western Pennsylvania Political Battles, 1815–1825.Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956.
- Keller, Kenneth W.
"Cultural Conflict in Early Nineteenth-Century Pennsylvania Politics."Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 110 (1986): 509–530.
- Klein, Philip Shriver.
Pennsylvania Politics, 1817–1832: A Game Without Rules.Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1940.
- Koschnik, Albrecht.
"The Democratic Societies of Philadelphia and the Limits of the American Public Sphere, Circa 1793–1795."William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series 58(3) (July 2001): 615–636.
- Miller, Randall M. and William Pencak, eds.
Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.University Park and Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State University Press and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002. (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941-44).
- Newman, Paul Douglas.
Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
- Pasley, Jeffrey L.
"'A Journeyman, Either in Law or Politics': John Beckley and the Social Origins of Political Campaigning."Journal of the Early Republic, 16(4) (Winter 1996): 531–569.
- Pasley, Jeffrey L.
"The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
- Phillips, Kim T.
"Democrats of the Old School in the Era of Good Feelings."Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 95 (July 1971): 363–382.
"The Pennsylvania Origins of the Jackson Movement."Political Science Quarterly, 91(3) (Fall 1976): 489–508.
"William Duane, Philadelphia's Democratic Republicans, and the Origins of Modern Politics."Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 101 (1977): 365–387.
- Phillips, Kim Tousley.
"William Duane, Revolutionary Editor."Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1968.
- Sapio, Victor A.
Pennsylvania and the War of 1812.Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.
- Shankman, Andrew.
Crucible of American Democracy: The Struggle to Fuse Egalitarianism and Capitalism in Jeffersonian Pennsylvania.Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
- Slaughter, Thomas P.
The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution.New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Tagg, James D.
Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Philadelphia "Aurora."Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
- Tinkcom, Harry Marlin.
The Republicans and the Federalists in Pennsylvania, 1790–1801: A Study in National Stimulus and Local Response.Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950.
With the fading of the Federalist party in many areas and the lack of organized political "parties" in the modern-sense, several candidates for election were often described in terms of their support for a single candidate.
New York 1806-08: Morgan Lewis was the Governor of New York from 1804-07. He was elected in 1804 with the support of DeWitt Clinton, but after their split, those supporters of Lewis would be described as such in many newspapers.
Pennsylvania 1805, 1811: With the split in the Republican Party in Pennsylvania in 1805 (See
"A strong and aggressive Federalist Party had contributed much to the Republican victory in Pennsylvania in 1799. It had forged Republican unity and, by its excesses, had added large numbers to the ranks of its opponents. After the election of 1800 Federalism in the State declined precipitately; and within two years John Quincy Adams was to describe it as 'so completely palsied, that scarcely a trace of it is to be discovered except in here and there a newspaper edited by New England men.' (ft: John Quincy Adams to Rufus King, October 8, 1802 in Charles R. King (ed.) The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, 6 vols. (New York, 1894-1900), IV, 176.) Gratifying as such a metamorphosis must have been to the Republicans, it was not without its cost. The virtual disappearance of Federalism weakened the compulsion for unity and gave play to Republican differences on measures and men which by 1802 had resulted in a number of local divisions in the party." (The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800-1816. Sanford W. Higginbotham. 1952. p 25)
"Whatever the true explanation of these intricate political maneuvers, the  senatorial election had disclosed division in the Republican ranks. The party had begun a new era in its history." (Higginbotham, p 34)
Pennsylvania 1808, 1813-14: Michael Leib was elected in 1808 as a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. In that same year, Thomas Humphreys, a candidate for the Bank Director of the Bank of Philadelphia was described by The True American as "Leib's candidate." Later, in 1813 and 1814, factions would develop in the Republican Party and many candidates for elections in these two years would be described by The Democratic Press (Philadelphia) as Leibites.
Much of the division in Pennsylvania, and specifically, Philadelphia politics stemmed from those supporters of Simon Snyder, who was the Speaker of the House, and later Governor, and Michael Leib, whose power over the Republican party lead to the Constitutionalists, those supporters of then governor Thomas McKean, to split away from the Republican Party in Pennsylvania as a whole and form their own party for several years, from 1805-1808.
"The new era was dominated by two themes. The first of these was the national issue of supporting the administration's foreign policy, including the War of 1812. Party lines were sharply drawn, and a strong Federalist minority took an active part in politics. The second was the bitter feud between the Leib-Duane faction and the followers of Snyder. This persisted in full rancor throughout the period and was only partially subdued by the compulsion for the Democratic unity exerted by the War of 1812." (Higginbotham, p 177
"The second period, which ended with the election of 1808, was characterized by two main questions - whether the Federalist-Quid coalition was to form the basis of a permanent new party; and whether the city Democrats, led by Leib and Duane, or the country Democrats, controlled by the adherents of Snyder, should dominate the party. The growing importance of foreign relations arising out of American neutrality in the Napoleonic wars settled the first question in the negative and forced the postponement of a decision of the second. In the face of a resurgent Federalism, Pennsylvania Republicans suppressed their differences and united in a successful support of Snyder, Madison, and the embargo. Foreign affairs continued to be important for the next three years; but congressional vacillation and the relaxing of Federalist efforts within the State permitted the Snyderites and the Duane-Leib faction, now known as the Old School, to fight out their battle for control of the party. The Olmsted affair offered the occasion, and for a time it appeared that the Old School might be victorious. However, its own intemperate violence and political blundering redounded to the benefit of the Governor adn his adherents; and by 1811 Duane had forsworn State politics, and the Old School consisted only of Leib and a few hangers-on. The Snyderites not only dominated the State as a whole, but, acting through Binns, had achieved supremacy in Philadelphia." (Higginbotham, p 328-329.
Pennsylvania 1819 Speaker of the House: Joseph Lawrence is listed as a Findlayite. In the same election, Rees Hill is listed as a Binnsman by the American Republican of December 14, 1819 and as a Binnite by the Crawford Weekly Messenger (Meadville) of December 17, 1819. The Village Record of December 15, 1819 lists Lawrence as an Administration candidate and Hill as an Anti-Administration candidate.
Commissioner: A member of a permanently constituted commission or government board.
Oxford English Dictionary
In most states, the main political unit was the County, and Commissioners were responsible of maintaining the county roads, poor house, county buildings, collection of taxes and other related business.
1787 - 1824: Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania
Office Scope: County / Town(ship) / Hundred / District
Role Scope: County / Town(ship) / Hundred / District
Scope Note: In most of Pennyslvania, this is a County position, but due to the minor civil divisions around Philadelphia, it is also a position for the township of Northern Liberties and the District of Spring Garden.