From Pittsburgh Streets
John Cessna's Part in Pennsylvania Politics

THE Democrats of the legislature of 1862 were guided in their political movements solely with the view of regaining power in the state and choosing a Democratic governor to succeed Curtin. John Cessna of Bedford was a very much more important factor in controlling some of the most vital political movements of the legislature than was ever known to the public. He was a man of much more than usual ability, and tireless in prosecuting all his undertakings. He was one of the best trial lawyers in southern Pennsylvania and practiced in most of the counties in that section of the state.

He was an aggressive Democrat before the war, and aggressive in all his political movements. He had won his way into the legislature a dozen years before and was speaker of the house in 1851 with the honor of being the youngest presiding officer who had ever been chosen for the body. He was an aggressive candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, as was Hopkins of Washington, who led in the investigation of the passage of the tonnage tax, and he was not willing that Hopkins should get up an investigation tidal wave that would land him in the gubernatorial office.

When civil war came, Cessna was positive in his declaration in favor of prosecuting the war. His county of Bedford was associated with Somerset by the legislative apportionment, and elected two members of the house. Cessna was nominated by the Democrats of Bedford with a Democratic colleague on the ticket in Somerset, and he made a most exhaustive battle, especially in his own county, speaking in almost every schoolhouse and at many crossroads, and in all of his speeches he not only declared himself in favor of prosecuting the war, but he made no criticism upon the war policy of the national government. He insisted that the Democrats were loyal, and that when the military power of the confederacy was broken the union would be restored on a conservative basis. His courage in supporting the war brought to his support a very large proportion of the Republicans of Bedford county, and he received some 1,200 majority in that county over the lowest of the two Republican candidates, but Somerset, with her 2,000 Republican majority, defeated him.

Cessna's Election Contest.

Cessna decided to contest the election on the ground that Bedford had a constitutional right to choose a member of the legislature. The county of Bedford had been created by law before the adoption of the first constitution of Pennsylvania, and one of the provisions of that constitution was that each county then in existence should always have the right to a representative in the popular branch of the legislature. The question had never been raised before, but Cessna presented an argument not only plausible and forceful, but that seemed unanswerable, declaring that as Bedford was entitled to a member of the house by the mandate of the constitution the person receiving a majority of votes for that office within the county was its constitutional representative.

I had known Cessna at the bar and in politics for a number of years, but our relations at the time of the meeting of the legislature in 1862 were severely strained because of a violent personal assault he made upon the integrity of my law partner and myself as assignees of the Easton estate, that was then the largest individual estate in the county. He had been misled into accepting the trial of the case by assurances that irregularities or frauds could be proved on the part of the assignees, but Cessna's professional pride overbalanced his sense of justice, and when the testimony closed and his error was apparent, instead of frankly submitting the facts to the jury, he delivered a most vindictive and defamatory speech against the defendants, to which the jury promptly responded by making their verdict in precise accord with the balance sheet presented by the assignees. I felt that Cessna had wantonly violated professional ethics, and our intercourse thereafter never exceeded the severest formal courtesies.

When the legislature met in January, Cessna was present and most desirous to win his seat, and on a technical ground that had never before been presented to either branch of the legislature. As political passion was then at its zenith, it goes without saying that the Republicans were next to solid in declaring that Cessna's contest was a mere invention of a cunning lawyer, and the Democrats were ready to sustain him. Had the issue been reversed, the Democrats would have been solid against Cessna's interpretation of the constitution, and the Republicans would have been as earnestly for him.

With a doubtful house, and with the delicate movements necessary to control its organization with the aid of the war Democrats, I had given no attention whatever to Cessna's contest, and felt little or no interest in it. If he were admitted I had confidence that he would be on the loyal side of the war issue, and I knew that his ambition to be governor would make him a very dangerous man in the house to lock horns with the investigation movement that was expected to enable Hopkins to distance all his Democratic competitors in the race for the next gubernatorial nomination.

Agreement Effected.

Cessna and I passed many times during the first week of the session without any more than a nod from each, but he finally stopped me in the rotunda and said: "There are some things here that you know I want; there are some things here that I know you don't want, and I think we could be of service to each other."

I answered with an invitation for him to call at my room that evening. At the appointed time he was my visitor, and at once proposed that we be entirely frank with each other. He said that he wanted two things; first, to be admitted to the house on a contest, and second, to have a bill passed by both branches and signed by the governor separating Bedford from Somerset as a legislative district, and he added that I could help him to both. On the other hand, he said that I needed someone within the inner Democratic circle to conserve the Hopkins investigation movement, with which he had no sympathy, and against which his political interests were arrayed.

I told him that I believed he was lawfully entitled to his seat; that I had no personal or partisan objections to him obtaining it, and that I could see the way clear to pass the amendment to the legislative apportionment that he desired, but I wanted to know in detail just what he proposed to do in the investigation movement that was then made a strictly partisan measure and was expected to enable the Democrats to regain control of the state.

He understood the situation perfectly in all its details, and proposed a program himself that I could not have improved in any measure. Our understanding was complete, and the agreement was carried out to the letter on both sides.

Contested seats were then decided by a committee drawn by the clerk from a box containing the names of the members written on small slips of paper. It was a perfect lottery, and with a house nearly equally divided politically the chances were about even that the committee thus drawn would be Democratic or Republican. I gave Cessna the names of 10 Republican members of the house, and told him that he could safely accept any of them, if necessary to accept any Republicans, in drawing his committee. He naturally inquired whether I knew of their views on the question, to which I answered that I did not, but all of them were in a position that made it important for them to protect themselves, and that Cessna would be in the best attitude to render them service. Not one of them was ever spoken to on the subject, as Cessna had the accidental fortune of drawing a distinct Democratic committee, but if he had failed in getting a Democratic committee he could have accepted one or more of the Republicans named and been entirely safe in his admission.

Victory for Cessna.

The agreement to amend the legislative apportionment by a special act making Somerset and Bedford separate legislative districts was not spoken of to anyone by either Cessna or myself until near the close of the session, when he passed the bill in the house with a large Republican support, and when it came to the senate it was advocated by the Democratic friends of Cessna, and explanations were made to the Republican senators that made most of them join in passing the bill. It was promptly signed by the governor and Cessna was elected to the house the following year, and as the house had 10 Democratic majority he was again elected speaker.

Cessna was one of the shrewdest of our Pennsylvania politicians, and from the day he entered the house until the session closed he carefully studied how to weaken Hopkins, all the time keeping inside the Democratic breastworks, and Cessna more than any other person in the body made Hopkins practically forgotten as a hopeful candidate for governor by the time the session ended. He did not show his hand in open hostility to Hopkins until the session was about to close, when a motion was made to permit the committee to continue its investigation during the recess. Cessna took the floor, denounced the proposition as utterly unwarranted, and carried a large majority of the house with him in requiring the committee to make its final report before the adjournment and end its duties.

Candidate for Governor.

Cessna's re-election to the house in 1862 and his successful contest for the speakership made him still hopeful that he could win the Democratic nomination for governor, and had he been nominated it is quite likely that he would have been elected, as Curtin would not have been a candidate, because of his apparently hopelessly broken health, if the Democrats had presented as their nominee a man of positive loyalty in support of the war; but before the close of the session of 1863 it was quite evident that Cessna would be no more acceptable as a candidate for governor than Hopkins, and he felt that his want of availability before the Democratic state convention was his loyalty in support of the war.

Judge Woodward, afterward chief justice of the state, was made the Democratic candidate for governor on a platform that was offensive to the loyal Democrats of the state. Cessna retired from active participation in the campaign, and it was an open secret that he voted for Curtin, although he made no public expression on the subject; but the following year in a commencement address before Franklin and Marshall college he declared himself distinctly in favor of supporting Lincoln, and was soon thereafter received into full Republican fellowship, and one year later, in 1865, he was made chairman of the Republican state committee. In 1868 he was elected to congress as the Republican candidate, defeating Judge Kimmell, and in 1870 he was defeated by Benjamin F. Myers, Democrat, who was in turn defeated by Cessna in 1872. His last political effort was disastrous, as he was defeated for president judge in the Bedford and Somerset district by Mr. Baer, Democrat.

He rendered very important service to the Republican party when he was acting with it as a full-fledged Republican partisan, but the greatest service he rendered to any party was the unseen and generally unknown service he rendered to the Republicans in the memorable turbulent legislative session of 1862.

The Hopkins Investigation.

Hopkins was an experienced legislator and a man of unfaltering integrity. He was not playing the mere political demagogue in his movements to investigate the tonnage tax legislation. He would have made that investigation regardless of any interest he had in his party or in his own nomination for the office of governor, but he was naturally inspired in his work by the hope and belief that a tidal wave of prejudice against corporate enterprise generally, and especially against the Pennsylvania railroad, would lead to a political revolution that could not fail to give the Democrats success, and he believed that his prominence in the sensational exposures he expected to make would be a great aid to him in his contest for the Democratic nomination. He had been prominent in the legislature nearly half a generation before, and was speaker of what was known as the Hopkins house in the bloodless farce known as the Buckshot war, in 1838.

He was thoroughly equipped to manage his movement on safe political lines, and he was soon surprised after his investigation got under way to learn that five of the seven members of his committee conserved him in every aggressive movement, and he was forced to narrow his investigation to lines entirely outside of politics. He also felt a quiet but very effective restraining power in his movements within his own Democratic circle in the house. It was not until near the close of the session that he discovered its source, and he was dumbfounded when he learned that Cessna was its inspiration.

Cessna was a consummate political strategist, and Hopkins found himself sidetracked time and again without being able to see from what source the jolt had come, but he was wise enough to appreciate the fact that he had nothing to gain by violent or revolutionary measures, and he quietly accepted the situation and made the investigation a substantial success in vindication of his movement, but entirely stripped of all the sensational features at first contemplated.

At an important stage of the investigation, when he had fully discovered that he was not master of the policy of his own committee and did not feel safe in venturing to assert his mastery in the house, he brought to Harrisburg a close personal and political friend, who, after a conference with Hopkins, called upon George V. Lawrence, Republican member of the senate, with the request that Lawrence should bring Hopkins' friend to me to vouch for his absolute reliability, as Hopkins desired to communicate with me through his friend on several matters relating to the investigation, and the communications to be sacredly confidential between ourselves.

Senator Lawrence, while politically opposed to Hopkins, was his personal friend, although not in sympathy with his investigation movement that was accepted on all sides as a violent partisan measure.

A Truce Between Foes.

I assured Hopkins through his friend in the presence of Lawrence that any communication from him would be received in confidence and answered frankly, the answer to be regarded with equal sanctity as between ourselves. The result was that I received many personal communications from Hopkins and answered all with perfect frankness. He knew that the political feature of the movement was practically destroyed, and all he desired was that he should not be hindered in obtaining testimony that would warrant him in making a report justifying the public accusations he had made that unlawful measures had been employed to accomplish the passage of the repeal of the tonnage tax.

I did not seek to hinder him in attaining that end. Indeed, I would have been glad if many of the blackmailers who had fastened themselves upon Col. Scott in his desperate battle for a liberal commercial and industrial policy in the state could have been sent to prison if done without involving others who yielded to more than questionable methods only from imperious necessity to accomplish indispensable legislation.

For several weeks before the close of the investigation his messenger visited me every evening, and finally brought me a rough draft of the report prepared by Hopkins for the committee. It was temperate, but fully sustained Hopkins in demanding the investigation, and it was returned with entire approval. During that time I met Hopkins in and about the capitol, but in no instance did either allude to the investigation.

Ten years later when I entered the senate from Philadelphia, Hopkins was a member of that body. At that time I was admitted to the senate on a contest, and before my admission, when my petition was pending in the senate, a Republican senator, who believed that they had then adopted a party policy that would positively exclude my admission, criticised me with some bitterness on the floor of the senate, to which Hopkins replied in my defense with great earnestness. We served together in that body for two sessions, and always added each other when support was needed, but the one subject that never was alluded to was the investigation of 1862.

Prejudice Vanquished.

The struggle to disarm the partisan features of the Hopkins investigation of 1862 was not the most important feature of that duty. It was good politics to control the investigation as it was controlled, but there was a much higher and far-reaching issue involved. It was the first successful battle that was made against the narrow, illiberal flood-tide of prejudice cherished throughout Pennsylvania against everything approaching liberal progress and the development of the boundless wealth of our great commonwealth; a prejudice that was the plaything of every demagogic political movement, and that held the richest of all the states in the union bound in leading strings of ignorance and bigotry; and had the Hopkins investigation been permitted to fan the flames of popular prejudice that then prevailed in the state, the Pennsylvania railroad would have been remanded back to destructive tonnage taxes; the commerce of Pennsylvania would have been driven to great marts of commerce outside of the state, and our untold millions of slumbering wealth would have been denied a liberal policy for its development for a decade or more.

Fortunately, the civil war quickened our industries and invited corporate interests to harvest millions from our oil, our coal, our iron, our lumber and other channels of industry, and the battle against the liberal progress then inaugurated that has since added billions to the wealth of Pennsylvania was never thereafter seriously renewed. It was the last struggle of Pennsylvania to rescue herself from a suicidal policy, and our great state in a single decade thereafter advanced more in the development of wealth, the diffusion of education and in prosperity throughout all the channels of industry and trade than it ever before advanced in half a century.