Historical Markers
John W. Geary [Politics] Historical Marker
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John W. Geary [Politics]

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
S. Diamond St., Mount Pleasant Veterans Park

Dedication Date:
August 23, 1946

Behind the Marker

John W. Geary in uniform.
John White Geary, circa 1865.
A battle-toughened soldier who stood six-feet-five inches tall and weighed 250 pounds, Westmoreland County's John White Geary was a most imposing and at times intimidating man. A major figure in early California history, he fought in two wars, briefly served as governor of the Kansas territory, and at the end of his life as the postwar governor of his home state at a time when the Republican Party was making its transition from the party of Lincoln to the party of big business.

Born in 1819, Geary was the son of an iron master turned schoolteacher. His mother, a Marylander, owned several slaves, but educated and then set them free. After working as a schoolteacher to support his mother after his father died, Geary graduated from markerJefferson College at the age of twenty-two, then studied engineering and law before going to work for the markerAllegheny Portage Railroad.

Oil on canvas formal portrait
John White Geary, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1867-1873.
Geary's rise to fame began in the Mexican-American War, when he organized a company known as the American Highlanders, which elected him its lieutenant colonel. In 1847, Geary became a war hero when he led the Second Pennsylvania Regiment in the final assault of Chapultepec Castle, outside of Mexico City, the last Mexican stronghold in the war. When the war was over, President James K. Polk appointed him postmaster of the city of San Francisco. Elected the city's first mayor in 1850, Geary played a major role in restoring order to the Gold Rush boom town and also in writing a free-state constitution for California. His wife's bad health, however, caused him to return to Pennsylvania.

In July 1856, President Franklin Pierce appointed Geary governor of the Kansas territory, then in the midst of a vicious and bloody civil war between northern free soilers and pro-slavery southerners. Frustrated by Pierce's support of the pro-Southern territorial legislature, Geary resigned in disgust in March 1857.

When the Civil War began, Geary again raised a regiment, the Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania. Promoted to two-star general, he was wounded twice before he commanded the division that captured Culp's Hill at the Battle of Gettysburg. Moving to the Army of the Cumberland, he led the troops that took Lookout Mountain at the Battle of Chattanooga later in 1863, then participated in Sherman's march across Georgia, during which his division led the army into both Atlanta and Savannah.

Although Geary had only recently become a Republican, markerSimon Cameron's Republican machine in 1866 considered him an ideal choice as their candidate for governor of Pennsylvania: He was a war hero untainted by political corruption. Once in office, Geary modeled himself after President Lincoln, leading a bipartisan effort for the betterment of the people. In doing so, he proved more of a reformer than the kingmakers had bargained for.

Re-elected in 1869, without machine support, over Democrat markerAsa Packer, he supported mine safety over the opposition of the coal barons, and secured a safety bill that regulated mines following the markerAvondale disaster of 1869, which claimed 111 lives. He also tried to reduce the railroads' influence with the state legislature by vetoing numerous proposals for lines through favored legislators' districts. In six years as governor, Geary vetoed 390 laws, mostly special-interest bills.

Geary also reduced taxes - the state prospered during his six years in office - and increased expenditures for schools, trying without success to persuade the legislature to enact a compulsory education law. Convinced that a new state constitution was needed to rein in the political corruption that had been rampant for decades, he was the prime force behind the calling of a marker constitutional convention that met in 1872. The document it produced in 1874 sought to reduce political corruption by increasing the size of the legislature, making it more expensive to bribe, and limiting the governor to a single, three-year term of office. The movers of the convention, mostly businessmen and honest legislators, also hoped to set railroad rates, but the final draft of the constitution left this up to the legislature.

By the time he retired, Geary had become so unpopular with Republicans and so popular with workers and reformers that in 1872 he was a leading candidate for president on the Labor Reform ticket, a nomination that he lost to Supreme Court justice David Davis. Geary, age fifty-three, died of an unexpected heart attack just two weeks after his second term as governor ended.

John Geary symbolized the transition taking place in the Republican Party in the years following the Civil War. Geary's six-year conflict with Pennsylvania's Republican legislature at the dawn of the Gilded Age demonstrated his inability to fit into the party whose reputation and policies his own personal integrity and courage had done so much to further.

To learn more about Geary's service at the Battle of Gettysburg markerclick here.
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