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Meriwether Lewis' Pittsburgh: Politics define and divide small town's ruling class

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

When Meriwether Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1803, he would discover a far different social ladder than the one he knew in aristocratic Virginia.

As the 1800s dawned, politics rather than pedigree dominated Pittsburgh's ruling class, whose members were mostly merchants, traders and fiercely partisan politicos. (Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

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Politics rather than pedigree dominated Pittsburgh's ruling class, whose members were mostly merchants and traders. Unlike the Southern planter society, to which the Lewis family belonged, only a few here drew their wealth from land alone.

The elite of the little borough of 2,000 people were merchants such as James O'Hara, who earned his fortune supplying frontier military outposts from Pittsburgh, then investing his money in local businesses, including a brewery and a glassworks.

Others were professionals, such as lawyers John Woods, whose father, George, was a land agent for the Penn family, and James Ross, Woods' brother-in-law. Both were among the first admitted to the Allegheny County bar in 1788 and were active in Federalist Party politics.

"These men and others of the same class looked upon themselves as 'gentlemen,' " wrote Solon and Elizabeth Buck. "Their wealth, background and position enabled them to wield great influence in Pittsburgh."

Yet few of them appear to have had much time for one of the true hallmarks of privilege -- leisure. They earned their money by hard, steady work in their legal practices and their businesses. In his sociological study, "Founding Families of Pittsburgh," Joseph E. Rishel found:

"Their lives were characterized by long working careers and, in some cases, no retirement at all."

He found that the average life span of his group was 77.6 years, "far in excess of the average life expectancy at that time."

Despite the town's rather homogeneous population of Protestants from the British Isles, there was a sharp political division among the merchant class.

Fueled by the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, society was split between those who favored a strong federal government or a weak one. The uprising pitted Western Pennsylvania's cottage distillery industry against the federal government's power to tax its product.

President George Washington dispatched a 13,000-man army to Pittsburgh to enforce that power, but the issues of federalism persisted here and would continue, as the presidential election of 1800 showed.

It was a bitter partisan affair, marked by nasty personal attacks. The charges ranged from accusations that the incumbent, Federalist John Adams, was insane, to claims that Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson cohabited with slave women.

The insanity charge proved most effective; Adams finished third behind Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who tied in the electoral college, leaving the decision up to the House of Representatives.

A deal was reached after 36 ballots, and Jefferson was elected.

'Clapboard Democracy'

In Pittsburgh, the political climate was no less intense after Jefferson won a narrow victory in Pennsylvania. The state was almost split evenly, the east going for Adams, the west for Jefferson.

Feelings ran so high that there was no traditional local ball or "levee" to celebrate the Virginian's inauguration. Celebrations were held a year later, though.

Around Pittsburgh, the Federalists were led by the John Neville family, while the "godfather" of the Democrat-Republicans was Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the Princeton-educated lawyer who came to Pittsburgh in 1781 after Revolutionary War service.

A jack-of-all-trades -- lawyer, novelist, poet, editorial writer -- he participated in starting the region's most significant institutions -- Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Academy (the forerunner of the University of Pittsburgh), the First Presbyterian Church -- before leaving to become a state Supreme Court justice.

Brackenridge took up the opposition cause after Neville ostracized him for his collaboration with several Whiskey Rebellion leaders.

The Gazette's John Scull also attacked Brackenridge in the pages of the newspaper, which Brackenridge had helped found in 1786. The lawyer replied by launching a second weekly in 1800 called the Tree of Liberty.

At Brackenridge's blue frame house with white fence near Market and Second streets, the Federalist foes mapped their political strategy. It was "the best-known house in town," historian Charles W. Dahlinger said.

Adjoining it was the Tree of Liberty office, and nearby were a row of clapboard dwellings between Third and Fourth streets, home to other Democrat-Republicans, and also the General Butler Tavern, site of many political dinners and rallies.

This so-called "Clapboard Democracy" would come to rule Pittsburgh in the early 1800s, succeeding in impeaching and removing the odious circuit court judge Alexander Addison in 1803, the same year it would sweep the borough elections and join in a takeover of the state Legislature.

No nonsense, please

While politics set the style of Pittsburgh society in 1803, it was the town's Scotch-Irish ancestry which determined the distinct character of that society for years to come.

"Pittsburgh's renown in early years came not from the nature of its manufacture, but from the heritage of its citizens," historian John N. Ingham said. "It was the heart of the Presbyterian Scots-Irish, which in so many ways characterized the American frontier.

"It was this group that gave the city its early moral fibre of strict no-nonsense Calvinism; they set the cultural tone in the early years."

An 1801 list of the congregation of First Presbyterian supports Ingham's conclusions. Among its members were O'Hara, Ross, Woods, Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, Maj. Isaac Craig and Ebeneezer Denny, who would be the first mayor when the borough became a city in 1816.

O'Hara, partner with Craig in the region's first glassworks, would donate a glass chandelier to the new brick church, which opened in 1805.

Bedford came to America as a surgeon in the British Army in 1765 and stayed on, enlisting in the American cause. He sustained his European tastes at his Liberty Avenue home, where he lived "in the style of an English nobleman, had servants, horses and hunting dogs," according to a contemporary description recorded in the 1901 work, "Pioneer Physicians of Western Pennsylvania."

His fellow Presbyterians maintained impressive dwellings as well. Woods lived in a "handsome estate" along the Allegheny River near the present 10th Street, a mansion with wings on either side.

In the meantime, a Second Presbyterian Church was formed in Pittsburgh in 1803, making that branch of Protestantism the only one with two congregations in town.

"Scotch-Irish Presbyterian merchants" were to become the "bellwether" of Pittsburgh's economy in the early 1800s, Ingham said, terming them a "young, ethnically distinct aristocracy consolidating power as the city began to mature."

In another view, Pittsburgh historian John Newton Boucher, writing in the 19th century, called the Scotch-Irish "very independent, if not arrogant in the world.

"They always looked down on the Puritans and Quakers, who in turn despised them," he generalized. "They abhorred the Pennsylvania Dutch ... and yet from the beginning to the end, they ruled the Quaker, Puritan and Dutchman as though with a rod of iron."

Yet the nature of "Pittsburgh's elite" in 1803 is still uncertain, Ingham said, because, "We do not yet have a portrait of this important founding group nor any sense of what made Pittsburgh distinctive at this time."

For example, his question, "What difference did the large Scots-Irish Presbyterian population make to the overall character of Pittsburgh?" has yet to be answered by social scholars.

The region's economic nature would change rapidly after Lewis left Pittsburgh 200 years ago, making the days of Fort Pitt, Indian raids, militant farmers and Conestoga wagons just quaint memories.

In the process, much of the uniqueness of its early residents appears to have faded away as well.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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