Acrimonious political rivalries — stretching over years and serving as conduits for the passions of opposing political movements — are a time-honored tradition in the United States, predating modern media. Last week we saw a bit of that passion in the reactions to the indictments of two former campaign advisers to President Trump. But Pennsylvania witnessed a spirited campaign of its own 200 years ago.
The gubernatorial race of 1817 pitted Reading-born Joseph Hiester against William Findlay, a native of Mercersburg in Franklin County. The election presaged an extended political contest between factions within the Democratic-Republican party, with "New School Jeffersonians" represented by Findlay and "Old School Jeffersonians" backing Hiester.
Findlay was born into a Scots-Irish Presbyterian family in 1768. A deeply charismatic individual, he worked as a state militia inspector and studied law. An admirer of Thomas Jefferson, Findlay joined the Republican Party and served in the state General Assembly from 1797 to 1807 and as state treasurer from 1807 until 1817. In securing the nomination for governor, he led a party that supported protective tariffs and increased spending on public initiatives.
Hiester represented the faction of the party that sought to limit government powers and had formed a shaky coalition with Pennsylvania Federalists.
Sixteen years Findlay's senior, Hiester possessed a formidable resumé for an early 19th-century politician. He organized a company of soldiers in his hometown of Reading at the onset of the Revolutionary War, assuming the role of captain and equipping the militia out of his own pocket. During the Battle of Long Island, much of his company was killed or wounded. Having been injured, Hiester was captured and transferred to a British prison ship, where he was held until a prisoner exchange secured his release. After a short period of convalescence in Reading, he returned to the fight, sustaining yet another injury in the Battle of Germantown.
After the war, Hiester pursued a career in politics, attending Pennsylvania's constitutional convention in 1790 as a delegate, serving terms in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate and ascending to Congress in 1797.
The 1817 gubernatorial race included many of the antics expected in modern-day politics, including searing political cartoons that — far from debating policy disagreements — exacerbated divisions among Pennsylvanians and distrust of particular institutions. A pro-Findlay cartoon from the Historical Society's archives shows the candidate lifted skyward by the people's voice while Hiester is haphazardly propped up by bundles of newspapers, including the Aurora and the U.S. Gazette. Evidently, projecting populist strength over media support has long been a practice in U.S. politics.
Ultimately, Findlay won by a small margin. He discussed the vitality of U.S. democracy in his inaugural address:
"These results furnish new proofs of the efficiency of a republican government. Founded on the popular will, and administered by agents of the people's choice, it has ceased to be a matter of experiment, but has proved itself competent to the demands of peace, and the exigencies of war."
Unfortunately, his governorship did not prove competent to the exigencies of political war. Hiester supporters waged a multiyear campaign to impeach Findlay, alleging malfeasance during his tenure as state treasurer. While a committee of the General Assembly ultimately vindicated Findley, the political cost was steep and — combined with the economic turmoil of the Panic of 1819 — resulted in his defeat in the 1820 gubernatorial race.
The victor? None other than Joseph Hiester, who won by a similarly small margin as Findlay had in 1817.