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Gov. Joseph Ritner’s proclamation calling for state militia to restore order in Harrisburg in what became known as the “Buckshot War.” Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-8

Gov. Joseph Ritner’s proclamation calling for state militia to restore order in Harrisburg in what became known as the “Buckshot War.”
Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-8


Protesting election results in the United States is nothing new. Neither is storming a capitol building when results are contested. In 1838, only 55 years after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War, armed opponents confronted each other at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Accusations had flown for days previously about which candidates should be seated in the state legislature after that year’s election on October 9. As results came in showing Democratic victories, the Whig and Anti-Masonic party of incumbent governor Joseph Ritner (1780–1869) alleged fraud at the polls. Ritner partisans, led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) and Secretary of the Commonwealth Thomas H. Burrowes (1805–71), challenged the election results in an effort to control the state’s legislature and retain valuable patronage positions that would be the spoils of the victory. The confrontation that would develop at the Capitol became known as the “Buckshot War.”

On the night of December 4, the first date the legislature officially met after the election, four elected Democratic representatives from Philadelphia were not seated in the House when pro-Ritner supporters claimed the election results were fraudulent and asserted that their party’s candidates were the rightful winners. They rushed to seat their candidates before the Philadelphians had a chance to present the credentials for their candidates whom they believed won the seats. When the Philadelphians arrived at the Capitol, tempers flared as they accused the Anti-Mason Whigs of trying to overturn the legitimate results of the recent free elections. As such, both parties seated their own candidates, giving the legislature two representatives from the contested districts. Following this absurd circumstance, both parties proceeded to elect their own speakers of the House.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Democrat Charles Brown contested the election of Whig John Hanna, but Speaker of the Senate Charles B. Penrose refused to hear the allegation, admitting Hanna to the seat. Rage swelled in the pro-Democratic mob that had gathered outside the Capitol, with shouts of killing Penrose, Stevens and Burrowes. As the protestors entered the Senate and swarmed the halls of the Capitol, the three Whigs, along with other members of the Senate, escaped from the building by climbing out the windows.

When Penrose reported to Ritner what had occurred, the governor requested federal troops to put down what he perceived to be a mob-led riot. This call was refused by a federal officer because he considered it strictly a political matter of the state. A second request, this time directly to President Martin Van Buren, was also refused because the chief executive felt it would be inappropriate to favor one party over the other. Ritner finally issued a proclamation asking for state militia troops to help restore order.

The Pennsylvania State Archives holds the handwritten draft of the proclamation, signed by Secretary Burrowes, in MG-8, Box 33, #881. The document describes “a lawless infuriated armed mob . . . with the avowed object of disturbing, interrupting, and overawing the Legislature of this Commonwealth, and of preventing its proper organization and the peaceable and free discharge of its duties.” It states the mob “entered the Senate Chamber, and in an outrageous and violent manner, by clamoring, shouting and threatening violence and death to some of the members of that body, and other officers of the Government; and finally, by rushing within the bar of the Senate Chamber, in defiance of every effort to restrain them, compelled the Senate to suspend business.” It then calls for “the Civil Authority to exert themselves to restore order to the utmost of their power, and upon the Militia force of the Commonwealth to hold themselves in instant readiness to repair to the Seat of Government; and upon all good citizens to aid in curbing this lawless mob, and in reinstating the supremacy of the law.”

On December 9, 1838, between 800 and 1,000 militia men, many armed with muskets, arrived in Harrisburg and were issued buckshot ammunition, thus giving the crisis its name, the Buckshot War. Cannon were brought out into the streets, as it looked like there may be a civil war between Pennsylvanians of both parties. The arrival of the militia, however, did nothing to alter the deadlock in the state legislature, nor did it calm the crowds associated with the two contending parties.

Eventually, on December 17, a group of three pro-Whig and Anti-Masonic representatives joined in voting with their opponents, allowing the Democratic candidates to be recognized as a legal quorum. Finally on December 27, the Pennsylvania Senate recognized the contested Democratic representatives as the legal members of the House and promulgated David Rittenhouse Porter’s election as governor, having defeated Ritner by approximately 5,500 votes. On that day, the Buckshot War ended without any actual shots being fired.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.