Monday, February 22, 2010

Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, II: Pennsylvania

I believe Pennsylvania should change their state motto to "Official Supporting Cast of 19th Century Politics."

Pennsylvania has always been an important state and so state leaders always got a boost to their national standing. It's a deep list in the Keystone State, but one that skews very early. I narrowed the field to 10 candidates and not a single one began in politics after 1910. I suppose Tom Ridge or Arlen Specter might come close to the top 10, but in recent years, Pennsylvania politicians have played important but not central roles in American political life.

In fact, Pennsylvania's large cast of supporting players means it's hard to choose an obvious #1.

1. Benjamin Franklin. Not obvious? Well, I originally visualized this project as mostly covering the post-1787 period. But Franklin casts such a huge shadow of Pennsylvania politics that even those almost all of his achievements occurred before 1787, there's no question that he is the most important politician in state history. I don't feel I need to recap his important role in creating the United States of America.

2. Albert Gallatin. Here's where the supporting cast players start. Gallatin was a very important man. Essential even. Both Jefferson's and Madison's Secretary of Treasury, Gallatin shaped early American economic policy more than all but one man in history. But that man was Alexander Hamilton who is vastly more important. One can also argue that Gallatin's financial policies were deeply flawed, as were the entire Democratic-Republican Party, and that his follies hurt the nation in the War of 1812. I think that's unfair, as there were real reasons Americans feared the rise of corporate capitalism, but there's no question the Federalists understood far better than the D-Rs how to make a national economy work.

3. Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee the Civil War. A powerful abolitionist, Stevens wrote much of the financial legislation that helped the Union win the war. The abolitionist in Birth of a Nation is based upon Stevens, which only helps me think more highly of him. Hated by the Reconstruction white South--what higher calling could there be?

We can run out a legitimate top 10 for Pennsylvania. Here they are, briefly.

4. James Buchanan--normally, a state's only president would make the top 3, but when are the worst president in history, you don't get there.

5. Gifford Pinchot--Progressive governor, first head of the United States Forest Service.

6. Robert Morris--Revolutionary leader, provided incalculable financial assistance to the cause.

7. Philander Knox--Taft's Secretary of State, pusher of Dollar Diplomacy, invader of Latin America. Also Attorney General and 2 time Senator.

8. David Wilmot--short career but he sure burned bright. As a Congressman, he introduced the Wilmot Proviso, attempting to ban slavery from territories acquired during the Mexican War. Later came back to Washington as a senator for 2 years during the Civil War.

9. Matthew Quay. Twice senator, but he's on here because he was the 2nd most important political boss of the Gilded Age (behind Mark Hanna, again we see the Pennsylvania guy come in #2).

10. George Dallas. Senator, major diplomat, Polk's Vice-President.

Tomorrow: New Jersey