How an Upper Dublin Politician Assisted in Curtailing Minority Voting Rights
In the 19th century, U.S. Representative John B. Sterigere fought against progressive movements.
John B. Sterigere//Photo courtesy of the
Hating politicians might seem like a national sport, but the final results rest firmly on voters’ shoulders, giving a whole new meaning to the blame game. In 1838, an opportunistic former state and U.S. representative named John B. Sterigere was appointed to a committee responsible for drafting a new Pennsylvania Constitution. Wanting a state Senate seat, Sterigere honed in on what might win over voters.
At the time, a good number of them were infuriated by the nascent abolition movement, combined with the news that free blacks in Bucks County tipped the results of an election. Sterigere’s solution was to insert the word “white” into the new constitution’s list of voter qualifications, disenfranchising black voters for nearly a century, until the 15th Amendment was passed.
Along the way, Sterigere won a Senate seat in 1839. He served four years, representing parts of Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties. “According to present conceptions, Sterigere was wrong,” wrote one historical columnist for the Norristown Times Herald in 1930. “But he was true to his convictions.”
Born in Upper Dublin, John was one of Peter and Elizabeth Sterigere’s seven children. Likely farmers, the earliest reference to the family is an 1800 newspaper, which reported that the “house of Peter Sterigere was accidentally consumed by fire.”
A year later, Peter died. Elizabeth remarried and resettled near Norristown. Apparently tired of farming, John set his sights on education. “He was a very studious, exemplary boy,” according to an unnamed acquaintance quoted by local historian Moses Auge in 1879.
John Sterigere worked as a farmhand during the summer while attending school. Once his education was complete, he was appointed teacher of a one-room school in Ambler. In 1818, at age 25, he was commissioned as a justice of the peace. According to Auge, he remained in Upper Dublin for several years, “surveying, scrivening and serving the people as magistrate.” (“Scrivening” is the writing of contracts or other legal papers for a fee.)
In 1821, Sterigere was added to the Democratic ticket and elected to the state House of Representatives, where he remained until 1825. A year later, when a seat opened in the U.S. House, local Democrats settled on Sterigere as a compromise candidate. In the Jacksonian Era, he was elected and re-elected easily. “Mr. S. was quite a young member, but being ambitious and irrepressible as a debater, and much less influential than Hon. Jonathan Roberts had recently been, his federal opponents applied to him very contemptuous epithets,” wrote Auge. “The fact that the opposition hated him was proof he was a live man.”
While serving in Congress, Sterigere studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1829. At age 33, he rose quickly, remaining a Democratic Party activist. “He had all the second-class politicians of the county as his retainers, and had promised most of the working men of the party small offices, such as he could secure them by his influence,” wrote Auge.
In 1835, an intra-party split led to Sterigere losing a seat in the state Senate. Winning the next go-round would require a unifying message. Most states didn’t allow blacks, free or otherwise, to vote. Southern states forbade it. In New York, an 1821 amendment to its constitution allowed only blacks owning at least $250 in property to vote. Elsewhere, rules were ambiguous.
In 1838, Pennsylvania operated under a constitution written in 1790 that included a declaration of rights and gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of 21 years.” Nonetheless, many blacks in Pennsylvania didn’t dare vote—though some tried. In 1837, Philadelphian James Forten a Revolutionary War veteran, an affluent businessman and a black man—recruited a white friend to testify on his behalf when he applied to vote. He failed.
In Bucks County, however, some blacks did vote. It became a public issue in 1837, when five of six Democrats running for office were defeated by Whigs. In this era, Whigs were split over slavery: Southerners generally supported it; Northerners did not.
The Southern-dominated Democratic Party, by contrast, was a full-throated advocate of slavery. Whigs also tended to be upper class and more reform-minded than Democrats, and reformers of the day were rallying to the anti-alcohol “temperance” movement. Then, as now, working men liked their beer and hated elitists.
Add to this a financial depression in 1837—which increased tensions, along with competition for jobs—plus a generalized fear of blacks. The result was a rising tide of racial prejudice and violence, often targeted against abolitionists. The most notorious incident was the May 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a building constructed on Sixth Street in Philadelphia as a place for abolitionists to meet. Three days after the structure was finished, a mob broke in and set it afire.
Concurrently, Bucks County Democrats were infuriated when their candidate for county auditor lost by two votes. When Democrats challenged the results, they were overturned. In his decision, Bucks County judge John Fox wrote that blacks had not been considered citizens in the Colonial era, when they were slaves, and that no action had been taken to change that. “Their color,” he added, “continually recalls their former condition and connects them with the rest of the race in servitude.”
Sterigere had found his issue.
He first attempted to insert the word “white” into the new constitution’s voting requirements in June 1837. Blacks, he declared, “were fit only for slavery.” There was resistance from Whigs and even some Democrats. Delegate Phineas Jenks noted the existence of wealthy black property owners in Bucks County whom he thought should be allowed to vote. Sterigere withdrew his proposal.
Pennsylvania blacks were justifiably alarmed, and they responded with letters and petitions. Robert Purvis—a son-in-law of Forten—drafted the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, pointing out that it was not in the American tradition to use ethnicity as a criterion for suffrage. The document also noted that, during the Colonial period, neither indentured white servants nor black slaves had been allowed to vote.
Still, protests were ignored. When the constitutional convention reconvened for final debates in January 1838, the proposal to insert the word “white” came from another delegate, Benjamin Martin of Philadelphia. Sterigere spoke in its defense. He cited petitions from whites, commenting how black individuals had no political rights: “The God of nature made them a distinct inferior cast.”
The amendment was approved 77 to 45.
“The cause of the extraordinary violence of that year is to be found in the old maxim that men hate those whom they have injured,” wrote British sociologist Harriet Martineau, an early historian of the abolition movement.
“Having done this injury (disenfranchisement), the perpetrators, and those who assented to their act, were naturally on the watch against those whom they had oppressed.”