Portrait: Kussart, 1925
Born in Bedford County in 1761, Senator Woods was the son of Colonel George and Jane McDowell Woods. His father, a colonial land agent, trained the future senator in the art of backcountry surveying and exploration. As young men, John and his brother George, Jr. assisted their father with the original survey of Pittsburgh. The two plotted the city’s future boundaries along the three rivers, particularly an area known as the “John Woods Plan,” John soon after marrying Theodosius Higbee of Richmond Hill, Trenton, New Jersey, possibly in South Middleton, Cumberland County, about 1780. The two settled in Bedford, briefly, soon after.
John studied law and served as a major in the county militia, moving west to Washington County in 1781, joining the bar in the same year; the Westmoreland and Fayette County bars in 1784, the Allegheny County bar in 1788; and the Bedford bar in 1791. Embarking on a successful political-legal career, the barrister benefited from significant support through well-placed family ties. His sister Anne married prominent Pittsburgh attorney James Ross, while another, Jane, married the equally accomplished David Espy. The resulting Woods-Ross-Espy union created one of the most powerful political tandems of its time in Western Pennsylvania. In addition, Woods formed a partnership with colleagues Hugh Brackenridge and Alexander Addison, the three owning a virtual monopoly over Pittsburgh’s legal matters from 1788 until the mid-1790s. John represented the Pressley Neville family, whose ransacked home at the hands of excise insurrectionists preceded the Whiskey Rebellion; became a lottery manager for the establishment of the Pittsburgh Academy in 1796; served as a presidential elector and state senator; and was an unsuccessful caucus nominee for Congress in 1798, against former cohort Hugh Brackenridge, who had fallen from boss Neville’s grace. Albert Gallatin eventually won the race.
As Senate Speaker (1801-01), Federalist Woods became embroiled in one of the more colorful upper-house incidents of the time. The Senator was not enamored with Thomas Jefferson’s victorious ascent to the presidency. While organizing the upper house in February 1801, Lancaster County Arms Inspector Peter Getz and a group of jubilant county Republicans hoped to mock the Speaker by ringing the steeple bell above the Senate chamber in celebration of Jefferson’s victory. While not irascible, Woods suffered no person’s ill-timed merriment at his expense. After the group ignored several warnings to cease their bell-ringing spree, the Speaker charged up the stairs and politely instructed Getz to leave. Getz defiantly responded, “He was not a federalist, but a republican, and he would see who would keep him from it.” Woods then “kicked him (Getz) in the side;” knocking the man “down the stairs.” Getz, regaining his balance, called Woods “a damned rascal … a damned eternal rascal” and then left. Senate Republicans proffered breech of decorum charges four days later, charging Senator Woods with interfering with “the nation’s joy” over the election of President Jefferson. Federalist compatriots came to his aid and rejected a resolution to punish Woods. In a turn of events, his allies amended the measure to cast blame on Getz for interfering with the body’s constitutional assembly.
During Woods’ tenure, the Speaker plotted the Senate’s first attempt at a gerrymander, directing a federal elector map to benefit the Adams and (or) Pinckney duo over Jefferson and (or) Burr; a sleight of hand ultimately derailed by Northumberland Senator Samuel Maclay.
Allegheny County finally elected Woods to Congress for the 1815-1817 House term. His final election effort bested Pittsburgh’s radical “Clapboard Row Junto” candidate Adamson Tannehill. Congressman Woods did not hold his seat long; however, as he died in Brunswick County, Virginia on December 16, 1816, on his way to South Carolina to recuperate from poor health.
See date of death in Daniel Agnew, “John Woods,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (PMHB), 13 (1889); also: “Notes on the Woods Family of Bedford,” PMHB, vol. 32 (1908) no. 3: 338; also: Sarepta Cooper Kussart, The Early History of the Fifteenth Ward of the City of Pittsburgh (Belleview, Pa: Suburban Printing Co., 1925); also: History of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Chicago: A. Warner & Co., 1889), 266.