Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania Politics 1865-1930.
Pennsylvania Politics 1865-1930.
Chapter 3: The Struggle for Political Rights and Representation (Reformers and Critics)

Oil on canvas of Robert E. Pattison.
Robert E. Pattison, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1883-1887 and 1891-1895.
In the Gilded Age, Pennsylvania businessmen and Republican politicians forged an alliance that insured that the state government, courts, and law enforcement consistently favored the rights of business over workers, public health, and the environment. Pennsylvania was the nation's leading industrial state, so it was only natural that Pennsylvanians also became leaders in the criticism of laissez-faire capitalism and the government institutions that supported it.

Within the political mainstream, Democrats attempted, usually without success, to offer an alternative to voters. In 1868, the Democratic Party considered Lehigh Railroad president and philanthropist marker Asa Packer as its nominee for president. Democrat Robert Pattison served two terms as governor, from 1883 to 1887, and from 1891-95, but opposed by the Republicans in control of the state legislature, he was able to accomplish little.

Prominent members of the Republican Party also broke with the party leaders and attempted to reform the party from within, or by creating a third party. In the early 1870s, reformers were strong enough to revise Pennsylvania's state constitution. To make the governor more independent, the Constitution of 1873 extended the term to four years and prevented him from being re-elected in the hope to free him from courting the favors needed to run for a second term. In truth, however, the change strengthened the machine, for a single term limited the power of a popular governor to build a political base or replace political functionaries. The new Constitution also doubled the size of the legislature to increase representation, but instead only increased the graft and boodle to be distributed.

Black and white portrait of a man in a suit.
John Wanamaker, circa 1896.
One way the bosses protected and disguised their power was by choosing popular figures with no apparent machine connections for governor, including former Civil War generalsmarker John Geary in 1866,marker John Hartranft in 1872, andmarker James Beaver in 1886, and educator marker Martin Brumbaugh in 1914, to give them a facade of respectability. They also proposed reforms that looked good on paper but came to naught. marker Matthew Quay started the movement for constitutional reform in 1867, and future boss Boies Penrose supported Philadelphia's revised 1887 charter, which centralized power in the mayor rather than in city agencies. But neither fulfilled the reformers' hopes. In the 1890s, Philadelphia department-store magnate marker John Wanamaker twice took on Republican state boss Matthew Quay. A nationally renowned businessman, philanthropist, and former United States Postmaster General, Wanamaker went down in defeat in the Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate in 1896 and for governor in 1898.

Pennsylvania native Terence Powderly, one of the pioneers of union organizing, and mayor of Scranton 1878-1884.
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Terence V. Powderly, circa 1886.
Unrepresented by the two major political parties, many voters turned to dynamic third-party movements, including the Greenback Party in the 1870s, the Grange Party in the 1880s, the Populist Party in the 1890s, and the Socialist Party in the early 1900s. In Pennsylvania, however, farmers and industrial workers by and large remained under the control of the Republicans.

Struggling through decades of often open warfare with the coal companies, voters in the coal-mining regions of northeastern Pennsylvania elected Democrats and in significant numbers joined more radical political organizations, including the Socialist party and International Workers of the World, as did longshoremen and garment workers in Philadelphia. Between 1879 and 1885, Knights of Labor president marker Terence Powderlyserved as the mayor of Scranton. In the 1910s, the voters of Reading sent Socialist marker James Maurer first to the state senate and then to Congress.

The war for political control of the state was also a war for the hearts and minds of Pennsylvanians. Businessmen, philosophers, journalists, and labor organizers all offered their explanations of the extraordinary changes and events taking place in the state, and how citizens should respond to them. The dominant philosophy that justified the capitalist order of the day was Social Darwinism, and one of its most popular spokesmen was marker Andrew Carnegie.
Chromolithograph of Henry George, head and shoulders.
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Political philosopher Henry George, circa 1886.

Applying Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to human society, Carnegie argued that the fittest - such as himself - came out on top, and deservedly so, whereas workingmen and unsuccessful businessmen also received the just rewards of their limited abilities. The more the capitalist-philanthropist accumulated, Carnegie argued in The Gospel of Wealth (1889), the more he could act "as trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do marker for themselves." Carnegie gave away more than $350 million of his fortune, funding public baths, colleges, and hospitals, and more than 2,500 libraries.

In rebuttal, labor organizers like Powderly and Maurer offered alternative philosophies and visions of the American economy and politics. Of these reformers, by far the most popular was Philadelphia-born markerHenry George. Arguing that the concentration of unearned wealth from the bounty of Nature was the cause of all poverty, George proposed a redistribution of wealth, most notably through a single tax on land. George's ideas had an international impact in the late 1800s.

Head and shoulders
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“Muckraker” journalist Lincoln Steffens, 1894.
In the 1880s, Pennsylvania's women joined in the national campaign for voting rights, but after the state legislature in 1885 voted down a call for amendment of the state constitution, their struggle lost momentum until the early 1900s. Careers in journalism, however, gave political voice to women writers, including marker Nellie Bly and marker Ida Tarbell, whose exposé of the Standard Oil Company spurred the federal government to prosecute the nation's first successful anti-trust against John D. Rockefeller's monopoly in 1911.

In 1904, Californian Lincoln Steffens, one of the nation's most celebrated "muckrakers" - a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the century - wrote exposés of the powerful Republican political machines in marker Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. marker "Corrupt and contented," the label he applied to Philadelphia, stuck to the city for decades to come. In 1899, markerW.E.B. Du Bois's pioneering sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, documented compellingly how black poverty was caused by racial discrimination rather than the innate racial inferiority, as assumed by most observers.

Formal portrait of Octavius V. Catto.
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Octavius V. Catto, circa 1871.
Du Bois also documented the continued marker political subjugation of black Philadelphians. African Americans had lost the right to vote in Pennsylvania in 1838. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave African-American men the right to vote - women would not win that right until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 - but black Pennsylvanians lived and labored as second-class citizens.

In 1871, a thug hired by Democrats in Philadelphia who opposed black suffrage murdered African-American civic leader markerOctavius Catto when he tried to organize black voters. From then until the Great Depression, Pennsylvania's African Americans voted Republican, but received only meager rewards and occasional symbolic offices, as when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Philadelphia educator markerEbenezer Don Carlos Bassett as the first African-American minister to a foreign country.

In 1881, the Pennsylvania legislature passed legislation markeroutlawing school segregation, a law upheld by the state supreme court on the grounds that separate and inferior facilities for black students violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1887, the state legislature passed a more general equal-rights bill. Both laws, however, were widely ignored. The markerlynching of Zachariah Walker in 1911 renewed the push for racial equality. Only after the state legislature passed yet another civil-rights bill in 1935 did black Pennsylvanians begin to break the state's de facto system of racial segregation in restaurants, hotels, and other places of public accommodation.

From the 1870s through the 1890s, Pennsylvania reformers could point out what was wrong in the Commonwealth, but they couldn't do much about it. The struggle for reform, however, would gain nationwide momentum in the 1890s, and in the early 1900s coalesce in a wave of Progressive era reforms and political realignments.

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