This is PennCivilWar's first piece from a guest contributor. EJ Murphy is a middle and high school social studies teacher in Scranton, Pennsylvania and tour guide for the Waverly Community House’s Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour.
The people of Abington Centre, now affectionately known as Waverly, had a lot to celebrate during the summer of 1838. Aside from the 62nd anniversary of American independence from Great Britain the residents of the Northeastern Pennsylvania village could reflect on the development of this land which, until the early 1820s, had remained untouched by the hands of man.
From this landscape arose a tight-knit community of settlers that would later play an instrumental role in Waverly's transition from densely wooded wilderness to bustling borough.
To celebrate the 4th of July officers had been organized to prepare events for the day. Selected as president of the committee was Dr. Andrew Bedford. While giving a toast at the event and commenting on the state of democracy in Luzerne County, Bedford hoped that "Union and harmony pervade its ranks, and its motto be 'principles, not men.'"[i]
Bedford, born in 1800 in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, arrived in Waverly in 1824 after graduating from Yale Medical College. On top of a successful medical practice Bedford found accomplishment in numerous endeavors, most famously championing for the formation of the Leggett's Gap Railroad which connected Slocum Hollow (now Scranton) to towns farther north as well as to New York. Bedford himself took charge of renewing the railroad's charter every five years until it was purchased in 1849 by George and Seldon Scranton and renamed the Lackawanna and Western Railroad.
While the pioneering physician had been building his reputation in the area, Pennsylvanians had decided that it was time to reexamine the state constitution.
A convention was formed in 1837 and after having established himself as a local leader and office holder (he served as postmaster of Waverly from 1828-1840) the "modest and unassuming" Dr. Bedford was elected as one of the delegates representing the area at the deliberations in Philadelphia thanks to his "inflexible democracy."[ii]
A Democratic gathering held in Kingston in October 1836 resolved that they would give their "earnest support" to Bedford and the other party delegates "because we believe them to be democrats in principle; who will exert themselves to sustain popular rights and annul the charter of the United States Bank."[iii]
The convention was assembled to discuss numerous issues including the aforementioned Bank of the United States, state executive power, limiting the tenure of judges, and suffrage rights. While the bank issue dominated the press leading up to the convention the issue of suffrage became the most contested and consequential.
Among the debates over who should be granted the right to vote arose the issue of residency requirements, the voting status of foreigners, and the right to vote for African-Americans. The latter subject was particularly timely given a pressing court case relating to the legality of African-American voting.
While the state constitution did not expressly forbid African-Americans from voting, it was a widely enforced unspoken rule for many of Pennsylvania's black residents that they were not welcome at the polls. This unspoken rule, however, did not stop William Fogg from attempting to cast his vote in October of 1835.
Greenfield Township, a stone's throw from Waverly, was about to be put at the center of the debate on black suffrage. Hiram Hobbs, township elections inspector, decided that Fogg did not have the constitutional right to participate in the election and denied him the right to do so. During the hotly contested legal battles to come, Hobbs would justify his actions by stating that "a free negro or mulatto is not a citizen, within the meaning of the law of the constitution and the laws of the United States and the state of Pennsylvania, and therefore is not entitled to the right of suffrage."
Judge David Scott, namesake of Scott Township and president judge of the state's Eleventh Judicial District, disagreed with Hobbs' legal take. "We know of no such expression in the constitution or laws of the United States, nor in the constitution or laws of the state of Pennsylvania, which can legally be construed to prohibit free negroes and mulattos, who are otherwise qualified, from exercising the rights of an elector."[iv]
Scott ruled in favor of Fogg and the case was immediately brought to the state Supreme Court. There Chief Judge John Gibson, also namesake of a Northeastern Pennsylvanian town, overruled Scott's decision and went on to explain that African-Americans were "not party to our social compact" and that they were "introduced into it as a race of slaves"[v] and therefore they were a caste not privy to the full rights and benefits of American citizenship. Local papers agreed, stating that "the colored population of the free states as a mass are notoriously a degraded, worthless, and half-savage race, with all the vices of the whites, and without one of their virtues. They are without a single political opinion of their own or political knowledge."[vi]
The decision came at a peculiar time, as the state constitutional convention had just come to its own conclusions about black suffrage.
Back and forth had gone arguments for and against voting right for African-Americans. In May, Bedford had heard enough. Introducing a counter-resolution against pro-minority suffrage, Bedford proposed a measure to restrict the vote to white male citizens who otherwise successfully met the requirements needed. Other delegates proposed similar measures and in January 1838 the convention voted 77-45 in favor of stripping African-Americans of their voting rights.
African-American communities all across Pennsylvania responded in kind, most famously with the "Appeal of Forty-Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disenfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania" by Philadelphia community leaders. Most of this opposition fell on deaf ears, however. Bedford and other Democratic delegates who had voted in the affirmative, including local Judge George Washington Woodward, appealed to the citizens of the state to ratify the new constitution.
Pennsylvania had taken a paternalistic approach to its black citizens since the formation of the state and the original constitution. Thanks to this embrace "there does not seem, therefore, to be any harshness in the denial of suffrage to the blacks, for all the measures of this state in reference to them, have been conceived in the most enlarged philanthropy, and tempered with love and pity,"[vii] declared Bedford and the other NEPA delegates in a widely circulated letter to the citizens of the state. Pennsylvanians had been convinced, and it's African-American citizens would lose their voting rights until the passage of the 15th Amendment more than thirty years later.
Andrew Bedford stayed relatively active in the local Democratic party in the years following the Convention, serving as president of local party conventions sporadically in the years leading to the beginning of the Civil War. He spent most of his time, however, continuing to help develop Waverly. He became a successful local merchant to add to his already impressive resume and even with his stance against African-American voting rights he later played a role in the Underground Railroad in Waverly which served as an important hub on the famous trail to freedom. Bedford's complicated legacy is a microcosm of the nation's differing approaches to what civil rights for minority groups would look like.
The actions of Dr. Bedford and fellow convention delegates not only echoed sentiment from across the other northern United States but also helped influence future measures and legislation that would pile on to the already heavy burden of African-American citizenship. United States Chief Justice Roger B. Taney would later reflect on the convention and more specifically the ruling of the Hobbs v Fogg case when justifying his infamous ruling in the Dred Scott case which contested that African-Americans, regardless of citizenship status, "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
The ruling in the Dred Scott case became one of the central issues leading to the outbreak of war and without the ruling in the Fogg case Taney may not have had the political clout to take such a severe stance in the court's decision which some historians have described as obiter dictum. Taney had felt that Pennsylvania was the perfect place for such a ruling due to "the just weight and authority of the court by which the opinion was given" and because "it maintains precisely the same principles"[viii] that Taney had practiced.
Waverly is now hailed as a destination of freedom. The tale of escaped enslaved person George Keys, Sr. and the development of Waverly's freeborn and fugitive slave community show the compassion and willingness of the area's citizens to aid the plight of the oppressed, but the actions of Andrew Bedford at the state constitutional convention of 1838 and the ruling in the Hobbs v Fogg case show that there were fundamental differences for some regarding the definition of freedom.
[i] "Fourth of July Celebration at Abington." The Republican Farmer and Daily Journal, July 18, 1838.
[ii] Wyoming Republican and Farmers Herald, January 17, 1838.
[iii] "Voice of Democratic Kingston." The Republican Farmer and Democratic Journal, October 5, 1836.
[iv] Remsen, Jim. Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Weary North. Mechanicsburg, Pa: Sunbury Press, 2017.
[vi] Republican Farmer and Democratic Journal, March 21, 1838.
[vii] "The New Constitution." Wyoming Republican and Farmer's Herald, June 6, 1838.
[viii] Remsen, Jim.