Quotable Pennsylvania: Government and Politics

Through Pennsylvania history government and politics have been frequent topics of conversation. And nothing seems to get the good people of PA quite as riled up either. You’ll find these quotes are either championing the virtues of the government’s operations, or lambasting them as the scourge of the state. Not many lukewarm comments.

Similarly Pennsylvania has places on opposite poles of the history books when it comes to government and politics.

Many have cited the state’s positive impact on national political development; Benjamin Franklin, for example, called William Penn the “greatest lawgiver the world has produced.” Historians commonly cite Pennsylvania’s 1776 Constitution as a major influence on the creation of the federal Constitution written in 1787.

Yet in the 19th century Pennsylvania’s government was infested with the worst levels of corruption ever seen in American history (and in all its other centuries for that matter). Take Simon Cameron, a Pennsylvania political boss and senator known for graft and using politics for personal gain. When he was appointed Secretary of War Thaddeus Stevens famously said “I don’t think he would steal a red hot stove,” and he wasn’t far off the mark. Throughout the 19th century political machines and corporations practically owned the government. Today Pennsylvania government and its elected leaders get a pretty mixed review from their constituents and observers around the country

From complaints about pirates in the 17th century to Three Mile Island and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, see if you agree with these writers from yesteryear!

Recommended Listening: “Pennsylvania” by Eddie Khoury (the official state song since 1990) and “Philadelphia Lawyer” by Woodie Guthrie.

Pirates Ruse
Pirates spent their booty freely in port cities such as Philadelphia and contributed to the region’s economic development. In this painting, The Pirates’ Ruse, a pirate crew obscures itself until close enough to attack a merchant ship. c. 1896. Library of Congress.

“That pennsilvania is become ye greatest refuge & Shelter for pirats & Rogues in America, The Gor giving ym Commissions.”

-Provincial Council of Pennsylvania (1698)
Minutes of the Provincial Council, Vol. 1, Page 519

“The Senate in Pennsylvania is not quite a hospital of incurables, but it took almost four years to bring it to a state of convalescence.”

-Thomas Paine, 1805
“Constitutional Reform, to the Citizens of Pennsylvania on the Proposal for Calling a Convention” from the “Writings of Thomas Paine,” page 281

“The Jeffersonian Republicans in Pennsylvania were firmly convinced that they had been largely responsible for the triumph of Thomas Jefferson and his party over the Federalists in 1800. Proud of their exploits, they boasted that their State was the “key stone in the democratic arch,’ unmoved by all attempts to dislodge it.”

-Sanford Higginbotham, 1952
“The Keystone in the Democratic Arch,” page 1 (original quote published in the Aurora, 1803)

Carrie Burnham
Carrie Burnham Kilgore, 1883. University of Pennsylvania.

“No, your Honors, the Constitution of Pennsylvania was never designed to abrogate itself. It was intended to be consistent and harmonious throughout, and in the eye of this supreme law of this Commonwealth all citizens are equal—equal before the law, and equally entitled to a voice in the making of those laws. The very name “Commonwealth” demands this construction. This equality, for which I contend, so positively expressed in all the Bills of Rights and Constitutions of this State, and in the Declaration of Independence—that great charter of our liberties—is the basic, germinal idea of this government…

The original people of Pennsylvania, fresh from revolutionary struggles against oppression and tyranny, would, in the language of one of the early patriots, have “abhorred the elevation of one class of citizens above another,” so strong was their love for equal liberty and freedom.”

-Carrie Burnham, 1873
“Woman suffrage : the argument of Carrie S. Burnham before Chief Justice Reed,” page 16-17

“If there ever were a State in which self-government was pushed to the verge of absurdity, in which affairs are allowed to manage themselves in a happy-go-lucky sort of way, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, that state is the great, the venerable Commonwealth of Pennsylvania”

-Dr. Benjamin Lee, 1889
“Some of Johnstown’s Lessons” in The Annals of Hygiene (The Official Organ of the State Board of Health of Pennsylvania)

“One can only understand the true meaning of Pennsylvania politics when one remembers that here, more than in any other State, it is a matter of business. For more than half a century to be in politics has been to be in successful business. The number of fortunes to-day in Pennsylvania representing the movements of political activity would be alarming if known. I think it can be well said that there is no man in politics in Pennsylvania who can be called a poor man, whether he began as a democrat or a republican.”

-Ralph Meeker, c. 1898
Unknown newspaper (“The Herald”), found in a scrapbook of editorial cartoons from Philadelphia newspapers in the State Library, page 107-108

“William Penn achieved the deathless gratitude of the savage by merely dealing in a square way with them-, well, kind of a square way, anyhow- more rectangular than the savage was used to, at any rate. He bought the whole state of Pennsylvania from them and paid for it like a man. Paid $40 worth of glass beads and a couple of second-hand blankets. Bought the whole state for that. Why you can’t buy its legislature for twice the money now.”

-Mark Twain, 1890
Mark Twain’s Notebook, 210

“Our present law-makers, as a body, are ignorant, corrupt and unprincipled; that the majority of them are, directly or indirectly, under the control of the very monopolies against whose acts we have been seeking relief…There has been invented by the Standard Oil Company no argument or assertion, however false or ridiculous, which has not found a man in the Pennsylvania Legislature mean enough to become its champion.”

-General Council of the Petroleum Producers’ Unions, 1878
Quoted in Ida Tarbell, “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” page 215

“Pennsylvania is honest. Her people are honest. Her officials are honest. And of all this union of states, Pennsylvania is the fairest and happiest and the most intelligent and the best governed. No state of all the union has so thriven and grown in population and wealth as has she under the government of the last twenty-five years. Railroads, mines, furnaces, iron works, steel works and factories in countless numbers have been added to our producers of wealth. Within four years, since 1896, four hundred and fifty-thousand men have been added to the roll of paid labor in Pennsylvania.”

-Senator Matthew Quay, 1900
“Pennsylvania Politics: The Campaign of 1900 as Set Forth in the Speeches of Hon. Matthew Stanley Quay,” page 154-155

Matthew Quay
Matthew Stanley Quay by William Greaves. 1896. State Museum of Pennsylvania.

“Good God! The people of Pennsylvania in seven years will be glad to petition the Crown of Britain for reconciliation in order to be delivered from the tyranny of their new Constitution.”

John Adams, 1776

Quoted in a letter from Benjamin Rush to Adams, October 12, 1779

“What’s the matter with Pennsylvania? Indeed, she hath more than one disease. But the principal one is, she is politically the most corrupt state in the Union…Why do you expect a fresh tale of political debauchery in Pennsylvania in your morning paper as regularly as floods in Texas or train robberies in Montana? Why does your casual acquaintance in the smoking car, when you tell him your native state, ask you ‘What’s the matter with that state of yours, anyhow?’”

-Mark Sullivan, 1901
“The Ills of Pennsylvania,” Atlantic Monthly 88 (Oct. 1901), 559

Polly Got a Cracker
In 1903 political cartoonist Charles Nelan’s caricatured Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker as a parrot mouthing the words of his cousin, Republican U.S. Senator Matthew Quay. Pennypacker was so furious he ramrodded an anti-cartoon bill through the Pennsylvania legislature, which drew him into an acrimonious war with many of the state’s newspapers and resulted in an explosion of public indignation; the subject of this political cartoon also by Nelan. Ohio State University Cartoon Library and Museum.

“Pennsylvania has no ills that are worthy of mention.”

-Samuel Pennypacker, c. 1901
Response Pamphlet to “The Ills of Pennsylvania” (copied in the Year Book of the Pennsylvania Society of New York 1902), page 94

“Whatever course is taken, however, something will be done in Pittsburg, or tried, at least, for good government, and after the cowardice and corruption shamelessly displayed in other cities, the effort of Pittsburg, pitiful as it is, is a spectacle good for American self-respect, and its sturdiness is a promise for poor old Pennsylvania.” (189)

“Disgraceful? Other cities say so. But I say that if Philadelphia is a disgrace, it is a disgrace not to itself alone, nor to Pennsylvania, but to the United States and to American character.” (195)

-Lincoln Steffens, 1904
“The Shame of the Cities” page 189 and 195

“The condition of politics in Pennsylvania has led many to think that the people of the state were characterized by a generally lax moral sense…The difficulty with Pennsylvania, and emphatically with Pittsburgh, has not been degeneracy; it is simply public moral adolescence and the confusion that inevitably accompanies it.”

-Robert A. Woods, 1914
“The Pittsburgh Survey” page 11

“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has all of the machinery of government, and all the brains and experience in the personnel of its government to deal wisely and with technical accuracy with its affairs.”

-P.C. Knox, 1906
Letter to Governor Pennypacker reprinted in “The Autobiography of a Pennsylvanian,” page 454

“The new Capitol of the State of Pennsylvania is a monument to colossal fraud and theft. Its marble walls enshrine a luxury hitherto undreamed of in any public building; it is encrusted with rare parables, floored and ceiled and wainscoted apparently with costly woods, painted with gorgeous pictures, and hung with wonderful products of the loom; gigantic lamps of bronze wrought in rococo shapes render it more splendid than day, and furnishings such as his Versailles never knew in the day of Le Roi Soleil make it a palace of delight.

But if in this Harrisburg Capitol luxury attained a solstice of gorgeousness, here also graft reached its meridian noon. There has never been in the whole history of corrupt politics in American anything quite equal to the work of the daring thieves who built the Pennsylvania Capitol. Remember Tweed; think of Tammany in its most evil hour; think of Albany; call to mind Quay and the plum-tree; recollect the gigantic Philadelphia filtration steal; conclude the worst respecting the looting of San Francisco by the Ruef Gang—and you will still be able to take off your hat to the unprecedented audacity of the gentlemen who rifled the Pennsylvania State Treasury through the new Capitol of the State.”

-The New York Times, 1907
“Pennsylvania’s Colossal Temple of Fraud,” NYT March 24, 1907.

“This was the era when the Standard Oil Company achieved a mastery of Pennsylvania politics so far-reaching and so corrupt that it is difficult to describe it without seeming to exaggerate.”

-Theodore Roosevelt, 1913
“Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography” page 298

“In Pennsylvania’s legislature, reputedly the nation’s most corrupt public body (one former member said he never admitted having held a seat ‘unless closely pressed upon the subject’), the ‘third house’ of railroad lobbyists exerted as much influence as the elected chambers. The lawmakers allowed the state’s railroads to endow employees with police powers (spurring the growth of private detective agencies like that headed by former Union spy Allan Pinkerton), and enacted countless bills in aid of the state’s corporations.”

-Eric Foner, 1988
“Reconstruction,” page 465

“TMI was a wake-up call for me. I started to develop the skepticism I have had numerous opportunities to develop more fully, that our government will not give us the whole truth- ever- and that dangerous industries, like nuclear power plants, have no interested or commitment to protecting surrounding communities without strong legislation.

And I am still chilled by the reality that a large part of Pennsylvania could have easily become America’s Chernobyl.”

-Gabriele, 2019
“TMI Was a Wake-Up Call for Me”

“It is as if on the Pennsylvania Turnpike you have hung a sign that says welcome to Pennsylvania, pick our pockets because you have a very old rickety tax structure.”

-Dr. Richard Pomp, 2007
Testimony before the PA House of Representatives Committee on Finance

House of Reps.jpg
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives in session, circa 2009. Associated Press.

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