Friday, November 23, 2012

Thaddeus Stevens and the Buckshot War

If you’ve seen the wonderful movie “Lincoln,” you know that Thaddeus Stevens was one of the leading characters. This column about an incident in Steven’s earlier career was publishing in the Harrisburg Patriot in 1996. A bit of history for you. ~Bob

Thaddeus Stevens and the Buckshot War
By Robert A. Hall

            A hotly contested election. Representatives switching parties. No one knows who is in control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Disgruntled voters ready to riot in the streets of Harrisburg. Politics as usual, yes, but the year was 1838, over 150 years ago!
            Voters disgusted with Pennsylvania political infighting don’t realize how good things are. Compared to last century, sweetness and decorum reign in Harrisburg today.
            The election of 1838 pitted the Democrats against a coalition of Whigs and the small, but vocal, Anti-Masonic party, founded on opposition to societies like the Masons. The incumbent Anti-Masonic Governor, Joseph Ritner, had been elected in 1835 due to a split among the Democrats (who nominated two candidates), and was widely unpopular, especially with the Democratic-controlled legislature. The 1838 election "was perhaps the most bitter and hotly contested in the history of Pennsylvania." Corruption, violence, abuse, financial mismanagement and vote fraud were alleged by both sides--and both may well have been right.
            When the dust settled, Governor Ritner had been defeated by the Democratic candidate, David Rittenhouse Porter. The State Senate was controlled by the Anti-Masonic/Whig coalition, though there were seats in dispute. The real cliff-hanger was in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (does any of this sound familiar?).
            At that time, the House numbered 100 members. The returns showed 48 Democrats and 44 Whigs/Anti-Masons elected, with eight seats in Philadelphia disputed. (Stop me if you’ve heard this!) Election judges, by a vote of ten to six, declared that the eight contested Philadelphia seats had been won by Democrats, giving the Democrats control of the House. However, the six Anti-Mason/Whig judges certified the election of the eight members of their party, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth, an Anti-Mason named Thomas Burrows, declared them elected--giving the Whigs/Anti-Masons control of the House! Also at stake was the position of State Treasurer and a U.S. Senate seat, both to be elected by the House. Trouble was brewing.
            When the Legislature met to organize on December 4, 1838, the capital’s streets were filled by supporters of both sides, but Democrats predominated. Many of them were armed--and they were all in a testy mood. Both parties contended they had the majority. The Democrats, with the votes of their eight Philadelphia colleagues, elected William Hopkins of Washington County Speaker of the House.
            But fiery Thaddeus Stevens of Gettysburg, a prominent Anti-Masonic Representative (and later leader of the Radical Republicans in Congress), nominated Thomas S. Cunningham of Beaver County. Not to be outdone, and with their eight Philadelphia Whig/Anti-Masonic Representatives voting, the Whigs/Anti-Masons elected him Speaker. Both parties then selected committees to inform the Governor and the Senate that the House was organized and ready to do business! They then adjourned. Stevens claimed later that his seat in the House had been guarded by "eight or ten of the most desperate brawlers...armed with double-barreled pistols, bowie knives and dirks." Pity you can't get help like that today.
            It looked like the dispute would have to be settled by the Senate, where things were already ugly, as the coalition moved to crush Democratic opposition by granting disputed seats to the Whigs/Anti-Masons. Stevens and Burrows were there to encourage the Senate coalition leader, Charles Penrose. The crowd in the Senate Chamber was pro-Democrat, and started to riot, threatening the Whig/Anti-Mason leaders. Penrose lost control of the chamber, and he, Stevens and Burrows escaped the growing disorder by departing through a window. (The ignominious retreat would haunt Stevens during his Congressional career.)
            With a pro-Democratic mob in control of the streets, the Whig/Anti-Mason leaders appealed to Governor Ritner, who was still in office. Always ready to come to the aid of his party, the Governor summoned the militia. General Robert Patterson brought a force of about 100 men to Harrisburg, where they were issued buckshot cartridges, giving the affair its name. Wisely, both he and Captain Summer of the Carlisle Barracks declined to interfere in the political dispute. Finally a militia unit commanded by a staunch Whig, General Alexander, arrived in Harrisburg, where the mob had quieted down.
            With all still undecided, three Whig Representatives announced they were switching parties. This gave the Democrats control of the House without the eight disputed votes, and ended the confusion. The Senate resisted, refusing to cooperate for ten days, but finally had to recognize the Democratic control of the House. This sudden end to "the Buckshot War" was also the final gasp of the Anti-Masonic party, which rapidly faded from existence in Pennsylvania.
            Makes me wish I lived in those times--politics today is so boring!

1 comment:

  1. Dismissing your last sentence, Bob, and considering your recent claim to 'real old Marine' status, there is nothing quite like reports based on eyewitness account. Might you care to share your experiences at that year's,1838, Marine Corps Birthday Ball - our 63rd?