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CHAPTER VIII. The Political Aftermath.

    Partisans Quick to Make Capital out of the Occurrence—The Democrats Aggressive—The “Silver Grays” Apologetic, and the “Woolly Heads” on the Defensive—Effect of the Christiana Incident on the October Elections.

Thaddeus Stevens in September, 1851, was serving his second term as Representative of the Lancaster County district. As an antagonist of Southern ideas relating to slavery, he “strode down the aisles” of the House with a good deal more erectness of bearing than Ingersoll in his famous nominating speech ascribed to the “Plumed Knight” from Maine; and he struck the shield of his adversaries with a much louder ring than was given out at the impact of Mr. Blaine’s lance. To his individual and official view—law or no law, constitution or no constitution—slavery was “a violation of the rights of man as a man”—freedom was the law of nature. Like Mirabeau, “he swallowed all formulas.” But he was a lawyer, as well as a politician and moralist, and while he announced his “unchangeable hostility to slavery in every form in every place,” he also avowed his “determination to stand by all the compromises of the constitution and carry them into faithful effect”—much as he disliked some of them, they were not “now open for consideration,” nor would he disturb them. This again was practically an admission of the abstract legal right of the master to reclaim the fugitive.

Mr. Stevens was first elected to Congress in 1848, when Gen. Zachariah Taylor was elected President, and when he died (July 9, 1850), and Fillmore, Vice President and a Northern Whig, succeeded him, Stevens had been elected to a second term, which lasted until March 4, 1853.

[Pg 47]In those “good old days” a Congressman had some influence in the matter of Federal appointments. The United States Marshal, who executed warrants and picked jurors in Eastern Pennsylvania, was Stevens’ personal and political friend, Anthony E. Roberts. Mr. Roberts, who was a native of Chester County, was then 48 years of age and long a prominent citizen of New Holland. He had been sheriff of Lancaster County elected in 1839 as an avowed anti-Masonic candidate, favored by Stevens. He was with him an active anti-Mason and was a candidate for Congress in 1843, but was beaten by Jeremiah Brown. President Taylor appointed him Marshal in 1849, and he filled the office until the incoming of Pierce’s administration.

The Intelligencer and Journal, then edited by George Sanderson, was the regular organ of the Democratic party in Lancaster County. It was a weekly publication, and at that time a vigorous and exciting campaign for the State election in October was in progress. Col. William Bigler of Clearfield County was the Democratic nominee for Governor; General Seth Clover of Clarion County for Canal Commissioner, and for Judges of the Supreme Court the first ticket presented by the Democratic party under the new elective system bore the illustrious names of Jeremiah S. Black, Somerset; James Campbell, Philadelphia; Ellis Lewis, Lancaster; John B. Gibson, Cumberland, and Walter H. Lowrie, Allegheny.

The Whig County organ was the Lancaster Examiner and Herald, published and edited by Edward C. Darlington, who was a conspicuous leader of what was then known as the “Silver Gray” faction of his party—being opposed by the more aggressive anti-slavery men, of whom Thaddeus Stevens was the leader, and whose followers were derisively styled “Woolly Heads.” The candidates of the Whig party on the State ticket were: for Governor, William F. Johnston, Armstrong County (a candidate for re-election); for Canal[Pg 48] Commissioner, John Strohm, of Lancaster County, and for Judges of the Supreme Court, Richard Coulter, Westmoreland; Joshua W. Comly, Montour; George Chambers, Franklin; William M. Meredith, Philadelphia, and William Jessup, Susquehanna.

The fact that the entire Supreme Court membership, then numbering five, was to be elected, greatly increased popular interest in the result. Pennsylvania was an October State. The Darlington faction of the Whig party was in the ascendancy and Darlington himself was on the ticket for Senator. Moses Pownall, of Sadsbury Township, was one of the Whig candidates for the Assembly. The regular Democratic County ticket had not yet been nominated, but the opponents of Mr. Buchanan, who were stigmatized as disorganizers and “Frazer Ponies,” had named a County ticket.

The first local publications of the tragic occurrences in the Chester Valley appeared respectively in the Intelligencer of September 16 and the Examiner of September 17, and their local reports of the affair are illustrative not only of the laggard journalistic enterprise of that day, but of the intense partisanship which characterized newspaper management, colored the reports of news occurrences and generally pervaded all journalistic work. The Intelligencer’s account of the affair was printed under a Columbia correspondent’s “Particulars of the Horrible Negro Riot and Murder,” and the editorial additions to this report commented on the disgraceful conduct of the “Abolition Whig Governor, absenting himself from the seat of government” on an electioneering tour, while riots and bloodshed prevailed throughout the Commonwealth, and citizens of an adjoining State were “murdered in our midst.” All these outrages, it charged, could be traced to the Executive of the Commonwealth—Governor Johnston was then serving his first regular term—“roaming about in quest of votes, instead of being at his post to enforce the utmost rigor of the law against the white and black murderers.”


[Pg 49]Further down the same column the editor rejoiced that Hanway and Lewis and nine negro accessories had been arrested and were in prison awaiting trial for murder. District Attorney John L. Thompson and Alderman J. Franklin Reigart were warmly praised for “ferreting out and arresting the guilty ones,” while the deposition of Deputy Marshal H. H. Kline was presented as a most satisfactory account of the “whole transaction.”

The Examiner promptly declared it to be a “dreadful tragedy” and “one of the most horrid murders ever perpetrated in this County or State.” Manifestly with one eye upon the political consequences to the State and local Whig ticket, and the other toward the Abolition faction of the Whig party, to which Editor Darlington was opposed, his newspaper frankly admitted that an awful responsibility rested somewhere, and the Examiner believed it to be “our duty to speak loudly and distinctly to those individuals who evidently have urged the blacks to this horrid measure.” It deprecated all attempts “to make political capital out of the Sadsbury treason and murder by connecting Governor Johnston’s name with that melancholy affair. Intelligent readers will regard such efforts with feelings of disgust and contempt.” But for the white persons under arrest and charged with murder and treason, it had no condonation. “Their passions had been inflamed by Abolition harangues and incendiary speeches franked by members of Congress until they had come to look upon treason to the laws of their country as a moral duty, and upon murder as not a crime.” It declared that this was especially perceptible and prevailing in Sadsbury and the eastern end of Bart; it recalled with special disapprobation the public meeting held at Georgetown, when the Griest resolutions were passed.

Much indignation was expressed by his political opponents that Governor Johnston, passing through Christiana on his[Pg 50] way from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, on a campaign tour, the morning of the affair, did not get off his train at Christiana where lay the dead body of the Marylander, slain on Pennsylvania soil; though many other passengers did so and the train stopped almost at the place where the inquest was to be held.

Democratic campaign meetings held throughout the County were quick to turn their sails to catch the currents of popular opinion and at an assemblage in Columbia, on September 13th, N. B. Wolfe, M.D., later a famous citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio, principal speaker, denounced “the horrid murder of Gorsuch” “by a band of desperate negroes excited and influenced by murderous Abolitionists whose reeking hands are still smoking with the warm life’s blood of a fellow citizen.”

A committee of conspicuous Democrats in Philadelphia, including Hon. John Cadwalader, James Page, John W. Forney, A. L. Roumfort, Charles Ingersoll, Joseph Swift and others, in an “open letter,” loudly demanded of the Governor that he act for the vindication of the Commonwealth and called a public indignation meeting of citizens in Independence Square. The Governor responded with a rather tart letter and offered $1,000 reward for the arrest of the murderers.

The Intelligencer continued to comment on the tragedy as “the legitimate fruit of the policies pursued by Governor Johnston and Thaddeus Stevens.” It criticized Johnston very severely for having passed Christiana without instituting any “measures to bring the murderers to justice” before proceeding on his way; for making political speeches “instead of seeing that the perpetrators of treason against the government and the most bloody murder ever committed in this State were brought to justice.” Governor Johnston was at Ephrata and New Holland on the following Saturday, he came to Lancaster on Saturday night, left at midnight[Pg 51] for Philadelphia, and arrived there about five o’clock A.M.

Meantime Rev. J. S. Gorsuch, son of Edward Gorsuch and brother of Dickinson, wrote to the Baltimore Sun an account of the tragedy, which was copied into the Intelligencer and other Northern papers as an accurate statement.

Subsequently he published an open letter to Governor Johnston, arraigning him for a lack of official promptness which resulted in the slaves and murderers of his father escaping. He recalled that Johnston had refused to honor a requisition from the Governor of Maryland for the free negro, Abe Johnson, who had received the stolen wheat, and he declares that that same Johnson whose return was refused by the Governor, was present at the riot. He proceeded to contrast Johnston’s tardiness with “the decision, energy and promptness of the Lancaster County officers,” who, he said, “had to collect a posse of men from iron works and diggings on the railroad” to enforce the processes of the law.

The newspapers report that Alderman Reigart was “receiving much commendation in the Southern press for the ability and firmness with which he discharged his duties as the committing magistrate.” In the Baltimore Sun of October 8, Rev. J. S. Gorsuch had another open letter, this time to Attorney General Franklin. Gorsuch had undertaken to criticise Governor Johnston without in any way condemning his Attorney General. Mr. Franklin had vindicated his chief, by declaring that he had done his full duty, and as his legal adviser the Attorney General accepted all the responsibility for the Governor’s conduct.

The general tendency of the agitation undoubtedly was to depress the campaign prospects of the Whigs. Even Philadelphia was extremely conservative and desperately anxious to not lose the trade of the South. Bigler carried the State, receiving 186,499 votes to 178,034 for Johnston. More than that slender majority could be accounted for by the Christiana riot. In Lancaster County the vote on Governor was:[Pg 52] Democrat, 6,226, Whig, 11,064. What might have happened had Mr. Stevens been a candidate for Congress cannot now be calculated. He had been re-elected in 1850, receiving 9,565 votes, to 5,464 for Shaeffer. In 1852 he was not a candidate. The late Hon. Isaac E. Hiester was nominated by the “Silver Gray Whigs,” and received 8,840 votes, to 6,456 for Sample, the candidate of the Democratic opposition. In 1854 Stevens was not a candidate, but revenged himself on Hiester by running Anthony E. Roberts, the same who had been U. S. marshal during the Christiana riots. There was a three-cornered fight during that year. Pollock, Whig candidate for Governor, had the support of the Know Nothings, and defeated Bigler by 37,000 majority. Lefevre was the third candidate for Congress in Lancaster County, and divided both the Roberts and Hiester vote, with the result that Roberts received 6,561, Hiester 5,371 and Lefevre 4,266. By this time the new Republican party was organized; the Silver Gray Whigs went out of the fight; Roberts, Whig, and Hiester, Opposition, were again the candidates, and, although Buchanan carried Lancaster County by a plurality of over 2,000 above Fremont and more than 4,000 above Fillmore, Roberts was elected to Congress, receiving 10,001 votes to Hiester’s 8,320. In 1858 Stevens again became a candidate for the 36th Congress, and was elected over James M. Hopkins, by the following vote: Stevens, 9,513; Hopkins, 6,341. The latter had been one of the jury in “the treason trial” and had some support from Stevens’ Whig opponents. Stevens, however, got some Democratic aid. Thenceforth the power of Darlington and “the Silver Grays” was broken; Republicanism was in the local ascendancy with Stevens as its leader; he never lost his control until his death—his last nomination being conferred upon him by popular vote when his body was encoffined, the ballots having been printed before he died.

[Pg 53]If the effect of the agitation elected Bigler, it strengthened the Buchanan wing of the Democratic party, whose choice the Governor-elect was. If it was not able to control the National convention of 1852, it succeeded in defeating Cass, who was Buchanan’s chief rival, and thus was helped the nomination of the Lancaster County candidate for Presidency in 1856. Though Bigler was defeated for a second Gubernatorial term, he was elected United States Senator in 1855. The election of four Democratic Supreme Court Judges in Pennsylvania in 1851 was one of the results of the Christiana riot. James Campbell, alone of the Democratic nominees was defeated. He was a Catholic and the Know Nothing opposition to him centred upon Coulter, and elected him; he had been on the bench 1846-7. Campbell became Postmaster General under Pierce.

Meantime the dead body of Edward Gorsuch was taken by rail to Columbia, and via York on the Northern Central Railroad, to Monkton, where a throng of mourning neighbors met it and great local excitement prevailed. There being no convenient hearse and the distance too long for pall-bearers, it was carried by the four-horse team of Eliphalet Parsons to Mr. Gorsuch’s home. There, after a brief service by Rev. Vinton, it was committed to a family burying ground, where the body has rested undisturbed for sixty years. This private graveyard on the Gorsuch farm is located on an eminence in the midst of a fine orchard of apple trees, and overlooking the wide expanse of country to the southwest and traversed by Piney Run, a tributary to the Gunpowder. The graveyard is about twenty-five by thirty-five feet, surrounded by a massive stone wall, without any gate or entrance. The former opening to it was walled up by direction of and with a legacy left for that purpose by a son Thomas. There remain three low gravestones, of uniform pattern, the central one of which has the initials “E. G.” The occupants of the other two graves are unknown, and[Pg 54] there is nothing to indicate who they were. Rev. John S. Gorsuch, son of Edward and who was very conspicuous in the agitation over his killing, was formerly buried in this graveyard, but his remains have been removed therefrom. He died at 32 of typhoid fever the March after his father, and while attending a M.E. conference. The little graveyard is overgrown with myrtle. Human hands have not desecrated it in any way, but there is evidence that the gnawing teeth of rodent vandals have been at work on the graves.


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