Born in Lurgan Township, Franklin County on June 17, 1741, Samuel was the son of County Antrim, Ireland immigrant Charles Maclay and the former Mary Templeman. He was the brother of Pennsylvania’s first U.S. senator and cofounder of the Republican (Jeffersonian) nominating caucus, William Maclay. Educated by the Rev. Francis Alison, Samuel moved with his family to Northumberland County, where he and William embarked on their equally illustrious judicial and political careers after working as surveyors. At age 23, William appointed Samuel one of several chain carriers who laid the original lines of Northumberland County, inclusive of the boundaries of today’s Snyder County. Samuel carved out a tract for himself in 1769 and built a farmstead in Buffalo Township, Snyder County, near the old Driesbach Church.
Receiving additional acreage in Harris’s Ferry (Harrisburg), Samuel’s growing prominence attracted the attention of the town’s founders, the Harris family, especially Elizabeth Harris Plunkett, who Samuel married on November 10, 1773. Miss Plunkett was the granddaughter of John Harris, the Susquehanna River-town’s pioneer settler.
On May 11, 1774, Maclay served on a Northumberland County committee, charged with the task of selecting delegates for a “proposed (continental) congress,” to debate the recent controversial actions of the Crown. A member of the Northumberland Committee of Safety, he ultimately served as a lieutenant colonel during the Revolutionary War; was elected as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, 1787-1789, and in 1790, received an executive appointment to consider the feasibility of creating transportation routes via the state’s northwestern streams, in preparation for construction of the Pennsylvania Canal system.
Maclay later studied law and became an associate judge in Franklin County from 1792 to 1795, represented Northumberland in the Fourth Congress during the latter year, and in 1797, served in the state house of representatives. Samuel became a passionate “Jefferson man” and a supporter of the French Revolution.
Maclay served in the state Senate from 1798 through 1803; was Senate Speaker in 1801 at age 62; and U.S. Senator on December 14, 1802, serving through 1809. Maclay’s election, however, represented one of high intrigue, since he indicated his desire to remain a seated state Senator until March 1803, the time at which he would legally take his seat as U.S. Senator. The irony involved Maclay’s earlier sponsorship of the incompatibility of office act, that prevented a Pennsylvania legislator from remaining seated, upon election to federal office. After a huge disagreement in chambers, Maclay served as he had wished.
Maclay promoted Jeffersonian causes, especially democratization of the court system; repeal of former President Adams’ Judiciary Act of 1801; increased power for county justices (repeal of the Twenty-Dollar Act); curtailment of the political patronage system; and deliberated as Senate Judge over arch-enemy Judge Alexander Addison’s impeachment.
After Maclay’s last year in the U.S. Senate, 1809, he retired from public life. The Senator was remarkably humble. Similar to his brother, William, Samuel abhorred ostentation. Historian Charles Snyder relates an incident involving the senator’s purchase of a handsome coach, used only once before permanently retired to the stable. Maclay apparently felt guilty about driving the overly aristocratic carriage to church. Senator Maclay stands with his brother and Robert Whitehill as the quintessential backcountry individualist and a passionate Jeffersonian Republican. Those two characteristics merged to form a solid building block in the foundation of the Pennsylvania democracy. The Honorable Samuel Maclay died in Buffalo Township, Union County on October 5, 1811.
Charles M. Snyder, Union County, Pennsylvania: A Celebration of History (Lewisburg: Union County Historical Society, 2000), 14; Edgar S. Maclay, The Maclays of Lurgan (Brooklyn, NY: Edgar Stanton Maclay, 1889), 17; Snyder, 22-23. NOTE PHOTO: His memorial stands close to his home at the Driesbach Church.