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

Reflecting on “the play of forces” that propelled him to Pennsylvania’s governor’s office in 1903, Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker (1843–1916) confidently declared, “there is no such thing as an accident” (a notion popularized by Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis). This was not to say chance plays no part in history because he pronounced with equal certitude: “To every man certain opportunities come in the course of his life. Fortune occasionally knocks at the door. The difference in men is that some see and listen, and to others, failing to heed, she comes no more.” However, in difficult times he explained, a different sort of person is needed, a “politician, [who] upon the whole, does his work on a somewhat higher plane.”

In retrospect Pennypacker considered himself such an individual. A practicing attorney and president judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, he had not actively sought the office of governor, but recognized he had been “something more” than an “ordinary partisan.” He had played a part in the affairs of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth that transcended his professional duties. Collecting “out-of-the-way books related to the state” gave Pennypacker information others lacked, and employing it in books, published papers and speeches made him “a representative and even a champion of its [Pennsylvania’s] cause in literature and history.” He was sobered by the thought that “Pennsylvania in achievement was above every other state and that when she called any man it was his duty” to rise to the occasion.

Beyond an obvious loyalty to his home state, what values, perspectives and experiences informed Pennypacker’s sense of history? What circumstances and intellectual convictions motivated his scholarship and shaped his methodology?

Pennypacker’s collaborator and eulogist Hampton L. Carson (1852–1929) provided the fullest description of the “special studies that gave him [Pennypacker] a reputation as an expert on “‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ history.” He cited the governor’s outstanding works, including Historical and Biographical Sketches (1883), The Settlement of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and the Beginning of German Emigration to North America (1899) and his anthology Pennsylvania in American History (1910). Each book was based on “original sources of information to be found in the vast collections of this society [the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, established in Philadelphia in 1824] supplemented by rare books he had collected.” These writings continue to aid students and scholars in understanding his approach to and techniques of interpreting history.

Pennypacker commenced his study of the Keystone State’s history while in his twenties, less than six years after passing the bar. From his earliest publications he based his methodology on the principles of 19th-century historicism. He mainly followed the precepts of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), a German historian and a founder of modern source-based history, who attempted to pursue “history as a rigorous science … characterized by … objective research.” Although it’s doubtful that Pennypacker, like von Ranke, claimed to write history “exactly as it happened,” he “rejected any attempt to write history on the basis of other than primary sources.”

Ironically Pennypacker’s early attempts to write the history of colonial Germans in Pennsylvania – especially the Mennonites from whom he descended – were impeded by a “source problem.” He complained about the paucity of original materials in the preface to Historical and Biographical Sketches. “No collection of their books had ever been made in this country [and] nothing of value had been published.” Pennypacker was grappling with a larger bibliographic problem that afflicted many 19th-century American historians.

In Abraham Harley Cassel, Nineteenth-Century American Book Collector (1970), author Marlin L. Heckman described the dilemma in his biography of the Montgomery County bibliophile who during his lifetime acquired more than 50,000 books, pamphlets and documents about Pennsylvania history. In the 1840s, when Abraham Harley Cassel (1820–1908) began acquiring books, “even those scholars who were contributing so much to American historical and literary studies had to be their own collectors.” The problem was elementary and pervasive: American scholars had “no good libraries to consult.” However, the dearth of Pennsylvania German literature also had a religious basis. Pennypacker contended the Anabaptist conviction “that fame is only one of the vanities” often led to the destruction of “those materials which are the ordinary sources of historical information.” Although the source problems were challenging, Pennypacker remained undeterred. He diligently sought out and actively collected relevant works.

Historical and Biographical Sketches includes 15 essays, seven of which relate to his special studies on Pennsylvania Germans. The first account, “The Settlement of Germantown,” he later expanded into a book. The signature element of the essay is the use of extensive quotations from primary sources, supported by copious footnotes and extensive digressions, both genealogical and historical.

The essay describes the earliest Germantown settlers, including the “first wave” of immigrants from Crefeld (known since 1929 as Krefield), Germany, near the Rhine River. The so-called Crefeld Purchasers included merchants Jacob Telner and Dirck Sipman, but also artisans such as baker Jacob Isaac Van Bebber. They agreed that a certain families would colonize the area, a total of thirty-three individuals, all related. Among them was a family from which the author had descended: brothers Abraham, Dirck and Hermann Op den Graeff. Pennypacker also describes a group of corporate investors in the settlement, Pietist stock-holders of the Frankford Company. Their attorney, agent and fellow investor Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-circa 1720), was the only member of the company to emigrate.

Pennypacker described the physical division and development of the Germantown properties, as well as the construction of the body politic. A university-educated lawyer, Pastorius played a key role in the new community as a local official, legislator and educator. Among the most important events of the community’s early years Pennypacker recounted the collaboration of Pastorius and the Op den Graeff brothers in the 1688 Germantown Protest against slavery before the Quaker Monthly Meeting; the erection of Willem Ritten-huysen’s paper mill; and the division and dissension caused by George Keith who fractured the Religious Society of Friends. Pennypacker described the community as a “harmonious blending of the Mennonite and the Quaker.”

Several essays develop characters and themes introduced in The Settlement of Germantown. Penny-packer translated an article by Dutch theologian J.G. De Hoop Scheffer, “Mennonite Emigration to Pennsylvania,” chronicling the story of Swiss and German Mennonite relocation to Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Scheffer described the harsh circumstances endured by the Swiss Mennonites and their Palatine brethren that prompted their immigration to William Penn’s rustic but tolerant colony. He also discussed the Dutch Mennonite Committee on Foreign Needs that played a key role in supporting the flow of refugees to America for more than a half-century.

Pennypacker devoted an article to the publication of Martyrs’ Mirror by Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, Lancaster County, a historic site along the Pennsylvania Trails of History® administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Drawing upon the Ephrata Chronicle, a singularly significant period account of the celibate community, he discussed in detail the agreement between the Pennsylvania Mennonites and the Ephrata brethren, who undertook the translation and printing of a German edition of the Martyrs’ Mirror. The work took a team of 15 individuals and three years to complete. Published in 1749 the 1,512-page book was the largest published in America before the Revolutionary War. An original volume is in the extensive collections of Ephrata Cloister.

A brief essay by Pennypacker entitled the “Zionitischer Weyrauchs Hügel” recounts the printing of a hymnal composed by the Cloister’s founder Conrad Beissel and his adherents in 1739. This was the first book printed by Christopher Saur’s Germantown Press. However, when Saur questioned the orthodoxy of one of the hymns, the ensuing breach led to the establishment of the Cloister Press.

Two biographical articles by Pennypacker profiled prominent 18th-century Pennsylvania Germans mentioned earlier in the volume. Christopher Dock (circa 1698-1771), the “Pious Schoolmaster on the Skippack,” is a figure Pennypacker almost single-handedly rescued from obscurity. Details of Dock’s life were sketchy, but Pennypacker determined to garner them since his subject epitomized the “sweetness and purity” of the Anabaptist spirit. In 1750 Christopher Saur Sr. persuaded Dock to write a pamphlet on his educational methods. Pennypacker’s contribution was to translate Dock’s School Management, the earliest American pedagogical treatise.

A more familiar figure in Pennypacker’s profiles is David Rittenhouse, “The American Astronomer.” A Mennonite raised on his family’s farm in Montgomery County, Rittenhouse discovered early a love of mathematics and literally covered farm buildings “with mathematical calculations.” An autodidact (a self-taught individual), he rediscovered the methods of differential calculus without reading works by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or Sir Isaac Newton, considered one of the most influential scientists of all time. Once he had mastered Newton’s Principia mathematica, Rittenhouse became wholly absorbed by optics and determined to build a telescope.

Rittenhouse’s first public service was to assist the English team of surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in 1763 to resolve border disputes. During the 1760s he conducted numerous experiments in physics, including the development of a thermometer based upon the expansion and contraction of metals. His most famous inventions were a more precise telescope – the first constructed in America – and an orrery, which accurately represents the movement of the planets. For his accomplishment he was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1768 and succeeded Benjamin Franklin as its president in 1790.

During the American Revolution Rittenhouse served as Engineer to the Committee of Safety. He experimented with the “rifling” of cannon and musket balls and developed a method for protecting the Delaware River from enemy shipping. When asked what leaders should be honored with the erection of statues commemorating their service to Pennsylvania, Pennypacker responded, for the two “worthiest sons, she should choose her warrior Anthony Wayne and her philosopher David Rittenhouse.”

The last of Pennypacker’s Pennsylvania German essays concerned brothers Abraham, Dirck and Hermann Op den Graeff, who Oswald Seidenticker (1825-1894), author and University of Pennsylvania professor from 1867 until his death, first brought to light. The three Crefeld weavers were among Germantown’s first officials. Pennypacker contended their strongest claim to renown was cosigning the Germantown Protest with Pastorius. The courage and piety of such individuals prompted Pennypacker to ask why chroniclers look for the causes of America’s greatness among the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, when the “Quaker, Mennonite and Moravian” of Pennsylvania possessed “hearts warm enough and a creed broad enough to embrace the religious wayfarer and wander, as well as the negro and indian.”

Pennypacker’s most mature work, The Settlement of Germantown, appeared in 1899. He had witnessed and experienced many changes in the 16 years since the publication of Historical and Biographical Sketches. His earlier studies on Pennsylvania Germans had earned him a reputation for expertise in the field of historical writing. The Settlement of Germantown is an expansion of his earlier essay on the subject in the 1883 Historical and Biographical Sketches. He developed the shorter work with a multitude of original sources, including more than one hundred rare illustrations. Among the sources he quoted are Agreement of the Frankfort Land Company, Pastorius’s Brief Geographical Description … of the Province of Pennsylvania and the Germantown Protest. He also referenced the Colonial Records of Pennsylvania regarding the Germantown charter, and cited the judicial proceedings against George Keith contained in the Pennsylvania Archives.

Pennypacker published a final collection of articles on Pennsylvania history in 1910, three years after his term as Pennsylvania’s 23rd governor ended. Pennsylvania in American History represents the fullest expression of his philosophy of history and doctrine of the Commonwealth’s exceptionalism. In a brief preface Pennypacker stated, “All of the papers contained in the present volume are the outcome of special studies.” He evidently shifted the meaning of the phrase to extend it beyond the Pennsylvania Germans because the volume addresses a number of topics in state history. The essays are largely published speeches he gave between 1883 and 1908, accompanied by articles originally published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Although better known examples exist, the article that best characterizes Pennypacker’s argument for Pennsylvania’s exceptionalism is “German Immigration,” an 1883 bicentennial address celebrating the founding of Germantown. He told his listeners that if they wished to know the background of Pennsylvania’s settlement, and what made it “the most fateful of the American colonies,” they must turn to the Reformation, the 16th-century political, religious, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe. It was necessary, he exhorted his audience, to look back “through William Penn and George Fox to their masters,” the radical reformers who moved beyond Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli – leaders such as the Anabaptist Menno Simons and the Spiritualist Caspar Schwenckfeld. The “strong controlling thought which underlay their teaching,” as well as Penn’s colony, was “that there should be no exercise of force in religion.” Of greatest political significance was their teaching on the division of church and state. These principles were brought to Pennsylvania by Penn and incorporated in its constitution. Considering the Mennonite and Pietist founders of Germantown he contended, “Better far than the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth … they stood for that spirit of universal toleration that found no abiding place save in America.”

Paradoxically, the best known of Pennypacker’s writings on Pennsylvania exceptionalism are not the most substantive. His 1899 essay “The Pennsylvania Dutchman and Wherein He Has Excelled” is basically a list of Pennsylvania German achievements. His most popular article, which he credited for giving him the statewide prominence that led to his election as governor, was “Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.” Outraged by an anonymous attack on the Keystone State appearing in the October 1901 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, he responded with a historical comparison between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, “pointing out the great comparative importance of the former in American affairs.” By and large, the essay described historic actions by Pennsylvania’s citizens and its government that formed the basis of its exceptionalism. The list contains familiar benchmarks such the “celebrated Germantown protest of 1688,” the organization in 1774 of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in Philadelphia and John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania that first “put in concrete form” the principle of “no taxation without representation.”

Pennypacker’s Washington’s birthday address entitled “George Washington in Pennsylvania” further expands his belief in Pennsylvania’s exceptionalism into a philosophy of American history. His understanding was informed by Darwinian theory, though he was hardly a simple apostle of Social Darwinism. Early in the speech he asked if the “careers” of great individuals result from “exceptional capabilities” or “favorable conditions.” He embraced the importance of both personal character and a propitious environment.

Given the occasion for his speech, Pennypacker suggested it would be helpful to reflect on Washington’s achievements in relation “to the surroundings wherein his faculties were exercised, if not developed, and the energies of his public career were expended.” Who was this young Virginia officer who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1753, and what series of events did he set in motion? Pennypacker painted an unflattering portrait of the 22-year old with limited education, little reading and a self-consciously stiff and precise manner. With an instinct for thrift he married well, managed farms, raised horses, surveyed new lands and settled into the “narrow confines” of his native Virginia. The youthful Washington was plunged into an international political rivalry between England and France, the two most powerful European nations of the era, which struggled to dominate North America. On the morning of April 25, 1754, Colonel Washington led a force of 155 militiamen in an attack known as the Battle of Jumonville that killed ten French soldiers (including their commander) and opened a new chapter in an ongoing dispute which escalated into the French and Indian War, waged through 1763. Several months later Washington was defeated by superior French troops and forced to sign a humiliating capitulation that resulted in a demotion. Disgraced, he returned to Mount Vernon with his dreams of command dashed. Pennypacker explained, “[F]ortune does not extend her favors to any man for long,” and believed Washington’s career, similar to that of most individuals, was characterized by “successes and reverses.”

Nevertheless, Fortune offered Washington more opportunities to achieve greatness. He was summoned four more times to serve his countrymen – each time in Pennsylvania. During the first two occasions he served as adjutant to British Generals Edward Braddock and John Forbes during the French and Indian War. These experiences gave him firsthand knowledge of a professional army and honed his military skills to lead in the future. The third time he was chosen commander of American forces during the Revolutionary War. In 1787 he was summoned to Philadelphia to help establish “a more perfect union” under the U.S. Constitution and to serve as the nation’s first president.

Pennypacker concluded it was “no accident” that even though Washington “was born and died in Virginia,” he spent a “great part of his military and official life in this state.” Fate took him there. The same “cause” that brought “Napoleon from Ajaccio to Paris, Shakespeare from Stratford to London, and Franklin from Boston to Philadelphia” carried Washington to Pennsylvania. The political and cultural milieus of Pennsylvania essentially created an environment in which he surmounted obstacles and challenges to flourish and achieve greatness not only for himself but for his country. George Washington, much like Samuel W. Pennypacker, was “no ordinary partisan,” but then Pennsylvania was (and remains) no ordinary state.


The editor gratefully thanks Ella M. Aderman, historic site supervisor, Carl Klase, curator, and Linda S. Callegari, museum educator, of Pennypacker Mills for their generous assistance in providing historical background, images and calendar of events information for this feature.


Iren Light Snavely Jr., a resident of Red Lion, York County, has served as librarian of the Rare Collections Library of the State Library of Pennsylvania, administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, since 2011. A graduate of Geneva College, Beaver Falls, he received his master’s degree from Temple University and his doctorate in history from the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the State Library he served as a National Endowment for the Humanities project archivist at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. In addition to teaching, he has also contributed articles and essays to journals and books.