Pennsylvania Politics: A Tercentennial Perspective

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

“Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad…” – William Penn


On 4 March 1681, Charles II, King of England, signed a char­ter which conveyed to his trouble­ some subject, William Penn, territory in English North America larger than Por­tugal and nearly four times the size of the Netherlands. Within that vast do­main the charter vested political power, with a few significant restrictions, in the hands of Penn and “his heires and assignes.” The King retained certain prerogatives which Limited Penn’s free­dom of action, the most important being the right to disallow laws of which he disapproved. In Penn’s political rela­tions with the inhabitants of the colony, however, he could appoint officials, make laws, levy taxes and discharge all of the other conventional duties of gov­ernment restricted only by the charter provision that laws be made “by and with the advice, assent, and approbation of the freeman .. . or the greater parte of them, or of their Delegates or Deputies.” Significantly, the manner in which this advice and assent would be given was left to Penn to determine. His authority was, therefore, extraordinarily broad and relatively unencumbered.

In four frames of government pre­pared by Penn and his associates and promulgated over the next twenty years (1682, 1683, 1696, 1701), the proprietor established the structures and proce­dures through which political power would be exercised in colonial Pennsyl­vania. In the initial frame, even “the Turk was not more absolute” than the proprietor, claimed one observer. Re­markably, in subsequent frames, Penn permitted a shift in the locus of power from the proprietor to the freemen act­ing through their elected delegates. The final frame, the Charter of Privileges (1701), vested independent executive power in an appointive governor armed with a legislative veto and assisted by an advisory Council, also appointive. The Assembly, consisting of delegates elected annually from the several coun­ties, was empowered to select its own officers and committees; prepare, debate and enact legislation and sit on its own adjournment. Higher judicial officers were appointed by the governor while lesser officials were elected. Although Penn signed the Charter of Privileges reluctantly, on the eve of his departure for England, his reluctance in surrender­ing his prerogatives is understandable. Yet Penn’s anti-authoritarian cast of mind, his belief in individual dignity and the right of dissent, his commitment to the concept of equality at law, and his understanding of the expectations of prospective migrants prompted him to do so. While he and others regarded the Charter as temporary, it remained Penn­sylvania’s constitution until 1776. Its adoption gave to Pennsylvania’s politi­cal structures the representative demo­cratic stamp which they bear to the pres­ent.

The story of Pennsylvania’s three hundred year adventure in self-govern­ment has been usually colorful, some­times tumultuous, often hilarious and always intricate and involved. Filled with murky chapters and unexpected twists, it is a story that can not always be told with complete assurance. “Historians can get lost in the convolutions of Pennsylvania politics,” Paul B. Beers has observed, adding “anyone too sure of himself – politician, scholar, or voter – is apt to be wrong.” Attempts to gen­eralize about three centuries of “Key­stone State” politics, increase the chances of error dramatically.

Yet if one steps back from the din and the fury of day-to-day political combat, patterns do seem discernible. There are certain constants – broad patterns of uniformity – that characterize Pennsyl­vania politics across the generations and give structure and direction to the story. Beneath that shell of uniformity, how­ever, there are equally durable threads of diversity which lend vitality and color to the tale. Both of these, the patterns of uniformity and the threads of diversity, the warp and the woof of Pennsylvania politics, deserve attention.

One party government has charac­terized Pennsylvania over long periods of her existence. The Quakers of Philadelphia and neighboring counties, organized as the Popular or Antipropri­etary Party, dominated the provincial Assembly and through it the government of the colony from its earliest days to 1756. They were ousted only when, in the midst of the French and Indian War, with Indians carrying tomahawk and ‘torch almost to Philadelphia itself and the whole countryside aroused, they found themselves unable to reconcile their Quaker pacifism with the absolute necessity to provide adequate defenses for the colony.

Opponents of the Federalist Party placed Thomas McKean in the gover­nor’s mansion in 1799 and carried the state for Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Known initially as the Democratic Republicans and later as the Democrats, they held sway over Pennsylvania with few interruptions for the next sixty years and produced the state’s only president. Not until 1860, amid the political con­vulsions which produced the Civil War, were they toppled from power and their party shattered.

The Republican Party, victorious in the gubernatorial and presidential elec­tions of 1860, quickly consolidated its new position and clamped a vice-like grip on state politics which it would maintain for nearly a full century. Of twenty-one governors who ruled Penn­sylvania between 1860 and 1954, only two, Robert Pattison (1883-1887; 1891-1895) and George H. Earle (1935-1939), were Democrats. During the same period only one Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, carried the state in a presi­dential contest although he did so three times (1936, 1940, 1944). Not until 1954, amid spectacular disclosures of wide­spread corruption in Republican ranks and with Pennsylvania experiencing deepening economic woes, were the Democrats able to mount a successful and sustained challenge to Republican control of the state.

That Pennsylvania has been a one­-party state for over two hundred years of her existence is a reality deserving of recognition in its own right. Beyond that, however, one party dominance has influenced the character of state politics and its practitioners in several important ways. First, the absence of a viable opposition has tended to insulate political wrongdoers from fear of expo­sure or, worse, of defeat. Thus it has contributed to those recurring episodes of corrupt practice for which Pennsyl­vania has long been notorious. Second, freed from the threat of ouster, the rul­ing parties have repeatedly splintered into warring factions whose bitter and spectacular struggles for power have en­livened the political scene. Finally, political leaders, preoccupied with con­trolling the conduits to power and repelling challenges from within, have gen­erally been, in Philip S. Klein’s phrase, “technicians rather than statesmen.”

Moderation has long been a cardinal virtue in Pennsylvania politics. Extrem­ists of the left or of the right have not been suffered gladly by the voters, the politicians or the system. Political power has been seldom and then only fleetingly bestowed upon them. Fiery George Keith convulsed Quaker Philadelphia, polarized the community and, in 1693, provoked a riot in the city’s largest meet­inghouse; Passmore Williamson, al­though in jail for his participation in a slave “rescue,” was nominated for canal commissioner by the Republican State Convention in 1855; vagrant Joe Barker, five years earlier, was elected mayor of Pittsburgh although also in jail for incit­ing anti-Catholic riots; and A. Mitchell Palmer was a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920, borne largely on the national tide of anti-Bolshevik hysteria which his “Palmer Raids” bad done so much to create. Yet none won a permanent place in the political hierarchy. Extremism has not been the road to political power in Pennsylvania. Serving a state so geo­graphically and culturally diverse, with a constituency so heterogeneous, eco­nomic interests so varied and local political organizations so powerful, her politicians have long recognized that ex­treme positions alienate more voters than they attract. When William Scran­ton, pressed to clarify his position in the midst of the 1962 gubernatorial cam­paign replied that he was “generally a middle-of-the-roader,” he cloaked him­self with the political heritage of his state. Pennsylvania’s politicians for gen­erations have been “generally middle­-of-the-roaders,” and have rarely been caught too far ahead of the pack.

Characteristic, also, of the politicians of Penn’s Woods and an additional con­sequence of the state’s heterogeneity, has been their penchant for negativism. Although the point is subject to exag­geration, Pennsylvania’s aspiring leaders have repeatedly been nay-sayers, rallying public support around positions of opposition rather than around programs for positive action. For example, histo­rian Gary Nash has characterized David Lloyd as “a gifted man, a brilliant orator and student of the law, a skilled advocate, an unequaled legislative draughtsman and parliamentarian and the man best qualified to assume the role of political leader” in eighteenth-cen­tury Pennsylvania. Lloyd, in fact, dom­inated the Assembly for a quarter cen­tury and at times exerted an influence over the affairs of the colony second only to that of Penn himself. He did so as the leader of the Antiproprietary Party and, throughout bis long career, waged a bitter and unrelenting war upon the prerogatives of Penn. Ben Franklin ad­vanced from membership to leadership in the Assembly in the late 1750s only after he directed his formidable talents to the task of ending the proprietorship altogether. His greater fame, two dec­ades later, derived from his opposition to the conduct of King and Parliament. The Democratic Republican victory in 1800 had similarly negative underpin­nings. “Federalist supremacy had been overthrown,” wrote a leading student of the period, “by a diverse combination of those whom it alienated.” In 1828, sup­porters of Andrew Jackson argued that John Quincy Adams’ “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay disqualified Adams from further public service.

As the pattern continued, the list of politically useful objects of denunciation grew. Opposition to foreigners, Catho­lics, “dough faces,” Black Republicans, anarchists, Bolsheviks, grafters, “pink­oes,” bosses, the Philadelphia influence and big government have all, from time to time, proved useful vehicles to aspir­ing politicians. And then there is opposi­tion to taxes. From William Penn to Richard Thornburgh, no position has proven more durable and more popular, and generations of state leaders have embraced it unashamedly and regardless of consequence. Finally, in 1978, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Peter Flaherty, even ran against the Democratic state organization and in­formed the incumbent Democratic gov­ernor, Milton J. Shapp, “I do not seek nor do I accept your endorsement of my candidacy.” Significantly, Flaherty lost and, in so doing, defined perhaps the outer limits of negativism as a useful political strategy.

In contrast to the acquiescence by Pennsylvanians in extended periods of one party rule has been their tendency toward constitutional experimentation. This tendency has introduced periodic changes into the political equation and has provided Pennsylvania with a surprising variety of constitutional forms.

The state has had no less than five constitutions over the past two hundred and eighty years. The Charter of Privi­leges (1701) was supplanted by newer frames in 1776, in 1790, in 1838 and in 1873. Historically, the life expectancy of a Pennsylvania constitution has there­fore been less than sixty years. More­over, efforts to attach specific amend­ments to the constitution of the moment have been far more frequent than efforts at wholesale revision and have been a constant in state politics. Although usually unsuccessful, amendments have been adopted periodically and have occasionally worked significant changes as did the 1850 amendments to the Con­stitution of 1838 and those of 1968 to the Constitution of 1873.

The impetus for constitutional change came, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from emerging majority parties desirous of consolidat­ing their power and their views and of insulating both from the results of an adverse election. The Radicals who wrote the Constitution of 1776 and the Fed­eralists who supplanted them and wrote the Constitution of 1790 produced sharply contrasting frames of govern­ment. Both incorporated positions that the authors had long advocated and arrangements designed to maximize their influence.

The Constitution of 1838 was, how­ever, the product of different forces. None of the contending parties of the 1830s championed revision. Yet voters across the state, dissatisfied with au­thoritarian features of the 1790 docu­ment and the enfranchisement of blacks under it, forced the reluctant parties to the task of revision. The result was a document which democratized Pennsyl­vania’s political institutions to a sur­prising degree while, ironically, restrict­ing the ballot to “white freemen.” In 1850, in a further expression of demo­cratic sentiment, the voters approved an amendment providing for an elective judiciary.

By the mid-nineteenth century, then, both the impetus for constitutional amendment and revision and the pur­poses sought had begun to shift. Earlier, changes had been engineered by the dominant party in pursuit of partisan objectives. Increasingly, however, dissi­dent factions within the majority, ele­ments from the “outs,” citizen groups and irate voters united upon constitu­tional change as a way of curbing the power of an entrenched and unrespon­sive majority party and of correcting abuses attributed to it. Such were the origins of the Constitution of 1838 and, to a far greater degree, that of 1873.

By the late 1860s, Pennsylvania, in the iron grip of Simon Cameron’s Republi­can machine, wallowed in “bewildering debauchery and profligacy” as A. K. McClure characterized it. Yet a partially bought Democratic opposition was incapable of ousting the machine and reform-minded Republicans failed repeatedly in their efforts to dislodge it. Gradually the idea of effecting reform through constitutional revision began building, slowly gathered adherents and, in time, became irresistible. In 1871, ad­vocates of revision forced the question onto the ballot and the voters registered their overwhelming approval by a margin of nearly five to one. In 1872, convention delegates were elected, began their deliberations and in the following year completed the new document.

Basically, the authors of the Constitu­tion of 1873 sought to reform the legisla­ture and its procedures, the elective process and local government. Reflect­ing that purpose, the new constitution was extraordinarily specific and, con­sequently, three times longer than its predecessor. “Government procedures were prescribed in such detail and so many restrictions were placed upon public officials,” noted historian Frank B. Evans, “that one journal expressed its dominant theme as ‘Lead Us Not Into Temptation.'” In a special election on December 16, 1873, Pennsylvania’s voters, anticipating the dawn of a new era, approved the document by a vote of 253, 774 to 108,594 despite stiff opposi­tion from the machine.

Although heralded as a ”triumph of honesty over corruption,” neither the ingenious provisions nor the carefully phrased restrictions of the Constitution of 1873 produced the reforms intended. The Republican machine defied some, circumvented others, diverted the re­mainder of its own purposes and con­tinued in power well into the twentieth century. William Penn would not have been surprised. Writing in 1682, he observed, “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them. Let men be good, and the government can­not be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it.”

Significantly, the great effort of 1873 was never repeated, suggesting that Penn’s lesson had been learned. The most extensive changes thereafter, a series of amendments ratified in 1968, can be seen largely as an effort to adjust the nineteenth-century document to the realties and complexities of twentieth­-century Pennsylvania.

Yet since Penn first addressed the questions of an appropriate framework of government, the distribution of power within it and the process of selec­tion of officeholders, Pennsylvanians had divided over the appropriate answers. Their divisions, over time, pro­duced unicameral and bicameral legisla­tures, plural and single executives, strong and weak governors, appointed and elected judges, and injected a con­siderable variety into the political arena.

The diversity of Pennsylvania politics does not derive merely from the tendency toward constitutional experimentation, however. Long periods of one-party government notwithstanding, the domi­nance of the ruling party was rarely un­contested. Opposition parties remained in the field, waged spirited campaigns and, if the incumbents relaxed their ef­forts, miscalculated on key issues or quarreled among themselves, threatened their ouster. Occasionally that occurred.

David Lloyd’s Popular Party con­trolled the Assembly in the first half of the eighteenth century. Yet, because of its increasingly obstructive tactics and disruptive antics, it was swept from power in the elections of 1710 and did not regain it until mid-decade.

During the first sixty years of the next century, the Democratic Party domi­nated the state, but its position was neither unchallenged nor entirely secure. Statewide elections were so bitterly con­tested that the outcome often hinged upon the final returns. For example, Democratic governors elected in 1832, 1838, 1844 and 1851 polled popular majorities of only 3,072 (Wolf), 5,496 (Porter), 4,282 (Shunk) and 8,465 (Big­ler) respectively. None attracted more than fifty-two percent of the total vote. Moreover, the opposition actually tri­umphed in 1835 (Ritner), in 1847 (Johnston) and in 1854 (Pollock). In addition, Whig presidential candidates carried Pennsylvania in 1840 (Harrison) and 1848 (Taylor) and came close in 1836 (Harrison) and 1844 (Clay).

Even in the Republican Era (1860-1954), when the majority party was en­trenched most deeply and for the longest span in the state’s history, the threat posed by the Democratic opposition could not be entirely discounted. To be sure, the Democrats won only three gubernatorial contests in the period and, excepting Franklin Roosevelt’s three vic­tories, lost every presidential canvass as well. Yet the outcome of statewide elec­tions, especially in the nineteenth cen­tury, was often sufficiently uncertain as to generate enthusiasm among the voters and apprehension among the Republi­can leaders. Moreover, modest successes in local, assembly and state senate con­tests enabled the Democrats to maintain an opposition presence through the long century of Republican rule.

Further enlivening the Pennsylvania political scene have been those periodic and protracted struggles for power be­tween men of conspicuous talent, over­weaning ambition and impressive dura­bility. Those remarkable arch-enemies David Lloyd and James Logan domi­nated the political stage in the first third of the eighteenth century. Yet, inasmuch as they led rival parties and took oppo­site sides on the issue of proprietary power, they do not entirely fit the later pattern. Subsequent struggles were more often of an intra-party nature and at issue was less policy than power.

Pennsylvania’s only president, James Buchanan, and her only vice-president, George Mifflin Dallas, were contemporaries who rose from the ranks of the Democratic Party in the mid-nineteenth century. In the course of their distin­guished and parallel careers, both served in the United States Senate and as min­isters to Russia and to the Court of St. James. However, shared antecedents and experiences notwithstanding, they were not collaborators within the Demo­cratic Party of their home state but rivals bent upon control of it. For thirty years prior to the Civil War, their struggle for power was a reality of central impor­tance in Democratic Party politics, affecting party platforms and tickets, and the careers of a generation of party leaders.

The rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s and its triumph in the 1860s brought a new cast of characters to the political stage but the familiar scenario remained. Through the first two decades of its existence, Simon Cameron and Andrew Gregg Curtin convulsed the party in their savage battle to control it. Not until the early 1870s were the Cameron forces able to place their domi­nance beyond serious challenge. Mean­while, within the Democratic ranks, William A. Wallace and Samuel J. Ran­dall had initiated their long and bitter rivalry which would end only with the death of Randall in 1890.

Pennsylvania politics in the twentieth century has not witnessed the protracted personal struggles of earlier years. Yet Gifford Pinchot’s battles with the Vare brothers of Philadelphia and James H. Duff’s contests with Joseph F. Grundy, although more issue-oriented than ear­lier ones, evidence a continuing tradi­tion.

Men, not institutions, set the course and tone of politics as Pennsylvania’s ex­perience demonstrates. Saints and sin­ners, rascals and redeemers, men of noble determination and others of mean audacity have strode her political stage and imbued her political story with much of its vitality and diversity.

So broad a range of characters has produced intriguing contrasts, fascinat­ing combinations and surprising careers. The cultured and aristocratic William Penn spent the talent and energies of his lifetime in an idealistic effort to make the “holy experiment” a reality. Two centuries later his near-namesake, the cultured and aristocratic Boies Penrose, spent the talents and energies of his Lifetime in a cynical effort to make a cor­rupt Republican machine invincible. The Camerons, father and son, were political forces in Pennsylvania for nearly a cen­tury and created that Republican machine to which Penrose later fell heir. Between them they represented the “Keystone State” in the United States Senate for four decades but produced not a single piece of significant legisla­tion. Sometime U.S. Senator Joseph R. Grundy, a Republican power especially in the 1920s and 1930s, held political views so hidebound that his name was synonymous with reactionary Republi­canism. His contemporary, Gifford Pin­chot, was the state’s most outspoken and magnetic advocate of Progressive Republicanism and his achievements, in two terms as governor (1923-1927; 1931-1935), earned for him a position as one of the greatest reform governors in Pennsylvania history. Yet the two men collaborated on occasion and Grundy’s support was a significant factor, perhaps the decisive one, in both of Pinchot’s gubernatorial victories. More recently, in 1958, Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayor, David L. Lawrence, to many the archetypical big city “boss,” was elected gov­ernor and to the surprise of many pro­duced an efficient, constructive and remarkably scandal-free administration. In 1971, political outsider Milton J. Shapp bucked the Democratic organiza­tion and, denouncing the evils of machine politics with missionary zeal, was elected to the first of his two terms as governor. When he retired in 1979, the real achievements of his administra­tion were obscured by what some observers regarded as the most spectacu­lar record of corruption in modern Pennsylvania politics.

A new element of diversity has intruded itself upon the Pennsylvania scene in the past quarter century. Two party politics, after a century’s absence, returned to Pennsylvania. The harbinger of change was the 1951 Philadelphia municipal election in which outspoken reform advocates Joseph S. Clark and Richard­son Dilworth were elected mayor and district attorney respectively. It was an impressive achievement. Clark became the first Democrat to rule Philadelphia’s City Hall since the previous century and his victory marked the demise of the Re­publican machine there. When, in 1954, Democrat George M. Leader was elected governor-only the third member of his party so chosen since the Civil War­ – and, two years later, Clark ousted in­cumbent Republican Jim Duff from the U.S. Senate, the statewide dimensions of the upheaval were evident. When, late in the decade, Democratic voter registra­tions statewide surpassed those of Republicans for the first time ever, the new political order was confirmed.

Since 1954, Pennsylvania’s voters have elected six governors, three Demo­crats – George Leader, David Lawrence and Milton Shapp – and three Republi­cans-William Scranton, Raymond Shafer and Richard Thornburgh. In selecting other state officers, legislators, congressmen and senators, they have ex­hibited the same willingness to choose freely from both parties. The historical tradition of one-party rule appears to have ended. Perhaps it has. Yet, in 1981, as Pennsylvania begins the fourth cen­tury of her existence as Province and Commonwealth, her governor, Richard Thornburgh, her United States Sena­tors, H. John Heinz and Arlen Specter and most of her elected state officials are Republicans. In addition, the G.O.P. controls the General Assembly and twelve of twenty-five U.S. congressional seats. Whether this revival of Republi­can strength reflects merely a temporary shift in party fortunes or foreshadows the beginning of a new Republican era, only the future will reveal.

One wonders, however, what Penn himself would conclude of his handi­work were he able to view it from the perspective of its three hundred year history. He would surely note many things of which he disapproved and some which saddened him. But he could not fail to observe that the democratic stamp which he placed upon Pennsyl­vania’s political institutions in 1701 had endured; that the racial, ethnic and relig­ious diversity of his colony had grown wondrously; and that a remarkable and mutual tolerance had come to charac­terize the political interaction of those diverse groups. He might even conclude that Pennsylvania, at her tercentenary, still stood by her moorings and that the “holy experiment,” although not all he had envisioned, had not failed.


For Further Reading

Beers, Paul B. Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday, The Tolerable Accommodation. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Klein, Philip S. and Hoogenboom, Ari. A History of Pennsyl­vania. 2nd rev. ed. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

McClure, Alexander K. Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania. 2 vols. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1905.

Nash, Gary B. Quakers and Politics, Pennsylvania, 1681-1726. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

An ongoing series of monographs on Pennsylvania politics has been published, with two exceptions, by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (*University of Penn­sylvania Press). Authors and dates of coverage are as follow: Theodore Thayer (1740-1776); Robert L. Brun­house (1776- 1790); Harry M. Tinkcom (1790-1801); San­ford W. Higginbotham (1800-1816); Philip S. Klein (1817-1832)*; Charles M. Snyder (1833-1848); John F. Coleman (1848-1860); Erwin S. Bradley (1860-1872)*; and Frank B. Evans (1872-1877).


John F. Coleman received his Ph.D. in history from the Pennsylvania State University and is professor of history at St. Francis College of Pennsylvania. In addition to articles and reviews on the political history of the Keystone State, he is the author of The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860.