Pennsylvania's Buckshot War

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During the gubernatorial election of 1838, a rebellion nearly occurred when the Whig and Anti-Masonic Party refused to accept the defeat of their candidate, incumbent Governor Joseph Ritner, by Democrat David R. Porter.

Porter, a Democrat from Huntingdon County, won the election by 5540 votes. But that wasn’t good enough for the Whigs. The December after the election, the Anti-Masons held a secret meeting presided over by Thomas H. Burrows. Burrows was the head of the Anti-Masonic Party and also served as Ritner’s Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Burrows’ plan was to introduce a false list of election winners full of Anti-Masonic candidates which would confuse things to the point that Porter would be unable to take office.

When the state House of Representatives convened, the clerk didn’t know what to do and seated both the genuine election winners and those from Burrows’ false list. In the confusion that followed, co-conspirator and state Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Adams County called for a vote for Speaker of the House.

The Whigs installed Thomas Cunningham as speaker. At the same time the Democrats installed William Hopkins. When both attempted to take the seat, further chaos erupted and the parties agreed to adjourn.

While this was going on in the lower chamber, Burrows and Stevens strolled over to the state Senate and pulled the same stunt, resulting in a minor riot from which rumor holds they were able to escape only by sneaking out a window in the state Capitol.

When word of these shenanigans reached the rest of the state, an armed mob from Philadelphia and Lancaster arrived to protest. In a panic, Gov. Ritner locked himself in the governor’s mansion and activated the state militia. A few days later about 800 troops commanded by Major General Robert Patterson arrived armed with their standard weapon - shotguns loaded with buckshot.

When Patterson reported to Ritner for orders, Ritner is said to have refused to admit him and told him to take his orders from the Speaker of the House. Of course, at the time there were two Speakers of the House and only Ritner was constitutionally permitted to give orders to the troops.

So Patterson and his men were dismissed and the 11th Division from Carlisle Pennsylvania were called into duty. Only 67 men showed up in Harrisburg - the rest wisely stayed at home.

With nowhere else to turn, Ritner sought help from the federal government. However, the feds rightly decided this was a state issue and it was up to Pennsylvania to clean up its own mess.

Shortly after Christmas, cooler heads prevailed and the Legislature was properly organized. Porter became governor and no charges were filed as a result of the bloodless ‘war’.

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