York Politicians Sling Mud
Both congressional candidates were York County natives.
The incumbent was a successful newspaper publisher and could boast of having marched off with the York Company to the defense of Baltimore in 1814. He had been a member of the committee to escort the great Lafayette when the Revolutionary hero returned to visit York in 1825.
The challenger was a successful attorney and had served in the Pennsylvania Senate. He too was known to Lafayette, having received a letter of condolence from the Frenchman upon the death of his father.
Lafayette may have been the only positive thing the two politicians had in common, as they both tried hard to discredit one another. For more on the campaign, see below for my previous York Sunday News column.
Politics as Usual
Hot election issues: legislators approving exorbitant expenditures; political favoritism; misrepresenting military service; blaming opponents for mud-slinging; implying racial discrimination; officeholders doing nothing to earn their pay; representatives in office too long; waffling on issues; not doing enough for disaster relief; voter apathy and irregularities –2004? 2006? 2008? How about 1832?
1832 was a major election year. On October 9, Pennsylvanians would choose either Anti-Masonic Party candidate Joseph Ritner or incumbent Jacksonian Democrat George Wolf for Governor. York County voters would send either Dr. Adam King, the incumbent Jacksonian Democrat, or Attorney Charles A. Barnitz, the Anti-Masonic challenger, to the U.S. Congress. The November 2 Presidential election would pit Democratic President Andrew Jackson against two candidates: National Republican Henry Clay and Anti-Masonic William Wirt. (Jackson would carry York County by 1701 votes.)
Public opinion was shaped by often highly partisan newspapers. York had several weekly papers in 1832. Thomas Hambly’s York Republican and Congressman Adam King’s York Gazette were most prominent.
The main gubernatorial issue was who was responsible for rampant wasteful spending on massive internal improvements, mainly canals, and subsequent taxation to pay for them. The Republican called the Jacksonian Democratic slate the “Masonic Tax Ticket,” and the Gazette named the Anti-Masons the “Federal Tax Ticket.” The Republican blamed Governor Wolf for higher taxes. The Gazette retaliated that it was Ritner and his colleagues in the state legislature who had created nearly 13 million dollars worth of debt before Wolf took office. (An 1832 dollar would be worth $25 to $225 today, depending on computation methods.) They also averred that some of the canals would benefit interests of both Ritner’s brother and Congress hopeful Barnitz.
The Gazette brought up Ritner’s 1812 service record. A reprint from the Washington [PA] Examiner quoted Anti-Masonic papers stating that Ritner, “for six months shouldered his musket in swamps and marshes of the Northwestern frontier.” That newspaper claimed 11 officers and men of Ritner’s military unit attested that Ritner left the company, without approval of his officers, to drive a U.S. team at $10 a month while still collecting his private’s pay.
The Gazette avowed that they “did not publish a word in disparagement, until the Anti-Masons did.” In the same issue they printed “Joseph Ritner in Favor of Slavery” in large type, referring to Ritner’s vote in legislature forbidding sheriffs from interfering with slave owners reclaiming runaway slaves.
The barbs became more personal in the Congressional race. Since 1830 census figures show 42,859 residents in York County, with 4,216 of those in York Borough, Dr. King and Attorney Barnitz were likely known personally by many of the voters. The Republican described King as having a “morose and undignified exterior and abrupt and repulsive manners and conversation.” The Gazette opined that Barnitz didn’t do much while in the state senate and was for the tax-causing canals.
A “letter to the editor” of the Republican, signed “A Citizen” complained that an untalented King had already made far too much money in Congress during the three two-year terms he had already served, especially since King himself advocated term limits. The same “Citizen” made much of Barnitz bringing a change of representation. He also rather disingenuously touted Barnitz as being a “plain farmer.” Tax records show Attorney Barnitz owned a house, several lots, two horses and a cow in York and over 230 acres, four kinds of mills, nine horses, and six cows in Spring Garden Township. Assessment value totaled $16,443–over a million dollars in today’s currency. (That 230 acres probably covered much of today’s Springdale, the York College campus, and Wyndham Hills.)
King’s Gazette said although rotation of office was desirable, good representatives should be renominated. The paper also accused Barnitz of daily changing his allegiance for presidential candidate, calling him a “political hermaphrodite–having one side for Claymen and one side for Antimasons.”
Finally, York had been devastated by flooding in 1817. Ten people died, all bridges were destroyed, and 50 to 100 buildings were lost. Property damage amounted to over $200,000 in 1817 dollars. The Republican credited Barnitz, then state senator, with obtaining grants of $6,000 for York to rebuild bridges and repair streets and asked what King had done. The Gazette countered with implied modesty that King had always contributed to turnpikes and public works but didn’t name any specific projects.
The October 9 election was close. Ritner carried the county by 10 votes (2367-2357) but lost to Wolf statewide by 3200 votes. Barnitz defeated King 2448 to 2269–a 179 vote margin. The Gazette’s next editorial, presumably written by King, said results would have been different if more members of his own party would have bothered to vote. He also insinuated bribery on the part of the Anti-Masons.
Perhaps “Nothing Ever Changes” and “History Repeats Itself” are truer than we sometimes think, especially when it comes to politics.
A pro-Barnitz “letter to the editor” closed with the declaration that it would and “everlasting stigma” on York county “if Charles A. Barnitz should be defeated by such a man as Adam King.” Talk about elitism.
Click here to read about a rousing 1882 Red Lion political rally.
Click here to read about Congressman Hartley’s efforts to place the U.S. capital in the area.
Click here to read how the 2008 campaign has spread to Europe.
Read about the 1840 “log cabin” campaign in York.