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.
Republican splinter parties
New Jersey 1820: Several newspapers, including the Elizabeth-Town Gazette and the True American (Philadelphia) listed a separate ticket of dissident Republicans for the U.S. House of Representatives race in New Jersey in 1820, referred to as the "Anti-Caucus" ticket. Nominations for At Large candidates on a state wide level could often cause problems. Rotation of candidates, or lack thereof, from different regions/counties would sometimes cause dissension, and occasionally regional candidates, often an incumbent who had been dropped from the list, would be set up in opposition. As the Federalist Party declined, the process of country meetings, conventions and the Legislative caucus to nominate candidates came under increased criticism and with less party competition the idea of a more open and balanced method of selecting candidates was becoming a political issue.
Adamite / Crawford:
While many tickets would grow up around support for one person (such as Clintonians in New York or Snyderites in Pennsylvania), the affiliations of many candidates in various elections in 1823 and 1824 were based around which candidate for President in 1824 the individual candidate was supporting. While those supporters of Andrew Jackson would become the mainstream part of the Republican Party as it transitioned into the Democratic Party, there were also the followers of John Quincy Adams, many of whom would soon form the basis for, first the National Republican Party, then its successor, the Whig Party. The followers of William H. Crawford were also identified, though they never coalesced into any sort of larger organization and mostly existed in Georgia, Crawford's home state, though they found support among the
Friends of Reform:
In 1820, these were Republican candidates in Pennsylvania, mostly in Bucks County, opposed to the present administration.
New School / New School Republican / Old School / Old School Democrat / Old School Republican:
Used in Pennsylvania throughout the 1810's. They were often in opposition to the Constitutionalists. (See also: Crucible of American Democracy: The Struggle to Fuse Egalitarianism and Capitalism in Jeffersonian Pennsylvania. Andrew Shankman. University Press of Kansas. 2004.)
Used in several states over the course of over 20 years.
"Prior to the election of 1802 there had been minor divisions based largely upon personal jealousies and the quest for offices; and a vague dissatisfaction with the Governor had developed. A new cause of dissension became prominent in 1803 and 1804 as the legislature began to attempt modifications in the judicial system and to use its powers of impeachment against the judges of the State courts. McKean's opposition to most of these measures alienated many Republicans; and some of his supporters sought Federalist aid to redress the political balance." (The Keystone in the Democratic Arch: Pennsylvania Politics, 1800-1816. Sanford W. Higginbotham. 1952. p 49)
"The election of 1803 found the Republican splits becoming deeper and more widespread. The quarrel over Federal patronage in Philadelphia nearly reached the point of an open breach, while the Rising Sun movement against Leib gained added strength in Philadelphia County. In Lancaster some of the State officeholders made an unsuccessful attempt to organize a third party movement in support of McKean. The Federalists for the most part abandoned active politics, although the dissident Republican factions courted their aid." (Higginbotham, p 58)
Used in several states over the course of over 20 years.
In Rhode Island in 1807 and 1808 this was a splinter party formed by a combination of those republicans who were supporters of Governor James Fenner, combined with Federalists.
In New Jersey, for several years, from 1807 through 1822, this was a quasi-merged group between Federalists and Republicans, similar to the Quids in Pennsylvania.
What is today referred to as the Democratic Republican Party did not exist as such under that name.
"The party name which the Jeffersonians used most commonly in self-designation was Republican. Since nearly all Americans professed to be supporters of a republic, Federalists were reluctant to allow their opponents the advantage of this name, preferring to label them as Antifederalists, Jacobins, disorganizers, or, at best, Democrats." (Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., 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. 240.)
"No precise date can be given for the establishment of the Republican party, for it did not spring suddenly into being, and even those leaders most intimately involved in its formation were not fully aware of what they were creating. The beginnings of what in course of time became the Republican party can be found in the Second Congress in the congressional faction that contemporaries referred to as the 'republican interest.' . . . An examination of roll calls during the Second Congress indicates that a voting bloc was forming around Madison in opposition to another bloc that united in support of Hamilton's program. While only about half of the membership of the House could be identified with one or the other of these factions, two such groups had not been observable in the First Congress." (Cunningham, p. 241)
"As members of Congress defended their legislative records and sought reelection, they took to the electorate the issues and the disputes that had divided Congress, and they tended in their campaigns for reelection to impart to the voters something of the partisanship that was developing in Congress. Thus, the party divisions in Congress filtered down to the voters through the electoral process, and voters came to align along the lines that divisions in Congress had marked out. In this process the congressional factions acquired the mass followings in the county necessary to transform them from capital factions into national political parties." (Cunningham, p. 244)
Though Thomas Jefferson was seen as the primary leader of the emerging Republican Party, his retirement in 1793 would force that mantle back upon James Madison. "Contemporaries referred to 'Madison's party,' and, when Jefferson was put forward for the presidency in 1796, he was recognized as the candidate of Madison's party. Adams's supporters warned that 'the measures of Madison and Gallatin will be the measures of the executive' if Jefferson were elected. Under Madison's leadership, the Republican party in Congress moved from a role characterized largely by opposition to administration measures, mostly Hamiltonian inspired, to one of offering policy alternatives and proposing Republican programs." (Cunningham, p. 246)
"As the country became dangerously polarized, the Federalists, in 1798 with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Laws, used the full power of the government in an effort to destroy their opponents, whom they saw as subversive. The Republicans, forced to do battle for their very survival, were compelled to change their strategy radically. Prior to 1798 they had optimistically believed that the people would repudiate leaders who supported antirepublican measures hostile to the general good of society. By 1798, however, the Federalists' electoral successes and their hold on the federal government seemed to belie that belief. Therefore, the Republicans shifted their focus of attention from the national to the state level. And by emphasizing a more overtly, self-consciously sectional, political enclave strategy, they left the clear implication that state secession and the breakup of the union might follow if the federal government refused to modify its policies and actions to make them more acceptable to opponents, especially Southerners." (American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. James Roger Sharp. New Haven, 1993, Yale University Press. p. 12)
"On the national level, Republican members of Congress through their informal associations in the national capital formed the basic national party structure. Many of them lodged together in boarding houses or dined together in small groups where there were ample opportunities to plot party tactics. They kept in close touch with political leaders and party organizations in their home states. In 1800, Republican members introduced what was to become the most important element of national party machinery and the most powerful device for the maintenance of congressional influence of the leadership of the party: the congressional nominating caucus." (Cunningham, p. 252)
"The coming to power of the Jeffersonians in 1801 marked the beginning of the Republican era that saw the presidency passed from Jefferson to Madison to Monroe. When the Virginia dynasty came to an end in 1825, the presidential office went to a former Federalist who had become a Republican while Jefferson was president. But, although John Quincy Adams was a Republican, the presidential election of 1824 shattered the Republican party and destroyed the congressional nominating caucus which had given direction to the party's national structure since 1800. Adams's presidency was a period of restructuring of parties - a transitional period from the first party system of the Federalists and the Jeffersonians to the second party system of the age of Jackson." (Cunningham, p. 258-259).
"During the period from its rise in the 1790's to its breakup in the 1820's, the Jeffersonian Republican party made contributions of major significance to the development of the american political system. It demonstrated that a political party could be successfully organized in opposition to an administration in power in the national government, win control over that government, and produce orderly changes through the party process. In challenging the Federalist power, Republicans were innovative in building party machinery, organizing poltical campaigns, employing a party press, and devising campaign techniques to stimulate voter interest in elections and support of republican candidates at the polls. In the process, it became acceptable for candidates to campaign for office and for their partisans to organize campaign committees, distribute campaign literature, see that voters get to the polls, and adopt other practices which, though subsequently familiar features of american political campaigns, previously had been widely regarded with suspicion and distrust. Many of the methods of campaigning and the techniques of party organization, introduced by the Jeffersonian Republicans, while falling into disuse by the end of the Republican era, would be revived by the Jacksonians. In taking office in 1801, the Jeffersonians led the nation through the first transfer of political power in the national government from one party to another; and Jefferson demonstrated that the president could be both the head of his party and the leader of the nation." (Cunningham, p. 271)
- 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.
- American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. James Roger Sharp. New Haven, 1993, Yale University Press.
- Partisanship and the Birth of America's Second Party, 1796-1800: "Stop the Wheels of Government". Matthew Q. Dawson. Westwood, CT, 2000, Greenwood Press.
- Party of the People: A History of the Democrats. Jules Witcover. New York, 2003, Random House
Beginning in 1799, many Federalist papers began to refer to the Republican Party as Democrats or the Democratic Party. This continued throughout the first quarter of the 18th Century until what is currently known as the Democratic Party emerged among the followers of Andrew Jackson in the 1828 Presidential Election.
Republicans were also called by a variety of different terms in various newspapers throughout the period:
Though the Anti-Federalists were not quite the exact same group as the Republicans as they would develop after 1792, there were still some of those who referred to them as such. The term was used by the following newspapers in the following elections:
- Porcupine's Gazette (Philadelphia). October 22, 1798. Pennsylvania 1798 Assembly, Chester County.
- Virginia Gazette (Richmond). April 30, 1799. Virginia 1799 House of Delegates, New Kent County.
- The Virginia Federalist (Richmond). April 26, 1800. Virginia 1800 House of Delegates, Norfolk County.
- Virginia Gazette (Richmond). May 12, 1802. Virginia 1802 House of Delegates, Bedford County.
- Virginia Gazette (Richmond). May 12, 1802. Virginia 1802 House of Delegates, Pittsylvania County.
- The Salem Gazette. May 17, 1805. Massachusetts 1805 House of Representatives, Salem.
Though the term is commonly used today to distinguish the Jeffersonian Republicans from the later Republican Party and because so many of those among the Jeffersonian Republicans eventually became Jacksonian Democrats, this term was extremely rare during the actual period. It was used by the Readinger Adler in the October 27, 1818 edition recording the 1818 county elections in Pennsylvania.
French / War / Warhawk / Jacobin:
Starting in 1798, various Federalist newspapers would refer to Republicans as Jacobins. ("In Newbern district the contest lay between two federalists -- No Jacobin had the effrontery to offer himself." United States Gazette. September 1, 1798.) These references continued through until at least 1810. ("From the Cooperstown Federalist: The election in this County has terminated in favor of the Jacobin Ticket for Assembly. An important revolution has been effected by the most shameful artifices. Never before were the jacobin ranks so completely formed and thoroughly drilled for action. We hope next week to be able to lay before our readers a correct statement of votes, and to exhibit to the world a picture of depravity in the conduct of some of the inspectors of the election which has no parallel." The American (Herkimer). May 3, 1810.)
Beginning in 1810, the Newburyport Herald (MA), began referring to Republicans as the French Party (as opposed to the "American" Party, who were Federalists). This continued in the 1811 elections.
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 1813 and 1814 a number of newspapers were referring to the Republicans as the War Party (or Warhawk Party, as the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill) of March 19, 1814 used) due to their support of the Madison administration and the War of 1812 (most of these same papers referred to the Federalists as the Peace Party). These newspapers include the Trenton Federalist, the Columbian Centinel (Boston), the Northern Whig (Hudson), the Independent American (Ballston Spa), the Broome County Patriot (Chenango Point), the New York Spectator, the Commercial Advertiser (New York), the New York Evening Post, the Albany Gazette, the Political and Commercial Register (Philadelphia), the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill), The Federal Republican (New Bern), the Freeman's Journal (Philadelphia), Alexandria Gazette, Poulson's, Middlesex Gazette (Middletown), the Raleigh Minerva and The Star (Raleigh).
Jackson / Jacksonian:
With the Presidential election of 1824 split among four candidates who were, ostensibly, members of the same political party, the divisions among the Republican Party began to be apparent.
The phrase "Jackson" or "Jacksonian" candidate was used in nearly every state election in Georgia in 1824 to distinguish between those were were supporters of Andrew Jackson as opposed to the supporters of William H. Crawford. The Maryland Republican (Annapolis) and the Federal Gazette (Baltimore) used the term "Jacksonian" in the Cecil County elections of 1824 (as opposed to "Adamite" or "Crawfordite") and the Allegheny and Butler county election in Pennsylvania in 1824.
The New Hampshire Gazette of March 5, 1816 would refer to the Republican ticket as the Whig Ticket and as being in favor of Peace and Commerce.
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.