The language at times was tinted with ominous undertones.
By Jonathan Burdick
On January 6, 2021, a relatively-unknown Pennsylvania state senator named Doug Mastriano stood outside of the Capitol Building as protests over the results of the 2020 election – which he erroneously alleged were fraudulent – erupted into violence. Fast-forward nearly two years and Mastriano, whose public profile has increased significantly with each subsequent controversy, is the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania.
His opponent, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, hasn’t minced words when it comes to Mastriano, and the two have traded increasingly heated words in the months leading up to the 2022 gubernatorial election. In October, Shapiro told MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell that Mastriano embraced “hateful rhetoric” and “dangerous extremism” and was “unfit to serve” as governor.
Mastriano, who mostly avoids mainstream news outlets in favor of communicating directly through social media, has accused Shapiro of being complicit in grooming, of allowing crime to run rampant in Pennsylvania, and being responsible for the fentanyl crisis. “He’s always on the wrong side of history,” Mastriano told Real America’s Voice host David Brody.
In the race for governor, Pennsylvania has become a battleground of ideologies in an ideologically split state and nation. This is a story that is not unfamiliar in Pennsylvania history. It was 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and three years after Gettysburg, and Pennsylvania was holding its gubernatorial election. Republican Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin, a Bellefonte native who vigorously supported Lincoln and his handling of the war, was not running for reelection. Meanwhile, in the White House, the former governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson was serving out Lincoln’s term. A Jacksonian Democrat who campaigned with Lincoln as part of a national unity ticket, Johnson wasn’t supportive of Reconstruction as pursued by Radical Republicans in Congress, and so now much depended on who would serve as governor in Harrisburg.
Although there was strong support from the executive office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvanians hadn’t been a united front in support of Lincoln — or even the war itself. Copperheads, otherwise known as Peace Democrats, had been adamantly opposed to the war and regarded Lincoln as a despot. With the war’s end, they found a new foe in the Radical Republican faction in Congress, led in the House of Representatives by Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens, who had enraged conservative Democrats throughout the state while also alienating moderate and conservative factions within the Republican Party.
Enter Democratic politician Hiester Clymer, a state senator from Reading whose family was long involved in politics. His allies described him as distinguished, eloquent, and a forceful debater who had vehemently opposed Lincoln while openly and loudly disapproving of the war. It was in March that Clymer won his party’s nomination at Pennsylvania’s Democratic State Convention in Harrisburg. An article in the Montrose Democrat reported on party members at the convention describing Clymer’s intelligence, integrity, and deep devotion to Pennsylvania. As he accepted the nomination to thunderous applause, Clymer made clear that this deep devotion was not extended to all Pennsylvania residents.
“I believe in the social superiority and will ever maintain the political supremacy of the white race,” he declared in his acceptance speech. These white supremacist views were a theme throughout the Democratic convention and his following campaign. The party passed resolutions acknowledging the constitutional prohibition of slavery, yet affirmed as part of their platform that only the white race should be in government and they were not willing to extend the vote to Black citizens. On campaign posters for Clymer, his platform was specifically referenced as “for the white man,” which the party platform assured would “receive a responsive echo in the breast of every conservative, union-loving citizen of whatever party.”
The language at times was tinted with ominous undertones. Convention leaders proclaimed that there was a “dangerous enemy” in the United States, a threat even worse than southern secession – the Radical Republicans. These menacing and fanatical “foes of free government,” they said, were a “bundle of contradictions” who were “clothed in the garb of patriotism and loyalty.” The implication was that they only hated President Johnson because he would “worship the Negro god.”
“The strong conservative counties of the State were almost a unit in his support,” Erie’s Observer newspaper reported the following day. “Mr. Clymer is everything that any fair-minded person can desire.”
That same month, the Republican convention also took place in Harrisburg. The nomination went to John W. Geary, a Union general and intimidating figure who towered over his peers at six feet six inches and 250 pounds. Geary was born and raised in Mount Pleasant, near Pittsburgh, to Scots-Irish parents. When his father, who was a schoolmaster and veteran of the War of 1812, died, Geary dropped out of Jefferson College to help his mother pay off family debts. He then worked odd jobs to save enough to re-enroll in college and finish his studies.
“He has been a farmer, a teacher, a civil engineer, a lawyer, and a manufacturer,” an address by the Union State Central Committee published in the Bedford Inquirer informed following his nomination. They noted his accomplishments as a postmaster, a mayor, a territorial governor, and, of course, his military experience.
Not all newspapers were so generous with praise. In Harrisburg’s Patriot & Union, the editors alleged that Geary relied on his military service to get undeserved applause, which went “right to the soft places in the heads of the ignorant and simple-minded masses, taking the place of sense, reason and principles.” A Perry County newspaper criticized him as the “Negro Suffrage candidate,” noting how during a campaign visit in Newville he disgusted even his own party members while “personally begging for votes” by “kissing the babies and flattering their mammies, and was sweet on the poor people generally.” The author, hoping to stir racial tensions, asserted that Geary openly “preferred” Black citizens to those with German or Irish ancestry and that to vote for him would reduce them “to a condition below the negro.”
The American Volunteer in Carlisle endorsed Clymer as “the white man’s candidate.” They claimed Pennsylvanians were fed up with the radicalism of Geary’s pro-equality politics. The Pittsburgh Republic also connected Geary to the Radical Republicans, publishing as a condemnation that he’d be “satisfied by nothing less than negro equality.” They protested that southern states were being held hostage to an ultimatum of extending the franchise to Black men, who were, they wrote, “utterly incapable” of civic participation.
Many felt otherwise, particularly Black citizens. The formerly enslaved activist and orator Frederick Douglass was already appealing to Congress for universal Black suffrage (including for women). “Man is the only government-making animal in the world,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “It is plain that if the right [to vote] belongs to any, it belongs to all.”
The Clymer campaign doubled-down on their unapologetic white supremacy. Bigotry was central to his campaign. Political ads with racist allegations and imagery were widely circulated. One poster criticized Geary’s support of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which they accused of being “an agency to keep the negro in idleness at the expense of the white man.” Racist imagery displayed a white man chopping wood with an ax to support his children while a caricature of a Black man lounged on the ground lazily nearby gluttonously while lusting after white women.
As for Geary, he didn’t appear swayed by the negative press and publicly reconfirmed his stance on racial equality at the polls. Attacks persisted. In June, a Susquehanna County newspaper endorsed Clymer for his “unblemished reputation” for honesty and integrity, traits in which they believed Geary lacked. They referred to Geary’s views on racial equality as outrageous and said that he wouldn’t only grant those of African ancestry the right to vote, but he’d allow them to run for office, be on juries, and have “all the right and privileges of white people.”
The Democrat and Sentinel explained in their endorsement of Clymer how the Democratic candidate had “riveted” the audience in Johnstown with a two-hour speech in which he promised the “protection of every white citizen, whether he be of English, Irish, Scotch, or German origin.” Clymer gave another speech in Lancaster where he declared that Geary was determined “to break down every barrier between the two races, and to place the negro upon a political and social equality with the white man.” Some Republican-leaning newspapers were even beginning to doubt Geary due to his ties to the Radicals. The Philadelphia Daily News went as far as saying Geary did not have “a shadow of a chance” of winning the election.
There was certainly pushback. Rhetoric on both sides intensified as the months passed. In the week before the election, many newspapers printed an article from the Pennsylvania Union State Committee criticizing Clymer’s campaign for a lack of substance beyond supporting rebels and denouncing any and all whispers of equality. They pointed out that while Pennsylvanians sacrificed during the Civil War, Clymer had made a political career out of opposing it. He had consistently voted against efforts to support the Union and its soldiers. Hiester Clymer was, they argued, outright disloyal to the United States of America. “[O]ur enemies are neither dead nor vanquished. Be not deceived,” they wrote, adding that men like Clymer were helping the rebels achieve at the ballot what they couldn’t on the battlefield.
Geary-supporting newspapers also published a letter from a Union veteran. He wrote that all loyal men who fought for the Union should despise Clymer. He accused him of having celebrated Confederate victories and publicly falling into “melancholy” at their losses. “He voted to disenfranchise you. He voted against increasing your pay as soldiers. He cast his ballot against every measure calculated to strengthen the army … [or] assist the nation in crushing the rebellion,” the letter stated. “Hiester Clymer is your enemy. He hates you today, as bad as Jefferson Davis.”
Meanwhile, the Lancaster Intelligencer countered that Geary was a “military fraud.” A Bellefonte newspaper used racial slurs describing Black men coming for white men’s jobs if Geary won. Another said that he and Thaddeus Stevens would tax Pennsylvanians to support their “colored pets.” A Tunkhannock newspaper warned of another civil war. William A. Wallace, an influential state senator and the chairman of Democratic State Committee, published with deeply racist urgency in the days before the election the white men were superior and were “entitled” to control the government.
“Faith in your principles, courage for the contest, and a determination to poll every conservative vote are the only requisites to an assured victory,” concluded Wallace.
Three days before the election, some Clymer-endorsing newspapers stated confidently that Clymer would win, but also accused, without evidence, that Radical Republicans were going to attempt to cheat. The Lancaster Intelligencer printed that desperate Geary-supporters would do anything to win including manipulating votes. “The ballot-boxes and the counting of the ballots must be watched,” they warned.
“It’s for you to decide,” remarked the Tioga County Agitator in support of Geary. “The eyes of the nation are upon you.”
For both sides, this election for Pennsylvania’s governor, so soon after the Civil War and so soon after the death of Abraham Lincoln, was crucially important. With their competing ideological visions, each campaign and its supporters portrayed the very soul of the state, and perhaps even that of the nation, as imperiled — and perhaps it was.
John W. Geary defeated Hiester Clymer. The race was tight. The votes were tallied at 307,274 to 290,096. While 51.4 percent of Pennsylvanians voted for Geary, 48.6 percent voted for a candidate promoting brazen white supremacy.
“The election of Hiester Clymer would have entailed dire calamity on the State,” editorialized the Harrisburg Telegraph. “But we are saved from all that.”
Geary served two terms as governor. Weeks after his second term ended, he died of a heart attack at the age of 53. As for Clymer, despite his openly white supremacist campaign, his political career was far from over. In 1872, he was elected to the House of Representatives where he served until 1881 before assuming the presidency of his family-owned Clymer Iron Company. In 1884, he committed suicide. After using a lethal dose of morphine, a note was found, citing the reason as “financial embarrassments.”
Today, a monument of General John W. Geary stands at Gettysburg on Culp’s Hill, the location where he led a risky, but victorious counterattack against the Confederates.
Jonathan Burdick is a writer, historian, and public school teacher residing in Erie, Pennsylvania. He also writes for the Erie Reader and manages the online public history project Rust & Dirt.