Quotable Pennsylvania: The Presidents

Pennsylvania has always played an important part in American politics, and it should come as no surprise that presidents have talked incessantly about the state too. It only seems appropriate to share some of their descriptions on the eve of an election where Pennsylvania is going to play an oversized role in deciding the next president.

Whether its fretting about Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in presidential elections, monitoring military events in the state, or praising its people, presidents have been talking about the Keystone State, literally for centuries.

Maybe its because the Commander in Chief lives on Pennsylvania Avenue?

Recommended listening: “Ballad for Americans” by Paul Robeson (1939). The Republican Party used this song to kick off their 1940 presidential convention in Philadelphia. Interestingly, the song also became a standard for Communist Party rallies that same year.

George Washington sat for this portrait in Pennsylvania in the middle of the Revolutionary War in 1776. Mount Vernon.

“In a majority of the States, scarcely an objection was heard to this mode of taxation. In some, indeed, alarms were at first conceived, until they were banished by reason and patriotism. In the four western counties of Pennsylvania, a prejudice, fostered and embittered by the artifice of men, who labored for an ascendency over the will of others, by the guidance of their passions, produced symptoms of riot and violence.”

-George Washington (reporting on Congress on the Whiskey Rebellion), 1794
Washington’s Address to Congress, November 19, 1794

“Nothing would promote our Cause more, than Howes March to this Town. Nothing quickens and determines People so much, as a little Smart. — The Germans, who are numerous and wealthy in this state and who have very imperfect Ideas of Freedom, have a violent Attachment to Property. They are passionate and vindictive, in a Degree that is scarce credible to Persons who are unacquainted with them, and the least Injury to their Property, excites a Resentment and a Rage beyond Description. A few Houses and Plantations plundered, as many would be, if Howe should come here, would set them all on Fire. Nothing would unite and determine Pensilvania so effectually.”

John Adams, 1777 (discussing British troops threatening Philadelphia)
Letter to Abigail Adams

An excerpt from the 1840 election returns in Pennsylvania. Van Buren was handily defeated in PA and lost reelection. Library of Congress.

“Pennsylvania is in every sense of the word a great state and worthy of high respect- great in her material resources and great in the constant industry, the morality and general intelligence of her People. When to the credit she derives from these sources is added that which has naturally accrued from the moderate and sound character of her general course it will be seen how well she has deserved the honor shwen her by her sister States in the title with which they have distinguished her of “the key stone of the arch of the Union.”

-Martin Van Buren, 1854
The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, Volume II page 314

“With the vote of Pennsylvania, I consider our success as certain beyond all doubt. Without it we may succeed, but the contest, will be very close and must be regarded as doubtf[ul].”

-James Polk, 1848
Letter to John Kane

“Although, in Pennsylvania, we are all opposed to slavery in the abstract, yet we will never violate the Constitutional compact which we have made with our sister States. Their rights will be held sacred by us.”

-James Buchannan, 1836 (speaking in opposition to growing abolitionism)
Mr. Buchannan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866), page 15

Excerpt from the “Nicolay Copy” of the Gettysburg Address, believed to be the original draft of the speech Lincoln read from in Gettysburg in 1863. Library of Congress.

“I do not think the people of Pennsylvania should be uneasy about an invasion. Doubtless a small force of the enemy is flourishing about in the Northern part of Virginia on the “Screw horn” principle, on purpose to divert us in another quarter. I believe it is nothing more. We think we have adequate forces close after them.”

-Abraham Lincoln, 1863 (2 months before the Battle of Gettysburg)
Letter to Andrew Curtin

Theodore Roosevelt receiving a tribute from children in Wyoming, PA, 1905. Library of Congress.
Woodrow Wilson addressing a huge crowd at Independence Square in Philadelphia in 1916. Library of Congress.

“I have said on many occasions that Pennsylvania is key to the success of this election and also I believe Pennsylvania, a great industrial complex, has seen the effects of eight years of Republican indifference to the needs of this state and the needs of this country. I believe that the people of Pennsylvania and the people of the United States, recognizing that this is a difficult time and an important election, are going to put their confidence in progress, which is our most important product.”

-John F. Kennedy, 1960
Speech in Sharon, PA

Gerald Ford tosses a watermelon at a Philadelphia farmer’s market while on the 1976 campaign trail. Library of Congress.


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