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Exploring History: Pennsylvania's 1st Governor Wolf

| Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, 9:01 p.m.

All local residents are aware that Gov. Tom Wolf will be assuming office this month. During the recent gubernatorial election he defeated the incumbent, Thomas Corbett, by a substantial vote margin.

Time will tell, however, whether the new governor will have a successful term. But few readers are aware that he is the second Pennsylvania chief executive with the name of Wolf.

His predecessor, George Wolf, held that office in the early 19th Century.

George Wolf was born Aug. 12, 1777, in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. His parents, George and Mary Wolf, had emigrated from Alsace, a western province of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) in 1751.

Accordingly, their son was raised upon the family farm within Allen Township.

Wolf always claimed that his robust health, as well as strong work ethic, derived from performing hard labor.

Furthermore, as an adult he was fluent in both French and German. After graduating from a local private academy, Wolf taught school for several terms.

Subsequently, he accepted a clerkship in the Northampton County Prothonotary's office in Easton.

Meanwhile, he had begun reading law within the offices of James Ross, a future Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. Upon his admission to the state bar, Wolf established a law office in Easton.

On June 5, 1798, he married Mary Erb of Lancaster, with nine children resulting from their union.

Wolf actively supported Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican party during the presidential election of 1800.

Consequently, Jefferson appointed him to be the U.S. Postmaster in Easton. By 1809, Wolf was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature's lower house.

He later made an unsuccessful effort to the Pennsylvania Senate in 1816. When not serving in public office, Wolf practiced law in Easton.

Increasingly, by 1820, Jefferson's supporters had begun calling themselves the National Republicans. Under that label in 1824, therefore, Wolf successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Serving the U.S. Eighth District, he held that office until 1829. At that point, he relinquished that “safe seat” to seek the Pennsylvania governorship.

As a congressman, Wolf had supported strongly Andrew Jackson's new Democratic party. Apparently. Several leading Pennsylvania Democrats were instrumental in promoting Wolf's candidacy.

He handily defeated his anti-Jackson opponent Joseph Ritner. Throughout Wolf's years in office, the Democrats dominated state politics.

Wolf entered office aware that several of his predecessors had committed Pennsylvania to a series of major public works projects.

Unfortunately, though several of these “internal improvements” had proven costly, due to fiscal mismanagement.

Consequently, the state was facing a severe budgetary deficit. Wolf repeatedly declared that he would be seeking “economy in government.”

He certainly supported that completion of the Pennsylvania Canal, a statewide waterway running east to west through the Allegheny Mountains.

Nonetheless, he vetoed several measures providing funds for additional canal construction projects.

He also required that tolls upon the existing Pennsylvania canals, as well as major post roads were collected regularly.

Through a series of independent audits of all state agencies, Wolf made sure that Pennsylvania avoided bankruptcy.

The governor apparently realized that railroads would be replacing canals as the chief mode of public transportation.

He foresaw that a rail network would exist all over the state. That development, however, occurred several decades into the future.

Meanwhile, Wolf was aware that the Pennsylvania legal system required serious revision.

There had been no comprehensive review of the state law code in a century. Many of the statutes had existed since Pennsylvania had been a proprietary colony.

Wolf liked to recall that Benjamin Franklin had warned about this problem in 1790. Acting upon the governor's recommendation, in 1832, the legislature appointed a commission to revise substantially Pennsylvania statutory law.

The most enduring, though, of the Wolf administration was the enactment of the free public school legislation in 1834, thereby creating a general system of common schools in Pennsylvania.

Although Wolf was a Democrat, he did not support all of President Andrew Jackson's policies.

For instance, in 1832, he opposed Jackson's decision to veto legislation renewing the charter of the Second United States “National” Bank.

This financial institution's headquarters building stood upon Walnut Street in Philadelphia. And the Second National's director, Nicholas Biddle, was Gov. Wolf's good friend.

The governor consistently believed that major New York City banking interests, allied with Vice President Martin Van Buren, were the driving force behind Jackson's anti-bank policy.

Moreover, Wolf refused to accept the Jackson Democrats' premise that there should be a “divorce” between banks and government.

In any case, Wolf was instrumental in securing from the Pennsylvania General Assembly a joint resolution instructing the state's congressional delegation to support the charter renewal.

This action angered James Buchanan and other powerful state Democrats. Consequently, they supported the candidacy of a Democratic rival, Henry A. Muhlenberg, during the 1835 gubernatorial election.

This development, therefore, assured that the Whig Party candidate, Joseph Ritner, defeated Wolf's bid for a third term.

By February 1826, however, President Jackson appointed Wolf to the post of Comptroller General of the United States Treasury.

Two years later, President Martin van Buren selected him to be federal collector of customs of Philadelphia, a major Atlantic commercial port.

He held this lucrative post for the rest of his life. Following a sudden illness, on March 11 1840, George Wolf died in Philadelphia.

His remains were conveyed to Harrisburg for burial. This ended the career of Pennsylvania's first Gov. Wolf.

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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