This is the first part of a new series of articles on American History. Over the next few installments, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most politically fascinating parts of our country’s past in an effort to pierce the manifold and uncover the details that helped make us into the nation we are today.
This week’s edition is on “the Great Pennsylvania Feud” between the Democrats – the Masons – and the Anti-Masonic Party during the 1830s. The ideological clash pitted two fundamentally different groups against each other in an environment in which both sides believed they were constitutionally, and morally, justified in pursuing their party platforms in an effort to better the Commonwealth. The feud eventually got so heated that it led to a skirmish known as the Buckshot War.
Setting the Stage
Democrats – The Pennsylvania Democrats of the 1830s were molded in the image of President Andrew Jackson. The party’s national emphasis on the values and reforms of “Jacksonian Democracy” quickly permeated downward, guiding Democratic organizations in all of the prominent states.
This Jacksonian influence also happened to create a populist brand for the party. Known among other things for his connective, open campaign style, Jackson helped usher in voting reforms that brought thousands of new voters to the table for the first time. And while the nation was still far from equitable in terms of allowing equal access to vote regardless of race or gender, the 1830s saw the greatest broadening of the electorate that the country had seen up to that point, with all white men, not just the elite land-owning class, finally receiving the right to vote.
This new block of Democratic voters was extremely fond of Jackson’s image, style, and policies, and stuck with his party up and down the ballot. This was particularly true in Pennsylvania, though, considering “old hickory” won the Commonwealth by double digits in 1824, 28, and 32. Jackson’s weakest performance of the three actually came in 1832, when he won the state by only sixteen points against William Wirt, an Anti-Masonic candidate from Maryland.
The other important characteristic of the Pennsylvania Democrats was Free Masonry, a practice that single-handedly allowed the Anti-Masonic Party to adequately function as an opposition party. While not every Democrat was a Free Mason, most prominent officials in the party, including Governor George Wolf, were associated with, and defended, Pennsylvania Lodges.
The Democrats argued that Free Masonry was a Constitutionally-protected form of expression, believing that it fell under the right to assemble and exercise free speech and expression as ordained by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. This set one side of the stage for the greatest conflict in Pennsylvania’s early history.
Anti-Masonic – The Anti-Masonic Party arose, just as its name implies, to oppose the continued expansion of Free Masonry by countering its allies in the Democratic Party. Through the shrewd leadership of prominent party members like the young Thaddeus Stevens, the party guided itself to success as the major opposition party in the Commonwealth, even as similar groups declined in other states.
This success fostered an environment in which the Anti-Masonic Party formed a coalition with the Whig Party, the national opposition, to ensure that division would never disadvantage them against the Pennsylvania Democrats. For about a decade, this agreement worked well, with Anti-Masonic and Whig candidates performing well in the State Legislature, and the former even attaining the Governor’s mansion in 1835.
The Anti-Masonic Party opposed Free Masonry on moral and political grounds. The party fundamentally believed that the practice was morally reprehensible and contradictory to Christian values. Compounding this were their political disagreements, which arose largely from the belief that taking oaths of initiation to join a lodge countered the ability for a subject to remain loyal to the United States while governing impartially, and adequately, over their constituents.
The Anti-Masons, led in the legislature by the witty, charismatic, and downright unforgiving Thaddeus Stevens, waged a war on their Democratic counterparts in an effort to stamp out “secret societies” in the state once and for all. According to Thomas Woodley’s biography of Stevens, The Great Leveler, which served me as a primary reference for this article, “the Great Commoner” was quoted saying, “In these endeavors, I shall entertain no doubt of zealous cooperation by the enlightened and patriotic legislature of the state. The people have willed the destruction of all secret societies, and that will cannot be disregarded.”
Stevens’s dedication to his party’s values manifested itself most significantly through the State House’s committee to investigate masonry and its influences on the political and judicial system. The committee attempted to bring many prominent masons to testify before the legislature, including the Governor of the state. (Woodley 69) While many subpoenaed Masons simply refused to testify, as Woodley notes, the investigation still benefitted Stevens by “making him a figure of state-wide importance.” (Woodley 71)
(D) Governor George Wolf – Wolf was Governor of Pennsylvania for two-terms, serving from 1829 until 1835. Prior to his service as Governor, Wolf had served in the US House and the Pennsylvania State House. Wolf’s tenure as Governor was marked by his desire to finally establish a public school system in Pennsylvania. As his entry in Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography notes, “After inducing the legislature to prosecute the construction of canals and impose new taxes for the liquidation of debts that had already been incurred on account of internal improvements, he urged the establishment of a general system of common schools, and by strenuous efforts accomplished this reform where former governors had failed.” As the same source notes, his actions led him to be posthumously recognized as the “father of the public school system” in Pennsylvania.
(AM) Governor Joseph Ritner – Ritner, who was the Anti-Masonic nominee for Governor four times during his career, served as Governor only once, from 1835 until 1839. During his tenure Ritner focused on protecting and expanding Pennsylvania’s public school system that had been established under Governor Wolf. Ritner also worked to protect the state’s economic situation, including “a renewal of the 2nd National Bank’s charter” after its expiration at the federal level thanks to President Jackson’s opposition.
(AM) State Representative Thaddeus Stevens – Stevens, who went on to be one of America’s finest statesmen and supporters of racial equality during the Civil War, began his career humbly. During the 1830s, he played a significant role in the State House despite his lack of seniority, fighting firmly for the values of his party in an effort to stamp out the dangerous blight of secret societies. As Woodley notes in his biography, Stevens served as a key advisor to Governor Ritner, further advancing his state of importance following Ritner’s defeat of Governor Wolf in the divided election of 1835. When all was said and done, Stevens never would’ve gone as far as he did had he not attained the proper legislative experience, and name recognition, that he acquired during his time a staunch proponent of the Anti-Masons at the outset of his political career.
Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Election 1832
In 1832 Governor Wolf was reelected to a second term, defeating Joseph Ritner in a rematch. This time, however, the Anti-Masons came close to winning the Governor’s mansion outright, with Ritner falling behind Wolf by just under two percentage points.
Following the usual coalition of the time, the Democrats performed extremely well throughout the central and northern parts of the state, with Anti-Masonic support largely concentrated in rural counties along the Maryland and Ohio borders, as well as in the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, the state capital.
This was the closest the Anti-Masons ever came to winning the Governorship outright without a divided Democratic electorate like the one present during the 1835 election.
Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Election 1835
The 1835 Gubernatorial race was incredibly tumultuous, and greatly accelerated the discontent between the Democrats and the Anti-Masons. The campaign started with Governor Wolf announcing his bid for a third term, and once again, he was challenged by Ritner. But it was actually his own party, not Ritner, that posed the biggest threat to his reelection chances.
Democrats were divided at their tri-annual nominating convention, and ultimately refused to uniformly back Wolf’s renomination. As Woodley states in his account of the division, “The usual frown of fortune which the Crusaders [Anti-Masons] by this time had grown to expect, relaxed into a fleeting smile early in 1835, when friction developed in the Democratic ranks between the ‘strong Wolf (Andrew Jackson) men’ and the ‘Van-Burn supporters’.” The disagreement split the party cleanly in half, dividing the Democratic vote between two nominees: Governor Wolf and Henry Muhlenberg, a member of the US House.
This, predictably, allowed Ritner to win the Governor’s mansion with a plurality of the vote. In the end, he actually received a lower percentage of the vote in his 1835 victory than he had in his 1832 loss. The Democrats had brought disaster upon themselves, allowing the Anti-Masons to grow to their greatest extent while exerting significant influence over state policy.
Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Election 1838
The 1838 race was the final blow that opened the floodgates of conflict between the Democrats and the Anti-Masons. Governor Ritner was widely considered to be a popular, successful, and effective governor, and his narrow reelection loss to Democratic State Representative David Porter surprised many within his party.
With a unified Democratic ticket, the electorate was unconstrained, damaging the Governor’s chances. In the end, he was dealt a narrow defeat by Porter, who replicated, and slightly expanded, the winning coalition that had been used by former Governor Wolf in 1832.
Ritner and his fellow Anti-Masons thought they had wrongfully lost the election, and attempted to overturn the result by force, leading to the Buckshot War.
The Buckshot War
Following the continued controversy over which party truly controlled the state government, Ritner mobilized the state militia to assist in Anti-Mason efforts to overturn the results of the election by resisting mobs of pro-Porter supporters. The name “Buckshot War” arose solely from the rounds that the militia men used in their effort to contain strife.
Eventually the conflict was resolved, bringing an end to the peak of the tension between Pennsylvania’s two leading political institutions of the early 19th-century.
The Democratic victory in 1838 solidified Democratic support in Pennsylvania, and knocked the Anti-Masonic Party off of its previous pedestal. And while Stevens’s career ended up surviving and blossoming into one of the most memorable in the history of American politics, the life of his first party quickly expired as it merged permanently with the Whig Party, bringing an end to one of the most interesting political exchanges in the Commonwealth’s early political history.
Citations and Sources Used
- Thaddeus Stevens: The Great Leveler, a biography written by historian Thomas Woodley
- A truly fascinating biography that I highly recommend that covers the life of Thaddeus Stevens, one of our greatest politicians. I frequently paraphrased and directly cited the chapter Crusader, which filled in my prior knowledge and connected Stevens’s early career to the strife between the Democrats and the Anti-Masons.
- Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography
- I used this source to fill in the details of Governor Wolf’s major accomplishments during his time in office, particularly those relating to the field of public education.
- Joseph Ritner’s Wikipedia Page
- Used as a source to cover the main parts of Ritner’s agenda during his time in office as Governor of the Commonwealth. No further source links were present, which required a paraphrased passage covering Ritner’s accomplishments.
- Also used to elaborate on Ritner’s response to his reelection loss in 1838.