Philadelphia Inquirer – March 29, 2013
Inquirer columnist Karen Heller wrote recently on the revival of interest in Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania congressman who led the Radical Republicans during and after the Civil War. “For a state with few legends among our elected politicians,” she noted, “Stevens is a giant.”
My students decided she was right. Other than Stevens, whose legendary status is well deserved, not many names from Pennsylvania’s political past come to mind. And we wondered why.
Pennsylvania played a pivotal role in early American history. In 1776, Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America. It was the headquarters of the Confederation for much of the War for Independence and became the second capital of the United States. Philadelphia was also a center, arguably the center, of trade, banking, law, and medicine.
The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution were written in Philadelphia. Virtually all of the great American thinkers and leaders of the day walked its streets. Philadelphia attracted extraordinary talent from here and abroad – Ben Franklin from Boston, Thomas Paine from London, and Stephen Girard, the richest American of his generation, from France.
Philadelphian George M. Dallas,Vice President of the United States from 1845-49
Why, especially in those early decades of the republic, did neither the city nor the state produce any presidents, major-party candidates for president, or even vice presidents? Philadelphia was full of well-educated, civic-minded citizens with the time and resources to serve.
Admittedly, the so-called Virginia dynasty (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) didn’t leave much room for other would-be chief executives, but Pennsylvania wasn’t even in the game. Massachusetts produced two early presidents, the Adamses, as well as Elbridge Gerry, a vice president. From New York came two major-party presidential candidates and two vice presidents. South Carolina also contributed two presidential candidates.
We did find a couple of Philadelphians who ran for national office in those days, among them Jared Ingersoll in 1812 and Richard Rush in 1820, but only for the vice presidency, and none was elected.
A few appear in the record among the advisers and secretaries of the early presidents, and the class decided this behind-the-scenes style fit the “Quaker city.”
The influence of William Penn and other members of the Religious Society of Friends helped make Philadelphia the most progressive and diverse community in the colonies. But Quakers also held some radical views for the times. They refused to support or participate in war and took an early stand against slavery, effectively removing themselves from direct involvement in presidential politics.
Philadelphians’ reputation for saying what’s on their minds may owe something to the Friends. Quakers have long been known for their commitment to speaking the truth, and though they have often been respected for this trait, it hasn’t always made them popular, or electable.
One local citizen, not a Quaker, did get within a heartbeat of the presidency. In 1845, George M. Dallas became the 11th vice president of the United States. No one in the class had ever heard of him. Ironically, he was a bitter political rival of James Buchanan, the only Pennsylvanian (from Lancaster) to become president. In her column, Heller described Buchanan as “arguably Pennsylvania’s worst elected official.” Dallas might well have agreed.
As the Philadelphian who came closest to the White House, and who also served as mayor of the city and as a U.S. senator, why not include George Dallas on the list of Pennsylvania political legends? There’s room.