Governor George Wolf



December 15, 1829 - December 15, 1835


Jeffersonian Democrat "Family Party"


August 12, 1777


March 11, 1840


Photo of Gov. George Wolf
Photo courtesy of Capitol Preservation
Committee and John Rudy Photography


Pennsylvania's first statewide public school system began with the administration of Governor George Wolf. Born in Northampton County, August 12, 1777, he was the son of George Wolf, a Lutheran German immigrant farmer, and Maria Margaretta Wolf. His early education was at the Allen Township Classical Academy, where he later became principal of the school. After studying law with John Ross of Easton, Wolf was admitted to the Northampton County Bar in 1798, the same year he married Mary Erb. The Wolfs were the parents of eight sons and one daughter.

Wolf's early job positions were that of clerk to the prothonotary in 1801 and postmaster of Easton in 1802. He became the clerk of the Northampton County Orphans Court, 1804 to 1809, and was elected as a Jeffersonian to the state General Assembly for one term in 1814. However, he was defeated in the state senate election in 1815 and spent the next nine years practicing law in Easton. In 1824, he was elected to U.S. House of Representatives, Eighth District, and reelected in 1826 and 1828. During his second term in Congress he was the chairman of the Committee on Revolutionary Claims.

In 1828, Wolf joined the Jacksonian Democratic Party, but the party was deeply divided over the issue of states' rights and who should succeed Andrew Jackson as president in 1832 (Jackson later decided to run again). The "Amalgamation" faction of the party, like President Jackson, was committed to a strong federal union and supported Henry Clay. The "Family" wing of the party favored Vice President John C. Calhoun, who opposed his own president by speaking out in favor of states being able to nullify federal law any time it came into conflict with state law and, if necessary, secede from the Union. In Pennsylvania, Wolf, who also favored a strong union, was able to win the party nomination in 1829 among Amalgamators, who generally dominated the western part of the state, and the Family, who were based in Philadelphia, and went on to defeat Joseph Ritner, the candidate of the new Anti-Masonic Party. Wolf again defeated Ritner in 1832 by a smaller margin, but by 1835, the ongoing split among Jacksonians caused Wolf to lose the election.

Rival state "Amalgamated" Democrats held their own convention and nominated Henry A. Muhlenberg for governor. Muhlenberg received 40,586 votes to Wolf's 65,804 votes, but the Anti-Masonic Ritner garnered 94,023 votes, thus denying Wolf's bid for a third term. The Wolf-Muhlenberg political battle became known as "the Wolves versus the Mules."

Governor Wolf brought about a general revision of Pennsylvania's statutory laws and new taxes to satisfy the enormous loans by which the State Works program for new railroad and canal routes had been financed. In 1834, a long awaited Common School Law established the first statewide system of publicly financed education, as had been proposed in the previous Shulze administration and was a top priority for Wolf. A basic education could finally be provided to all children of Pennsylvania without regard to a family's wealth or social status. Wolf fell out of favor with Andrew Jackson over the president's verbal and political attacks on the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson was suspicious of the bank's influence on national affairs without having to answer to any higher authority. The bank was also accused of denying loans to members of the Democratic Party. The federally chartered bank asserted that there was no political agenda, but Jackson vetoed the bank's recharter in 1832. Wolf was concerned with the fact that the bank's loans to Pennsylvania were needed to carry on the State Works. Following his reign as governor, President Jackson appointed Wolf first comptroller of the Treasury of the United States. Two years later President Martin Van Buren appointed the former governor collector of customs for the Port of Philadelphia, a post that he held until his sudden death on March 11, 1840. Wolf is buried in Harrisburg Cemetery.