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.
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Convention President: Presiding officer of a Constitutional Convention.
1811 - 1820: Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri
Office Scope: State / Territory / District
Role Scope: State / Territory / District