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Pattison was a most popular governor in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

As another gubernatorial election approaches this November, most commentators expect a close, hard-fought contest. For most of the past century, the two major political parties — Democrats and Republicans — have been evenly matched statewide.

But many Pennsylvanians believe that during the 19th Century, the state was Republican-dominated, especially in the decades after the Civil War. The steady success of one Democratic governor, Robert E. Pattison, however, underscores that Pennsylvania was a “purple” state even in that period.

Robert Emory Pattison was born Dec. 8, 1850, at Quantico, Va. Several months later, though, his father, the Rev. Robert H. Pattison, a Methodist minister, accepted a “call” to a church in Philadelphia.

Consequently, Pattison received his basic education within the Philadelphia public school system. And he was class valedictorian when graduating from Central High School in 1868.

Two years later, he began his legal studies under the direction of Lewis C. Cassidy, a top Philadelphia attorney. By 1872, he was a member of the Pennsylvania bar, as well as a partner in Cassidy's firm.

In any case, Cassidy was an influential figure within Pennsylvania Democratic circles. Her certainly encouraged his protege to become active in politics. Running as a Democrat in November 1877, Pattison was elected Philadelphia city controller.

Furthermore, he was reelected three years later. During this period he came to the favorable attention of Congressman Samuel J. Randall of Philadelphia. As U.S. Speaker of the House, Randall was among the most powerful Democrats in the United States.

With Randall's influential backing, therefore, the state party convention in July 1882, selected Pattison as their gubernatorial nominee. A key reason for his selection was Pattison's age. He certainly was too young to have been an active politician during the Civil War Era.

Consequently, the state Republicans could not accuse him of having a pro-Confederate record. They simply would not “wave the bloody shirt” in that election.

Nonetheless, the Republican challenge was a retired Federal Brig. Gen. James A. Beaver. But Pattison also faced noisy opposition from Thomas A. Armstrong, a Pittsburgh newspaper editor, who was the Greenback-Labor party nominee.

During this electoral contest, all three candidates undertook statewide tours. As the autumn progressed, though, Armstrong's prospects faded. Furthermore, in November, Pattison defeated Beaver by 40,202 votes.

At his inauguration on Jan. 16, 1883, Pattison pledged both economic and political reforms. And the next four years, he steadily reduced the state debt. He also endeavored to persuade state officials to undertake policy actions in accord with the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Pattison sought to secure laws which regulated the various major railroad corporations operating within Pennsylvania. He had noted that the state's track network was controlled by a few so-called “competitors.”

Accordingly, those railroads were charging excessive hauling rates to customers.

A primary course for this situation was that leading rail magnates sat on the boards of companies supposedly in competition. Unfortunately, though, Pattison was unable to secure a law banning those “interlocking directories.”

By all accounts, however, Pattison was regarded as a strong governor. He was fortunate that his party controlled both houses of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Through skillful use of state patronage he was a dominant force among Pennsylvania Democrats. During that period the state constitution forbade governors to run for consecutive terms.

Consequently, he watched his erstwhile opponent, Gen. Beaver, win the governorship by a comfortable margin. Pattison later complained that the Democratic challenger, Chauncey. F. Black, had been a weak candidate.

Upon leaving office, Pattison resumed his law practice in Philadelphia. But he frequently came westward to argue cases in Pittsburgh courtrooms. Interestingly, he was on retainer with both the Baltimore & Ohio and Western Maryland railroads.

Moreover, he became president of the Chestnut Street National Bank in July 1887, devoting much attention to the management of this institution.

Meanwhile, he turned down President Grover Cleveland's request to become chief auditor of the U.S. Treasury. Pattison also declined a follow up offer to be U.S. Minster to Denmark. He did agree, though, to serve as chairman of the Federal Pacific Railway Commission.

Subsequently, this panel investigated the fiscal records of all railroad corporations receiving federal assistance since 1865. Such companies popularly were known as “land grant railways.”

Under Pattison's leadership the commission compiled a report that was utilized as a primary reference source for the next century.

In 1870, Pattison agreed to seek a second term as governor. He managed to defeat a strong Republican opponent by 16,554 votes. During his new administration he stressed the same issues predominant in Pattison's first term, notably tax reduction and local municipal government reform.

Most political observers were in agreement that Gov. Pattison was popular throughout his years in office. Nevertheless, Pattison spurned all suggestions of seeking a U.S. Senate seat in 1896. He personally detested the Democratic presidential candidate running that year, Williams Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. He accurately predicted the “Great Commoner” would be a “sure loser” in that election. Certainly, no one ever accused Pattison of being a “Bryan Democrat.”

Although still interested in Democratic politics, he concentrated upon his law practice. Moreover, he became president of the Security Trust and Life Insurance Company, a post Pattison held until his death.

And he refused to seek a third term as governor in 1902. He cited his commitment of serving on the board of trustees of both the American University and Dickinson College. He also realized that his basic health was not too good.

Consequently, on Aug. 1, 1904, Pattison died within his Philadelphia law office from an apparent heart attack. He was survived by his widow, Anna Smith Pattison, and three grown children.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.

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