Historical Markers
George Wolf Historical Marker
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George Wolf

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
239 SW of Bath

Dedication Date:
August 6, 1947

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas official Governors portrait.
George Wolf, Governor of Pennsylvania from 1829-1835
Born in rural Northampton County a year after the signing of Declaration of Independence, George Wolf came of age in the new nation. Like many politicians of the era, Wolf grew up on a family farm. After admission to the bar in 1799, he opened a law office in Easton, then rose through a succession of county and state political offices to national prominence. In 1824, Wolf was elected to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Democrat at a time of acrimonious partisan politics in Pennsylvania and the nation's capital, Wolf secured his party's nomination for governor in 1829. His support for public education, which put him at odds with some party leaders, helped Wolf win the fractious state election. Wolf was re-elected three years later but lost his bid for a third term in 1835. Like the cause of public education he championed, George Wolf was a victim of the very political system in which he thrived.

Image of a young girl in ragged clothing, carrying matches and a basket.
A colored illustration of a "Match Girl," circa 1820.
A supporter of Thomas Jefferson as a young man, Wolf in the 1830s opposed President Andrew Jackson in a crisis over re-charting the national bank. "As a speaker," one contemporary observed, "he was plain and argumentative … a decided friend of the American system and internal improvements." This included support for Pennsylvania public education even when it was unpopular in his party.

Today it is hard to imagine the controversy that surrounded the proposal for state supported education for every child, regardless of social status or income. An unusual coalition had formed to stymie the proposal early in Wolf's first term as governor.

Some thought education a private matter best left to the churches and those who could afford private academies. Others feared wasting public funds on those who would never benefit from the opportunity. Perhaps the most strenuous opposition came from Pennsylvania German leaders who dreaded the loss of their language and culture. Rural and urban school directors were divided on the matter.
Black and white, head and shoulders, image of Burrowes.
Thomas Henry Burrowes, first Superintendent of the Pennsylvania common schools,...

In his second term, Governor Wolf aligned himself with a bipartisan coalition that supported free or "common schools" in the public interest. His allies included markerThaddeus Stevens and Thomas Burrowes, both of whom were leaders of the new Anti-Mason Party. Despite fierce opposition, the educational reformers carried the day and Wolf signed the all-important 1834 Free School Act.

The Free School Act was a compromise bill that provided economic incentives for reluctant local communities to back newly created public school districts. When opponents sought to repeal the law in 1835, Stevens rose to its defense and Burrowes worked with Wolf to keep the new system in place. Pennsylvania's current system of public education owes its origins that this historic struggle. For his efforts, Governor Wolf is known as the "Father of the Free School System."

In time, the educational controversy settled down, but the factional party politics of the 1830s splintered the state government. In the 1838 gubernatorial election, the war between the Democrats and Anti-Masons divided the legislature and drove some politicians, including Stevens and Burrowes, from office. Both survived these skirmishes and rose to greater prominence in public life. Stevens, of course, moved to Lancaster and became a Congressman identified with the anti-slavery crusade. The lesser-known Burrowes helped found Pennsylvania's first state normal school and then became president of marker Penn State University.

George Wolf was not so fortunate. After failing to win his party's nomination for a third term as governor, Wolf ended his political career with appointments as Comptroller of the United States Treasury and then Collector of Customs in Philadelphia. Wolf died in March 1840 and is buried in Harrisburg Cemetery in the shadow of the capitol grounds where he fought his most important political battles. In retrospect, the most important was the campaign to create free public education for all citizens of the Commonwealth.
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