William Fisher Packer was the last of a line of Democratic governors of Pennsylvania elected prior to the Civil War. After Packer’s term ended just as the Civil War started in 1861, it would be another twenty years before a Democrat won the governorship. And that governor, Robert Pattison, would be the only Democrat to serve until the New Deal.
Packer, like many in his party, tried to reconcile North and South as tensions over slavery and westward expansion during the 1850s tore the nation apart. He was unsuccessful because of dramatic events like “Bloody Kansas”, the war between pro-slavery emigrants and free-soilers for control of that territory, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
A Quaker from Centre County, Packer was elected governor in a Democratic sweep in 1857 that saw the party win control of the Legislature. That victory coming one year after Democrat James Buchanan was elected as the first and only president from Pennsylvania should have augured good times for the party.
Packer had easily defeated Congressman David Wilmot of the newly created Republican party. Wilmot’s campaign focused too narrowly on the anti-slavery issue and his free-trade views were a liability when a financial panic hit.
But the dominant Democrats were soon at odds over patronage, an economic depression following the panic and the Buchanan administration’s legal position in 1858 recognizing a pro-slavery government in Kansas to the outrage of free-soilers.
Packer fell out with Buchanan over the Kansas decision, one that he felt was unfair to the free-soilers. A compromise federal law providing for a referendum in Kansas didn’t heal the rift between the two men.
Both Buchanan and Packer were experienced politicians holding major offices before taking the executive reins. Both retired from public life when their terms ended. Packer had been a newspaper editor and publisher, a state canal commissioner, a House speaker and state senator before serving a three-year term as governor.
Pennsylvania Democrats suffered a great defeat in the 1858 election, losing two statewide races, the state House and eleven congressional seats. The poor economy had something to do with the results. Republicans prevailed again in the 1859 election for the offices of auditor general and surveyor general while Democrats remained divided.
John Brown’s raid on Oct. 16, 1859 made it even harder for politicians like Packer to find compromise between North and South.
Brown and 21 followers planned to seize the federal armory at Harpers Ferry and distribute the arms stored there to slaves in the surrounding area. He wanted to lead them in a war of liberation.
The raid ended when U.S. Marines under command of Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the fire enginehouse on the armory grounds where Brown and his raiders were barricaded.
Brown was wounded and captured by the marines. He was hung Dec. 2 after a trial. Ten of Brown’s men were killed during the Harpers Ferry raid and four others were captured there and later executed.
After the raid, two of Brown’s raiders, John Cook and Albert Hazlett, fled north to the Chambersburg, Pa. area. They were apprehended by local residents and returned to Virginia to be tried and executed. Five of the raiders made successful escapes.
It was quickly revealed in newspaper accounts that Brown had rented a house under an assumed name in Chambersburg in May 1859 to plan the raid. He used the Cumberland Valley Railroad to ship weapons from Ohio.
These circumstances made trying times for Packer. He exchanged correspondence with Virginia Gov. Henry Wise in late November. Wise had sent Virginia troops to Harpers Ferry and questioned Brown after his capture. Rumors of a northern conspiracy to rescue Brown were widespread.
Wise wrote Packer that necessity may compel Virginia to pursue “invaders of our jurisdiction into yours”, but no disrespect was intended.
Packer replied: “The information you have received in regard to a conspiracy to rescue John Brown, will, undoubtedly, be found, in the sequel, utterly and entirely without foundation, so far as Pennsylvania is concerned.”
He added. “Nor will we permit any portion of our territory, along our borders, or elsewhere, to be made a depot, a rendezvous, or a refuge, for lawless desperadoes, from other States, who may seek to make war upon our southern neighbors.”
In a message to the Legislature in early 1860, Packer urged lawmakers to consider whether additional state laws were needed to punish those stirring up insurrection or inducing slaves to revolt. He also said Pennsylvania would assist in crushing treason whether in the form of a fanatical conflict or secession.
That fall, Andrew Curtin of Centre County won election as the first of a long line of Republican governors. He had lost a state Senate race to Packer in 1849. –Robert Swift
Harrisburg Bureau Chief for Times-Shamrock Newspapers