Pennsylvania has always defied easy categorization. That’s what makes it so great.
By Ed Simon
When King Charles II bestowed Pennsylvania upon the Quaker William Penn, in 1681, it was the largest private land holding on Earth—forty-six thousand square miles, give or take, stretching 283 miles from the Delaware River to that rectilinear, ruler-straight line of a border with Ohio. At its most northern point, the junction of New York and Ontario at Lake Erie, the latitude is almost the same as Boston; the southern edge is that symbolically fraught Mason-Dixon Line. Unfolding like a wrinkled Amish quilt across the Poconos, the Alleghenies, and the Appalachians, fractured by tectonic plate and glacier alike, the province—and, later, the state—would always be an ambiguous space. Which is why, whenever the national media turns its eyes towards Pennsylvania, it seems as if their analyses continually miss the mark.
Every four years, Pennsylvanians face the trauma of being a “swing state” and, for those of us with progressive inclinations, the possibility of embarrassment. Throughout the rapidly-collapsing Trump regime, there has been a cringe that’s accompanied my Pennsylvania identity. When we could have prevented incipient fascism, in 2016, too many of our fellow voters pulled the lever in favor of authoritarianism. Which made the announcement last Saturday—that Pennsylvania had pushed its native son, President-Elect Joe Biden, over 270 electoral votes—so sublimely sweet. That it was my hometown of Pittsburgh makes it even more so. It feels like a kind of redemption.
It’s also a reflection of Pennsylvania’s complexity. This area has always been hard to categorize, starting with the state’s designation as “Mid-Atlantic,” which feels nonsensical for a landlocked state. “Mid-Atlantic” itself has long meant simply the part of the Northeast that’s not New England (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and perhaps the District of Columbia), though defining something by what it’s not is never satisfying. Pennsylvania is sometimes seen as Midwestern by those of a more coastal bent, and parts of it belong to Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Democratic political strategist James Carville infamously said that “Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama.” The state is perhaps best understood as what was left over after every other region delineated its confines.
Geographic ambiguity is the least of the Pennsylvanian uncertainties. Pennsylvanian gulfs are vast. The area we frequently call the “T”—between the mainline of Philadelphia and the suburbs of Pittsburgh—can appear a wide-open zone of Trump signs and A.M. Christian radio, while the urban centers share more in common with any of the major metropolises in the northeast or industrial Midwest. If you look at a nighttime satellite image, you see the explosion of lights on the seaboard, with Philadelphia (the fifth largest city in the U.S., and the second largest on the east coast) but a node lodged between Baltimore and New York, and then infinite speckled darkness spreading westward till you hit the lights of Pittsburgh.
Yet that does a disservice to the sheer diversity of the state. First settled by Algonquin in the east and Iroquoian speakers in the west, Pennsylvania has been claimed, variously, by Swedes, the Dutch, the French, and the English, and fought over by representatives of the Quaker Penns and the Catholic Calverts in southern Maryland. In the early days, the state had neither the Puritans of New England nor the Cavalier ethos of points further south. Its history is marked by the Pennsylvania Dutch who settled here throughout the eighteenth-century (many of whom still speak their distinctive German dialect), the Welsh and Irish who came in the nineteenth, and the scores of southern and eastern European immigrants and African American migrants who came in the twentieth.
Certainly such a history—of migrations external and internal, of industry and agriculture, of settlement and colonialism—isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. And yet there’s always been something a bit odd about this place, with its propensity for both the utopian and the apocalyptic. Pennsylvania was the land where the eighteenth-century Pietist mystic Johan Kelpius would meditate in the caves of Germantown, and where in that same century the Paxton Boys militia would massacre a group of Conestoga Indians on a hideous Christmas Eve; where, in the nineteenth century, the religious communitarians of Ephrata and New Harmony would attempt to construct their perfect societies, and where Henry Clay Frick would use the Pinkertons to murder striking steel workers in Homestead; where the hulking, rusting heft of Bethlehem Steel would rise upon the ruins of a Moravian utopia. To be an American is to live in contradiction, and in that way, Pennsylvania has always been a bit more American.
Publications like the New York Times have spent the past four years trafficking in the most jaundiced of stereotypes, pretending its readers need to care about the opinions of voters who disguise their bigotry as economic insecurity. That was always a bogus narrative anyhow—the working class didn’t elect Trump, the white upper middle class (and white voters generally) did. And it was a coalition of Black and brown voters in Philadelphia, Allegheny, Erie, Northampton, and Lehigh counties who helped evict him. But this year, Biden also outperformed Hilary Clinton in every single county of the state, so the silent Democratic voter in Elk and Fayette and Washington and Westmoreland and Luzerne counties also had a hand in the process—truly a multiracial and multiethnic coalition of the working class, the marginalized and disenfranchised, young people, and, I suspect, the just-plain-fed-up.
In 2016 I knew, to my increasing alarm, that Pennsylvania would go for Trump, and this year I knew that it would break with him. Call it something wooey or mystical, but I know my state. I’m flummoxed by media surprise regarding those results (in either direction), but I think they speak to the fact that America has never really grappled with this odd stepchild, Pennsylvania—a place of contradiction that I can’t always apologize for, but which has always harbored a radical and beautiful counternarrative underneath.
This is the Pennsylvania that I see right now: the Pennsylvania of Benjamin Lay, the eighteenth-century Quaker who declared that “All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage [are] Apostates”; of his contemporary, the apocalyptic preacher Herman Husband, who imagined a communist utopia spreading forth through the Alleghenies; of the secret society of nineteenth-century Irish miners known as the Molly Maguires, who, with anarchic precision, fought for workers’ rights in Carbon and Lackawanna Counties; of the father of Black nationalism, Martin Delany, who agitated for abolition from his medical practice in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and commanded a battalion against the Confederate traitors in the Civil War; of the muckracking progressive journalist Ida Tarbell, whose reporting led to the downfall of Standard Oil’s monopoly; and of Thaddeus Stevens, who thundered on the floor of Congress, “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’”
That disobedience to tyranny is obedience to God may be an axiom upon which the American Revolution was supposedly fought, but it sometimes feels like more of a truth in the Commonwealth. This year, the usually prosaic counting of votes was transformed into a carnivalesque celebration of democracy. The state’s shining virtue has always been a low church ability to mock despots, ever since Philadelphia told King George III what he could go do with himself. There are memes of methadone Muppet Gritty assaulting the MAGA crowd; gifs of Rocky running the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps; of the gang in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fighting fascism; and of our glorious Yinzer Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who said the president could “sue a ham sandwich” for all he cared.
Pennsylvania is the place where we render the head fat of a pig into a loaf and pretend it’s lunch, where they ferment their bologna, where they make toast out of meat and call it scrapple. It’s where the entire town of Centralia can fall into a coal fire that won’t burn itself out for centuries and several people still decide to stick around, and where, in Punxsutawney, there is an annual ritual demanding that a rodent be pulled out of the ground in deference to the gods of winter and their desired eclipse (a certain movie was made about this, of which the election count was reminiscent). It is beautiful, infuriating, and far stranger than either the national media or Donald Trump understands.
Far more capable tyrants than Trump have been felled by Pennsylvania. This vanquishing feels like George Meade turning back Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg. It makes me want to ring the Liberty Bell until its crack breaks the whole thing apart and the light can get in. ■
Correction: An earlier version of this essay said that King Charles I gave Pennsylvania to William Penn. It was actually King Charles II. We regret the error.
Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and author of the upcoming book An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, available from Belt Publishing in the spring of 2021.
*Commentary pieces are the work of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.