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The Buckshot War: The capitol in Harrisburg was the scene of its own political insurrection in 1838


Capitol Building 9

National Guard troops and Capitol Police fortify the Pennsylvania Capitol complex in Harrisburg Sunday. Threats made by white nationalist and Donald Trump-supporting groups ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden have led to increased security in state capitols across the country.

Fearing for his life, Charles Bingham Penrose fled down the ladder from the back room of the Pennsylvania Senate chamber in Harrisburg.

The Carlisle man was lucky. He made it outside just as seven or eight men rushed in and crowded around the window.

“[They were] uttering the most atrocious threats of vengeance,” Penrose said. “Finding that I had escaped, they commenced a pursuit, from which I was fortunately sheltered by the darkness of the night and the shadow of one of the public buildings.”

Friends had warned Penrose of threats they had overheard from the mob that had gathered in the gallery, on the floor and in the lobby outside the chamber that dreary afternoon and evening of Dec. 4, 1838.

Pennsylvania Capitol closing in Harrisburg; more security being added

Fast-forward 182 years and the Capitol complex in Harrisburg is closed under increased security by police and National Guardsmen amid warnings of possible armed protests leading up to the Inauguration this Wednesday of President-Elect Joe Biden.

Parallels exist between what happened in Pennsylvania in 1838 and what is happening now across the country in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.

Tensions ran high that day in December as hundreds of angry men converged on the state capital amid a dispute over returns from Philadelphia following the October 1838 election.

That morning, the state House had split itself into two factions over the controversy of which party — Democratic or Whig — should have majority rule. Crowds representing each side went over to the Senate to lend their weight in numbers to the outcome.

Hopes of good order started to dim as soon as speaker Penrose called the assembly to order around 3 p.m. The sky was overcast, barely illuminating the room.

Charles Bingham Penrose

Charles Bingham Penrose 

“Not long after, it became so dark that it was necessary to light the lamps in the chamber,” Penrose said. “As the light of day declined, the spectators became more turbulent and interrupted the proceedings. These symptoms of tumult were repressed, but it soon became obvious, there was in the gallery a large body of men who possessed the physical power and inclination to compel the Senate to act according to their will.”

At first, the behavior was limited to claps, shouts and hisses, but then Democrat Charles Brown wanted to address the Senate. He was a candidate from Philadelphia whose election was in dispute.

A Whig, Penrose refused to yield the floor to Brown, only to make a bad situation worse.

“On this refusal, they filled the chamber with cries of ‘Hear him, hear him’ and ‘Go on, Brown, go on,’” Penrose said. Mixed in among the shouts of encouragement were calls for the assassination of the speaker. There was plenty of bad blood to go around.

“Skilled manipulator”

It was widely believed among Democrats that Penrose was involved in a scheme by the Whig Party to defraud Pennsylvania voters of their rights and to distort the election results from key Philadelphia precincts that showed that the Democrats had won the majority of seats.

In 1882, the American Volunteer, a Carlisle newspaper with Democratic leanings, published a five-part series describing the role Cumberland County played in what history would call the Buckshot War. The name came from the ammunition issued to militia troops who were rushed to Harrisburg in response to the crisis.

In the series, the Volunteer described Penrose as a “skilled manipulator of politics” who, though elected as a Democrat representing Cumberland County, “turned his back upon the shrine of Democracy to worship the golden calf of the United States Bank” which he had helped to re-charter as a state institution.

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Following that decision, Penrose sided more with the Whigs, drawing the ire of former supporters. He was reelected to the state Senate as a Whig in 1837 and cast in the role of villain in the 1838 conspiracy.

“I made every effort to suppress the disturbances which have fixed so deep a stain on the reputation of our state,” Penrose said. “I left it [the chair] when the senators who still remained, yielding to the apprehension of bloodshed, agreed to permit the individual to make a speech.”

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Brown was allowed to address the chamber, but his words did more to incite the mob than calm it down. The rage boiled over into a scene of outrage.

“They replied with a loud voice that they were ready to drench the chamber in blood,” Penrose said of the crowd. “They obtained control and several members of the House and many senators escaped by the windows opposite to the entrance.” Friends urged Penrose to flee through a small room located behind the speaker’s chair.

Carlisle connections

Once clear of danger, Penrose notified Gov. Joseph Ritner, who issued a proclamation declaring that a lawless mob had so disrupted state government that he needed to call in the militia to restore order.

In answer to the call, Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson of Philadelphia ordered about 1,000 men to march on Harrisburg. They arrived in the capital on Dec. 9. Upon arrival, Patterson made it clear to Ritner that he would not order his men to fire upon civilians except in self-defense or in protection of public property. Also, Patterson refused to order his men to clear the capital or to help either party install leaders in either the House or Senate.

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Patterson and his men were only in Harrisburg a week before being relieved by a battalion of troops under Maj. Gen. Samuel Alexander, who commanded the 11th Division of the Pennsylvania militia. That division drew manpower primarily from Cumberland, Perry and Franklin counties including three companies from Carlisle. The men from Carlisle were stationed at the state arsenal in Harrisburg until Dec. 22, when they were ordered to return home after tranquility was restored.

Aside from the militia, Ritner and Penrose sent letters to Capt. Edwin Sumner, commander of Carlisle Barracks, asking him to deploy federal troops to suppress what they considered to be an insurrection. Sumner refused, saying the tensions in the capital were solely the result of political differences between Whigs and Democrats. Sumner wanted to keep his men out of the political fray. His defiance prompted Ritner and Penrose to contact President Martin Van Buren who also refused to send federal troops to intervene in state politics.

Sumner met with Ritner in person on Dec. 8 to explain why he refused to deploy troops. “I believe I left him satisfied of the correctness of my course,” Sumner wrote in a Dec. 9 letter. “The governor believes there is imminent danger of an immediate outbreak but I must say that I saw nothing there yesterday that led me to the same beliefs. The town [Harrisburg] was perfectly quiet, and the inhabitants were engaged in their usual pursuits without manifesting the slightest alarm.”

Defining the mob

From the start, the Carlisle Herald and Expositor, the Whig newspaper in town, denounced the mob as a pack of hired thugs from Philadelphia transported to Harrisburg to serve as the muscle in the plot by Democrats to disrupt the proceedings and intimidate Whig lawmakers. “Our legislative halls have become the arena of as desperate a gang of bullies, blackguards and villains as ever disgraced any country,” the Herald reported on Dec. 14.

But some Democrats had their own conspiracy theory over who made up the majority of the mob, according to the Volunteer. That newspaper noted that the Ritner administration had spent large amounts of public money in support of building canals, railroads and other infrastructure. Since Ritner was a Whig, the presumption was this money was being paid to contractors, engineers and paymasters friendly to the Whig Party.

Because the 1838 election saw the defeat of Ritner, the theory went that many companies benefiting from the administration sent workers to Harrisburg to act as muscle to keep Ritner in power and to seat Whig candidates from the disputed Philadelphia precincts. But there were also Democrats who thought the men were patriots who caught wind of the Whig conspiracy and rallied to the capital to meet, with force if necessary, those who would deny citizens of their rights.

On Dec. 11, the Herald published a letter to the editor stating the militia under Patterson was instrumental in quelling the “ardor of the mobocracy.” While many of the rioters had left Harrisburg, there was concern a core may have lingered behind to recruit strength and to make another effort “to uproot the institutions of our country.”

“[Harrisburg] is in great measure restored to quiet although the bullies and rowdies that compose the mob have not by any means entirely disappeared,” the Herald reported on Dec. 11. “It is thought by many that a large number are concealed about the taverns of the suburbs of the town and are holding themselves in readiness to be called upon at any moment their leaders may deem advisable to recommence operations.”

Partisan newspapers

On Dec. 14, the Herald published an editorial titled “The Crisis” to demonize the opposition party and rally supporters to the Whig cause. The newspaper reported that some Cumberland County residents “made themselves notorious by their talking and swaggering and did many things that we trust, in moments of sober reflection, they would be ashamed of.”

Buckshot War

The Pennsylvania State Capitol circa 1895

Six days later, on Dec. 20, 1838, the Volunteer fired back with its own rendition of “The Crisis” using words that sound vaguely familiar to anyone following present-day politics:

“This attempt is the last in a series of plots and stratagems of bankers, brokers and lottery vendors who, having grown desperate from defeat at the polls, are trying to annul popular elections and violate the constitution that they may still further glut their avarice,” the editorial reads. “We say to the people of Cumberland County wake up, arouse and prepare to defend the dearest rights of free men. Time passes. … One week hence and it may be too late. The conspirators may then have their foul designs against your rights and liberties carried into effect.”

Special election

Eventually, a resolution was reached in Harrisburg where the faction led by Democrat William Hopkins gained control of the state House. The Senate remained a coalition of both parties.

In January 1839, Cumberland County Democrats pushed to have a special election held even as they called on Penrose to resign. To the Volunteer, Penrose staying in office was both an insult to the intelligence of his constituents and proof that the embattled senator was willing to “sink his character as a public man still lower, if possible, in the abyss of disgrace.”

Penrose issued a writ that the special election be held on Jan. 15, the same day Democrat David Porter was scheduled to be inaugurated as governor. The timing only added to the outrage.

The Volunteer saw it as a ploy by Penrose to reduce voter turnout among Democrats by forcing them to choose between going to the polls and attending the inauguration.