Crawford County has rarely stifled its opinions regarding national politics. The tone was set by residents in 1807 who burned an effigy of Federalist Aaron Burr outside the courthouse.
And this was hardly the county’s last political riot. While training to fight the British in 1812, the theft of an onion split local militiamen along party lines leading to a clash between Federalists troopers and their Democratic comrades who were hellbent on torching downtown Meadville.
Eventually, less rioting (and alcohol) gave way to civilized debate, which yielded more constructive outcomes such as the nation’s first direct primary system in 1842. As ideologies gradually distilled into the two-party system we recognize today, critical thinking and political discourse morphed too, which sometimes meant local election results were not always a byproduct of one party’s control.
This begins in 1855 with the Republican Party’s formation in Crawford County and a prediction of its early demise by the Democrat’s local party boss. The prediction couldn’t have been more wrong. While Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan (whose sister Maria lived in Meadville) did win the 1856 election, the fledgling opposition party in under a year swayed the county to vote for Republican John C. Fremont.
By 1860, local political clubs like the Meadville Wide-Awakes helped propel Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, launching 24 years of Republican incumbency that Grover Cleveland ended in 1884. After Benjamin Harrison’s controversial 1888 election reasserted party control, Meadville Republicans celebrated with a parade of torchbearers that extended from Walnut Street to Park Avenue. Not to be outdone, more than 1,000 Democrats ignored the rain to cheer on political clubs, floats and marching bands filing up Chestnut Street to mark Cleveland’s return as president in 1892.
The 1890s, though, found a nation in transition. As local historian Robert Ilisevich put it, "Industrial expansion, imperialism, financial panic, increased immigration, and other problems jolted Americans into sensing that their country was changing and not necessarily for the better." Crawford County was no exception. For Titusville’s oil workers, Meadville’s immigrant railroaders, and the county’s frustrated farmers the issue was summed up best by local populist candidate, Philip Willet. "Party lines are obliterated!” he bellowed from the courthouse steps. “The contest is of masses against the classes!"
In 1896 the area’s masses joined with Democrats, forming a hybrid party Republicans mockingly called the "Popocracy" while labeling members as socialists. Although Republican William McKinley would ultimately win, 668 members of Meadville’s Columbia Republicans Club who earlier had traveled to McKinley’s home to personally pledge a party victory in Crawford County were later chagrinned, learning that the county’s masses had, instead, chosen Populist William Jennings Bryan.
Prior to McKinley’s assassination, though, Crawford County did help him win re-election in 1900 and later rewarded his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, with their vote in 1904. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, Meadville, like the rest of the country, enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, marking the city’s heyday.
Such stability assured Roosevelt’s protégée, William Howard Taft, the presidency in 1908. Taft, however, abandoned his mentor's progressive reforms, favoring business-centric policies instead which led to an intra-party rift and subsequent three-way election showdown in 1912 between Taft Republicans, Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt's Bull Moose Progressives.
Monopolies, tariffs and women's suffrage dominated political debate. County Republicans naturally loathed Wilson's free-trade stance, but, fearing party defections, reserved even greater rancor for "that third-termer,” Roosevelt. “It looks as if the Bull Moose party was to be the dumping ground of disgruntled, soreheads and worn-out politicians," wrote the Conneautville Courier.
Local papers attacked Roosevelt daily, often falsely. Still, many residents, including leading Republicans, jumped to the Bull Moose party. Candidates were selected at conventions in Cambridge Springs and Meadville, adding to what The Tribune-Republican claimed was a “political fight unequaled in intensity.”
As election day approached, 25,000 eager onlookers watched as the official train of the president of the United States slowed to a stop at the Meadville depot in October 1912. Emerging to great fanfare, President Taft embarked on a one-hour car tour around town which he concluded with a speech atop the courthouse steps. "You have a very beautiful little city,” the president said through his wide smile. Minutes after, he was speeding north for an appearance in Cambridge Springs.
Eleven days later Taft would lose to Wilson. The president’s appearance seemingly had little effect on county voters. Roosevelt finished first ahead of Wilson, leaving Taft in third place only 1,400 votes ahead of Socialist Eugene Debs.
By keeping us out of the war, Wilson would, in 1916, oddly find favor with Crawford County’s majority even though Republicans carried Pennsylvania. Not until Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 would the county support another Democrat for president, and he would be the last. Since then, Crawford County has dutifully voted Republican regardless of shifts in the party’s platform or national sentiment.
What then should we interpret from our history? Simply put, from the start Crawford County’s citizens have voted according to their view of the world, reality or not, backing the candidate they believed would either preserve or change that world according to their individual circumstances. In the process, heated contests were not unusual, and often the county voted contrary to the commonwealth and nation.
Regardless, it’s worth noting the reaction of Meadville’s A.G. Richmond. As Democrats celebrated Benjamin Harrison’s defeat in 1892, Richmond, a prominent Republican, placed a sign outside his home. "I'm glad I was licked by an American," it read. According to the paper, the unifying sentiment prompted wild cheers from crowds of both parties as they passed by.
Ron Mattocks is an author and writer living in Cambridge Springs. He has been a regular contributor to national publications such as the TODAY Show and Huffington Post. Currently, he serves as board VP for the Crawford County Historical Society and is a principal at Bull Moose Marketing in Meadville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.