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.
The Federalist Party
The Federalist Party was dominated by a man who never actually ran for public office in the United States - Alexander Hamilton. "Alexander Hamilton was, writes Marcus Cunliffe, 'the executive head with the most urgent program to implement, with the sharpest ideas of what he meant to do and with the boldest desire to shape the national government accordingly.' In less than two years he presented three reports, defining a federal economic program which forced a major debate not only on the details of the program but on the purpose for which the union has been formed. Hamilton's own sense of purpose was clear; he would count the revolution for independence a success only if it were followed by the creation of a prosperous commerical nation, comparable, perhaps even competitive, in power and in energy, with its European counterparts." (fn: Marcus Cunliffe, The Nation Takes Shape, 1789-1837, (Chicago, 1959), 23.) (Linda K. Kerber, History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher. p. 11)
"Federalists created their political program out of a political vision. They had shared in the revolutionaries' dream of a Republic of Virtue, and they emerged from a successful war against empire to search for guarantees that the republican experiment would not collapse." (Kerber, p. 3)
"The Federalist political demand was for a competent government, one responsible for the destiny of the nation and with the power to direct what that destiny would be. What was missing in postwar America, they repeatedly complained in a large variety of contexts, was order, predictability, stability. A competent government would guarantee the prosperity and external security of the nation; a government of countervailing balances was less likely to be threatened by temporary lapses in civic virtue, while remaining strictly accountable to the public will." (Kerber, p. 4)
"So long as Federalists controlled and staffed the agencies of the national government, the need to formulate alternate mechanisms for party decision making was veiled; with a Federalist in the White House, Federalists in the Cabinet, and Federalist majorities in Congress, the very institutional agencies of the government would themselves be the mechanism of party. Federal patronage could be used to bind party workers to the Federalist 'interest.' 'The reason of allowing Congress to appoint its own officers of the Customs, collectors of the taxes and military officers of every rank,' Hamilton said, 'is to create in the interior of each State, a mass of influence in favor of the Federal Government.' (fn: Alexander Hamilton, 1782, quoted in Lisle A. Rose, Prologue to Democracy: The Federalists in the South, 1789-1800, (Lexington, Kentucky, 1968), 3.) Federalists though of themselves as a government, not as a party; their history in the 1790's would be the history of alignments within the government, rather than of extrernal alignments which sought to influence the machinery of government." (Kerber, p. 10)
"Major national issues invigorated the process of party formation; as state groups came, slowly and hesitantly, to resemble each other. The issues on which pro-administration and anti-administration positions might be assumed increased in number and in obvious significance; the polarity of the parties became clearer." (Kerber, p. 11)
"As Adams' presidential decisions sequentially created a definition of the administration's goals as clear as Hamilton's funding program had once done, the range of political ideology which called itself Federalist simply became too broad to the party successfully to cast over it a unifying umbrella. Federalists were unified in their response to the XYZ Affair, and in their support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which passed as party measures in the Fifth Congress, but in little else. The distance between Adams and Hamilton - in political philosophy, in willingness to contemplate war with France, in willingness to manipulate public opinion - was unbridgable; Hamilton's ill-tempered anti-Adams pamphlet of 1800 would be confirmation of a long-established distaste." (Kerber, p. 14)
"One result of the war was to add to Federalist strength and party cohesion. There were several varieties of Federalist congressional opinion on the war: most believed that the Republicans had fomented hard feeling with England so that their party could pose as defende of American honor; many believed that in the aftermath of what they were sure to be an unsuccessful war the Republicans would fall from power and Federalists would be returned to office . . . Regardless of the region from which they came, Federalists voted against the war with virtual unanimity." (Kerber, p. 24)
"As an anti-war party, Federalists retained their identity as an opposition well past wartime into a period that is usually known as the Era of Good Feelings and assumed to be the occasion of a one party system. In 1816, Federalists 'controlled the state governments of Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts; they cast between forty percent and fifty percent of the popular votes in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont...Such wide support did not simply vanish...' (fn: Shaw Livermore, Jr. The Twilight of Federalism: The Disintegration of the Federalist Party 1815-1830, (Princeton, 1962), 265.) Rather, that support remained available, and people continued to attempt to make careers as Federalists (though, probably fewer initiated new careers as Federalists). Because men like Rufus King and Harrison Gray Otis retained their partisan identity intact, when real issues surfaced, like the Missouri debates of 1820, a 'formed opposition' still remained to respond to a moral cause and to oppose what they still thought of as a 'Virginia system.' Each of the candidates, including Jackson in the disputed election of 1824 had Federalist supporters, and their presence made a difference; Shaw Livermore argues that the central 'corrupt bargain' was not Adams' with Clay, but Adams' promise of patronage to Federalists which caused Webster to deliver the crucial Federalist votes that swung the election. If the war had increased Federalist strength, it also, paradoxically, had operated to decrease it, for prominent Federalists rallied to a beleaguered government in the name of unity and patriotism. These wartime republicans included no less intense Federalists than Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut and William Plumer of New Hampshire, both of whom went on to become Republican governors of their respective states, and in their careers thus provide emblems for the beginning of a one party period, and the slow breakdown of the first party system." (Kerber, p. 24)
"The dreams of the Revolution had been liberty and order, freedom and power; in seeking to make these dreams permanent, to institutionalize some things means to lose others. The Federalists, the first to be challenged by power, would experience these contradictions most sharply; a party that could include John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Noah Webster, would be its own oxymoron. In the end the party perished out of internal contradiction and external rival, but the individuals who staffed it continued on to staff its succesors." (Kerber, p, 25)
- History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher.
- The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. David Hackett Fischer. New York, 1965, Harper and Row.
- The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. New York, 1993, Oxford University Press.
The Federalists were referred to by many monikers over the years by newspapers.
- In 1809, The Concord Gazette refers to the Federalist Ticket as the American Ticket.
- Beginning in 1810, the Newburyport Herald (MA), began referring to Federalists as the American Party (as opposed to the "French" Party, who were Republicans). This continued in the 1811 elections.
The Aurora, based in Philadelphia, the most well-known Republican newspaper of the era (see American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns by Richard N. Rosenfeld.) in the February 11, 1800 issue referred to Mr. Holmes, the losing candidate for the Special Election for the Philadelphia County seat in the House of Representatives as an "anti-republican".
The October 7, 1799 issue of the Maryland Herald (Easton) referred to the Federalist ticket of Talbot County as Federal Republicans. It would continue to be used intermittently throughout the next 20 years. Newspapers that used this term included the Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia) and Philadelphia Gazette in 1800, the Newport Mercury in 1808, the New Bedford Mercury in 1810, the True American (Philadelphia) in 1812, the Northumberland Republican (Sunbury) in 1815, the United States Gazette (Philadelphia) in 1816 and the Union (Philadelphia) in 1821 and 1822.
Friends of Peace / Peace / Peace Ticket:
Beginning in 1812 ("In laying before our readers the above Canvass of this county, a few remarks become necessary, to refute the Assertion of the war party, that the Friends of Peace are decreasing in this country." Northern Whig (Hudson). May 11, 1812.) and continuing through to 1815 a number of newspapers referred to the Federalists as the Peace Party (or Peacemaker Party, as the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill) of March 19, 1814 used), as the Peace Ticket or as the Friends of Peace due to their opposition of the War of 1812 (many of these same newspapers referred to the Republicans as the War Party). This use occurred all through at least August of 1815, with the Raleigh Minerva of August 18, 1815 referring to the Federalist candidates as Peace candidates.
These newspapers include the Columbian Centinel (Boston), Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill), Providence Gazette, the New York Evening Post, the New York Spectator, the Commercial Advertiser (New York), Northern Whig (Hudson), the Broome County Patriot (Chenango Point), the Independent American (Ballston Spa), the Baltimore Patriot, the Alexandria Gazette, Poulson's, Middlesex Gazette (Middletown), the Political and Commercial Register (Philadelphia), Freeman's Journal (Philadelphia), the Carlisle Herald, Northampton Farmer, Intelligencer and Weekly Advertiser (Lancaster), National Intelligencer (Washington), The Federal Republican (New Bern), the Raleigh Minerva, The Star (Raleigh) and Charleston Courier.
The New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth) took the opposite side, listing the Federalists in the March 16, 1813 edition as "Advocates of Dishonorable Peace and Submission."
"The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Jeffrey L. Pasley. Charlottesville, 2001, University Press of Virginia.
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.