Governor Joseph Ritner



December 15, 1835 - January 15, 1839


Anti-Masonic Party


March 25, 1780


October 16, 1869


Photo of Gov. Joseph Ritner
Photo courtesy of Capitol Preservation
Committee and John Rudy Photography


Joseph Ritner became a symbol of the common man, rising from poverty to governor. He was portrayed in campaign literature working with a plow. Born March 25, 1780, in Alsace Township, now Reading, Berks County, he was the second of nine children of John Ritner of German Palatinate heritage. The family could only afford six months of primary school for Ritner at age six. With little encouragement from his parents, Ritner continually read books on his own, learned to write and speak English, and developed a working knowledge of his native German language. His father, a weaver, knowing that young Ritner wanted to become a farmer, sent his son at age thirteen to work for Jacob Myers on a new farm near Newville, Cumberland County, earning $120 per year. After his mother died, Ritner sent half of his salary to his father to help support the family.

In 1801, Ritner married Susan Alter, daughter of a well-known Democratic member of the state legislature and granddaughter of Henry Landis, a highly respected Mennonite preacher and settler of Lancaster County. To the Ritner family were born ten children, but they lost two, including a son who died of disease while fighting in the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832. The Ritners first moved to Westmoreland County, and then to Washington County. Ritner had earned enough money through his labors to settle on land that had been owned by his wife's uncle, David Alter. Alter, a farmer, was also well educated and owned an extensive library of which Ritner took full advantage to continue his self-education. Ritner continued to farm in southwestern Pennsylvania, briefly interrupting to serve six-months of military duty as a private during the War of 1812.

In 1820 Ritner was elected to the General Assembly, serving five terms. During this time, there was growing public fear of secret societies such as the Free Masons and Odd Fellows. Public prejudice was fanned by a group of ex-Masons and supported by various religious leaders who preached the "evils" of fraternal organizations with secret oaths and initiations, despite the fact that founding fathers such as George Washington had been Free Masons. On June 23, 1829, the Anti-Masonic Party held a convention in Harrisburg and selected Joseph Ritner as their candidate for governor and would again in 1832. Ritner lost both elections to George Wolf, but Ritner defeated Wolf in a third try, taking advantage of a divided Democratic Party and continuing public hysteria over Freemasonry.

State action against "secret societies" increased in 1833 when a new law made it illegal for anyone to administer "unlawful oaths" and required societies to disclose full membership. With the election of Ritner, Assemblyman Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster, a leader in the impeachment movement against President Andrew Johnson, led the attack on Free Masons. Stevens brought the Ritner administration into disrepute when Stevens used funds intended for the state rail and canal system as a source of political funds and patronage. Stevens also orchestrated statewide gerrymandering for the benefit of the Anti-Masonic Party. During the 1838 gubernatorial campaign, there was widespread distribution of a booklet disguised as objective biographies of Ritner and opponent David R. Porter from "authentic sources," but was in reality highly distorted campaign literature in favor of Ritner. After six years, the public tired of the tirade against Freemasonry and Porter defeated Ritner by less than 5,500 votes. Ritner partisans challenged the election result in what became known as the "Buckshot War." Governor Ritner was forced to call up the state militia to prevent violent revolutionary conflict between the losing Anti-Masonics and the winning Jacksonian Democrats.

Ritner did have very positive accomplishments. He spoke out against slavery while governor and, with the assistance of Stevens, defeated General Assembly attempts to repeal the new free public school law. During his single-term administration, education remained a top priority and common schools in Pennsylvania grew from 762 to 5,000 while academies, not including private schools, grew from sixteen to thirty eight. He also signed a bill for Pennsylvania to issue a state charter to the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia to prevent the bank's destruction after President Jackson had vetoed a renewal of their federal charter. The institution held critical loans to fund major state canal and railroad projects.

Although Ritner, the last governor under Pennsylvania's Constitution of 1790, was nominated in 1848 for director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, he was not confirmed because of President Zachary Taylor's death. He joined the infant Republican Party in 1856, but he never reentered politics. He purchased a farm in 1836 at Mount Rock, south of Newville, Cumberland County, and continued to promote public schools. In 1839, he suffered blindness from cataracts. Surgery restored sight to his right eye, but he remained blind in the left eye until his death at age eighty-nine on October 16, 1869. The Governor Ritner Highway, which connects Carlisle and Shippensburg along Route 11 in Cumberland County, was named after the former governor and dedicated on July 27, 1938, during the centennial of when he was in office. His is buried in Mount Rock Methodist Churchyard, Cumberland County.