You Can Spit Here: Samuel Pennypacker’s Veto Messages

During Samuel Pennypacker’s tenure as governor of Pennsylvania, he vetoed many bills. “There is far too much legislation,” he declared, and the “modern tendency to invent new crimes ought to be curbed.” During his time in office (1903-1907), he vetoed or used his influence to destroy thousands of bills that would have created stiff fines and punishments for offenses. At the time, politicians were overcome with a “perfect mania for legislation,” proposing bills regulating or controlling just about anything, causing one critic to write “a statute is the panacea for the legislative quack.” The Governor believed that it was “far better to leave the law alone unless the necessity for change was plain.” Under Pennypacker’s watch, less than half as many bills were passed annually by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly than there were before or after his term.

Samuel Pennypacker
Samuel Pennypacker, probably reading a new bill with disgust. Capital Preservation Committee.

Another unusual detail from Pennypacker’s efforts to curb legislative excess was his colorful style of vetoing. Unlike previous governors, he wrote detailed and thoughtful official reasons for each veto that were published for the public. Granted, there was probably a lot more going on behind the scenes in the Governor’s office. However, these veto messages give us some insights into Pennypacker’s thought process and some of the pressing issues that affected Pennsylvanians in the early 20th century.

Below is Pennypacker’s 1903 veto message for a law that would have imposed fines or prison sentences for any citizen caught spitting in a public place. The law, supported by members of the State Board of Health, was intended to protect public health and help prevent the spread of communicable diseases like tuberculosis (called consumption then). Take a read to see why Pennypacker would oppose such a bill!

“The purpose of the bill appears to be an effort to make people nice and cleanly in their habits by legislation. It is not confined to those who have consumption or other diseases which may be so transmitted. There are certain inconveniences which necessarily result from association with our fellows and which have to be endured. There is an efiluvia, more or less disagreeable, from every living person. There is an exudation from every pore of the skin. There are conditions under which spitting is almost impossible to restrain.

Pennsylvania senators and representatives had personal spittoons next to each of their desks, and the Governor had a custom-made brass and bronze one. They were used as late as the 1950s. Capitol Preservation Committee.

Among the thousands of people who go to a circus, one or more may have a cold; catarrh, or sudden contact between the teeth and tongue may cause a flow of saliva. Imprisonment seems to be severe punishment for yielding to what cannot always be prevented. If spittoons were provided, there would be a stronger reason for such legislation. Upon the whole, while it must be conceded that spitting is not nice, pleasant or polite, it seems to me that it would be better to leave the cure of a bad habit to the gradual development of a better taste and higher culture rather than to attempt a regulation by law, in the shape of an enactment which imposes imprisonment, instead of a well digested health regulation.”


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