Creating Interest and Understanding in Local History

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Interest and understanding of local history can be achieved in various ways. Generally, persons are instinctively interested in the area in which they live. For a college student, studying local history can make national issues come alive.

A major problem in teaching survey courses in United States history is that students believe that national ques­tions were the only determinants of voting behavior. They tend to dismiss the importance of local Issues as well as the traditional voting patterns of specific localities.

It was useful to the writer to cover an era of American political history (1840 to 1865 for example) emphasizing national matters – then to cover the same period with re­ference to a specific locality. In this case the local area is Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. This makes comparison of the national and local scenes more Interesting because approximately 90 per cent of the writer’s students are native Schuylkill Countians.

The writer’s students, like many historians who studied the anthracite regions, perceive economic factors as the pri­mary determinants of voting behavior. This is quite natural because of the heavy emphasis placed upon the “Molly Maguire” movement in the area. The political battles always seem to have been between the “haves and have nots,” labor and business, rich and the poor. Class con­flict is clearly seen as the most salient political polarizer. This naturally leads to the assumption that the Democrats were the “people’s party” while the Whigs and later the Republicans represented the “privileged” elites.

However, recent studies have shown that while Schuyl­kill County was influenced by the great national issues of the mid-nineteenth century, its political behavior was also shaped by established voting patterns which were deeply rooted in ethno-religious identifications. Even Wayne Broehl who emphasized the economic factors behind the Molly Maguire movement, stated:

The ethnic dimensions of the Molly Maguire story are probably far more important than previously considered. In Eastern Pennsylvania it was the Irish versus the English and Welsh.

Through census reports, church records, histories and other local sources the writer then demonstrates to his students that mid-nineteenth century Schuylkill County broke into clearly defined ethno-religious groupings. These were the German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, and English and Welsh Protestants. It is also useful to show students that these groups voted in reasonably predictable manners prior to 1840. In this case the Irish and Germans voted consistently Democratic while the Welsh and English were the most anti-Democratic. Overall, the county was traditionally a Democratic stronghold giving Jackson, for example, 80 per cent of its vote in 1828 and 73 per cent in 1832.

The writer then takes important presidential elections (1844 and 1860 certainly qualify} and studies them from the county level. Students are particularly interested in local newspaper accounts of these elections. The main pur­pose is to find out how important the “critical national issues” were in Schuylkill County.

The case study of the 1844 election in the county is highly enlightening. Most students believed that the Texas question destroyed Henry Clay. They felt that the Liberty party pulled enough votes away from him to cost him the White House. Clay was also seen as handicapped because his party lacked appeal to the “common man.”

The writer and his students then work out tables ranking every voting area in the county (townships and boroughs) on the basis of per capita wealth and on the percentage of Whig (Clay) strength within each. The tables reveal some simple but shocking information – there was no strong relationship between wealth and Whiggery. In fact, a stronger correlation existed between wealth and Democratic tendencies!

A review of commentary in county newspapers also shows the students that the Texas and slavery questions exerted little influence in the county. They were rarely discussed in the political columns. The most important issue in the area appeared to be the protective tariff, especially in its relation to anthracite; yet, both local parties favored protection for hard coal. Therefore, the tariff issue could not have logically polarized the parties in Schuylkill County.

An analysis of voting returns from the county in 1844 does show that Clay lost heavily in the German and Irish Catholic regions and ran well in areas where the English and Welsh lived. Hence, traditional voting patterns persisted in Schuylkill County despite the intense national issues of the day. It was more realistic to say that in Schuylkill County – German votes rather than anti-Texas or anti-slavery votes defeated Henry Clay.

An analysis of the 1860 results in Schuylkill County then serves the purpose of reinforcing some of the findings revealed in the 1844 study. Students are especially impressed by the fact that even that great folk hero, Abraham Lincoln, was subjected to the traditional ethno-religious voting patterns in the county.

Lincoln was the biggest Republican winner ever in the county. garnering 57 per cent of the vote. However, he received most of his support from the English and Welsh mining regions while running rather weakly in the German and Irish areas. One heavily Irish Catholic township cast better than 60 per cent of its vote against Lincoln. Newspaper commentary on the county level also revealed to the students the fact that local Republicans were most impressed by Lincoln’s high tariff propensities rather than by his positions on slavery extension.

It is then clear to most students that local issues played an important role in county voting even in the most critical national election in our history. Despite the fact that civil war was hinging on the results of this contest, it was unable to seriously erode the established voting patterns of the county. Lincoln’s strengths and weaknesses were better explained on the basis of ethno-religious considerations than on economic or idealogical grounds.

The studies of these two critical elections involving two great American idols made students more aware of the importance of the ethno-religious factor in the politics of their native area during the mid-nineteenth century. Reading quotations directly from county newspapers of the era serves to more explicitly demonstrate this fact. Students are shocked to hear the local Republican paper calling for the formation of a “Protestant Party” to counter the “Irish Domination” of Schuylkill County’s Democratic party. The same journal urged German voters to abandon the Democrats and join fellow Protestants in the Republican fold. One passage taken from the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville clearly demonstrated the religious intensity in the politics of the period:

Protestants! Behold to what your supiness reaches. It is because the Evangelical Churches are slumbering that Rome dares to come foreward thus. It is high time to wake out of sleep.

This method of combining local history with national history serves many useful purposes. It certainly makes students more appreciative of their focal heritage and familiarizes them with the sources through which they can study the history of their locality.

When students become aware of the importance of ethno-religious influences in the voting patterns of a century ago, they seem to comprehend the fact that it per­sists until this day. This gives them a better understanding of contemporary politics. (In fact, the writer usually requires an analysis of a recent county election to show students specific areas where ethno-religious factors still dominate voting.)

The primary benefit of using local history in United States’ history survey courses is, however, the interest it creates among the students. This method increases their abilities to understand the period under study, which in turn, leads to a greater willingness to pursue more in­-depth studies. Thus, it is shown that a history course need not be one of the “dull” subjects which must be tolerated on the way to a college degree.

One final note involving this approach to teaching history is of importance. Many students, after coming to appreciate the importance of “local politics” both now and a century ago, seem more willing to abandon the indifferent attitudes usually shown toward local affairs. This in a small way might help them to become better citizens and thus represent the greatest benefit derived from the use of local history.


William A. Gudelunas is assistant professor of history, Schuylkill Campus of The Pennsylvania State University.