Speaker: December 11, 1790 – January 31, 1792.
In December 1790, George Washington and John Adams completed their second year as the nation’s first president and vice president. The temporary national seat of government moved to Philadelphia from New York during a period in which the 13 former colonies constantly tested state polity against federal authority. An era ended in Philadelphia as the last Pennsylvania Assembly Speaker, Richard Peters, led Benjamin Franklin’s funeral procession the previous April. The Commonwealth included 11 counties in the east and 10 in trans-Susquehanna Pennsylvania. Without fanfare in the December 11, 1790 Philadelphia newspapers, the Pennsylvania Senate announced its first “Speaker,” Franklin’s pallbearer, Richard Peters.
An “elegant classical scholar” with a “whimsical sense of humor,” Richard Peters II was the son of William and his second wife Mary Brientnall Peters, born June 22, 1744 in Brockton, Philadelphia County. His father, a King’s magistrate and the older brother of former proprietarial secretary, the Reverend Richard Peters, arrived in Philadelphia in 1739. The Senator graduated from the Academy of Philadelphia, studied law, and became a member of the Philadelphia bar in 1763; earned an appointment as register of the admiralty and married Sarah “Sally” Robinson of Philadelphia before the Revolution, the couple having two sons, Ralph and Richard III. The Loyalist Reverend Peters died in 1776, and the senator’s father returned to England before the war, imbued with similar political sympathy. Richard, however, served as a captain of associators during the Revolution; was secretary of the board of war in the First American Congress, 1776-1781; deliberated as a member of the 1782 Continental Congress; the 1787 Pennsylvania Assembly; and received the honor of serving as the last Speaker of the colonial Assembly in 1789.
Peters’ participated on the 1784 Fort Stanwyx Treaty Commission, his and others’ efforts resulting in the “Last Purchase,” acquiring the modern equivalent of 14 Western Pennsylvania counties from the Iroquois Confederacy for $10,000. The judge served as the first president of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society, and with the conclusion of the War of Independence, embarked for London in 1785, seeking (successfully) reconciliation with the Anglican Church for its re-establishment in the United States in 1787.
His father departed for England in 1768, and Richard inherited the Belmont estate, entertaining the Baron von Steuben, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin. Richard’s wit, intelligence, and charm earned him the affection of contemporaries. As Thomas Scharf noted in 1884, “Eminently precocious, as eminently gifted in wit and humor, he rose with celerity into notoriety. Probably there has never been on the bench of Philadelphia one of whom the memory that has been cherished is more hearty and even affectionate.” Peters received a 1792 appointment as judge of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, leaving the Senate, he embarked on a sometimes controversial 31-year career in the federal judiciary. Judge Peters ordered the arrest, convicted, and sentenced to death John Fries, leader of Pennsylvania’s rebellion against President Adams’ federal excise tax, a ruling ultimately overturned (twice). The Judge also rendered a landmark decision in Olmstead v. Commonwealth, January 14, 1803, prompting the first in a series of state court appeals that led to the determination of the unquestioned authority of the federal court system as a final appeals venue and establishing the power of the federal court system over state courts in matters of maritime law. Ergo, “the legislature of a State (could not) annul the judgments, nor determine the jurisdiction, of the courts of the United States.” The Honorable Judge Richard Peters died in Philadelphia on August 23, 1828.