Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Governor of Pennsylvania

The year after his nomination by Pennsylvania Democrats for President, the party returned to Packer as a candidate for governor. After three rounds of votes at the convention, Packer emerged victorious. A few weeks later, the Judge gave an “acceptance speech” in Philadelphia that displayed the hallmarks of his personality. After a few words thanking his backers and the Democratic Party, the rest of his speech went as follows:

            “You will excuse me from making a speech as it is no part of my vocation. There are those whose calling it is to talk, mine has been to work. [Cheers.] I leave the talking to others, and will myself endeavor to do my share of the work. Thanking you for the kindness and friendship manifested in this greeting, I bid you good night.”

Packer also wrote a letter to the Democratic Party officially accepting the nomination. In it, he outlined his policies. The Judge followed policies typical of a Democrat. He wanted to reduce expenses of the state government and maintain its credit, encourage “intercourse and trade” to benefit the laborer, oversee “just execution of the laws,” promote education of the youth, and restore “purity and character to our government by the putting down or prevention of special and corrupt legislation.” Packer also noted that he paid particular attention to “the interests of labor,” since he said that he, “earned my bread by the labor of my hands during the many, and I may add, happiest years of my life.” The candidate then reiterated that, “for the solicitation of votes, it will not be expected that I shall undertake the performance of active duties in the canvass about to begin.” On the contrary, Packer put forth his personal conduct and character as exemplars on which voters could base their voting decision.
As political campaigns often do, mudslinging soon ensued. Although the allegations did not rise to the levels of the 1866 campaign, negative press reveals how fellow citizens could perceive Packer. Former Union General John White Geary, Packer’s opponent, represented the Republican Party and was the incumbent in 1869. Geary did not have a gift for oratory, but newspapers reported on Packer’s supposed shortcomings. Unsurprisingly, Packer’s wealth proved a point of contention as did his age. Since Democrats saw themselves as the party of the people, Packer’s bank account created grounds for criticism. Noted as too pro-business and not paying his share of taxes by some newspapers, Packer in fact paid 68% of the total taxes assessed in Mauch Chunk between 1866 and 1868. The New York Times remarked that Packer won the nomination based on his old age, infirmity, and ineffective ability. Other newspapers questioned Packer’s loyalty to the Union, based on his support of Southern Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, in the 1860 Presidential election. It is unknown if that charge is accurate, but Packer was listed as a Pennsylvania delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, SC. Other charges of disloyalty included questioning why Packer left the United States to go to Europe during the war. Pro-Packer newspapers replied that the Judge not only supported the Union, but even gave a speech encouraging enlistment in 1863 where he kept his promise to continue to pay the wages of any employee who enlisted that day. As for the charge of leaving the USA during the war, Packer personally responded to that charge and stated he only left for Europe after the end of the Civil War.
A man of few words, Packer granted two interviews during the gubernatorial campaign. In fact, the second interviewer found the Judge the opposite of “that cold, calculating, heartless man as represented.” Despite impressing the correspondent with warmth and a willingness to discuss issues, Packer “was too practical to have much to say.” Perhaps the interrogator asked the wrong questions. A writer for the New York Sun conducted the first interview of Packer. This interview provides the greatest single source for information on Packer’s political views from the man himself. Over the course of two interview periods, Packer responded to questions that ranged from Chinese immigration to women’s suffrage. The Judge laid out a platform that decried Geary’s management of the Pennsylvania budget and criticized the amount of pardons issued by the incumbent governor. Instead, Packer favored small government and wanted corruption rooted out. To show his principle of fairness and his trustworthy character, the railroad magnate brought up the point that during his service in Congress he voted against a bill that would profit railroad owners and convinced two other representatives to do the same. Speaking for the American working-man, Packer rejected Chinese immigration because he thought that it would “pauperize the white labor of the country.” Furthermore, he registered tacit support of the “Eight-Hour Law,” because he favored “all movement[s] that tend to the amelioration of the condition of the laboring man.” As for women’s suffrage, the Judge believed that women in Pennsylvania did not want to vote. In regards to the 15th Amendment, Packer did not directly address the issue of black, male voting rights, but insisted upon Constitutional grounds that individual states, not the federal government, held the authority to decide who voted in any given election. The Judge’s platform resembled the thoughts of a typical nineteenth-century Democrat and Packer even provided the reporter with an extract from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address.
On Election Day, Packer fell to Geary by a mere 4,596 out of 576, 508 votes cast. A tight election usually brings up questions of illicit behavior and this one was no different. Alexander K. McClure, a Republican who disliked Geary, wrote years after the fact that he witnessed a backroom deal, taking place by Philadelphia party leaders. Historian Erwin Bradley concludes that doubts over an upright election “seemed justified.” Of Geary’s 4,596-vote margin of victory, he won Philadelphia by 4,400. Bradley notes that the city had voted Democrat the previous two election cycles and he finds it unlikely that Geary could have garnered such a majority in Philadelphia when the race in the rest of the state was so close.  

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