Kingsbury was born at Jerico, Vermont on June 18, 1804, the son of the Reverend Ebeneezer Kingsbury and the former Hanna Williston. The prominent New England family, originally of Connecticut, migrated to Harford Pennsylvania in 1810.[i] The senator’s father received a divinity degree from Yale, embarking as a Vermont Congregationalist missionary on a path that ultimately led to Pennsylvania.
Ebeneezer, Jr. received an early education at Harford and studied law under the Honorable William Jessup of Montrose.[ii] He moved to Honesdale, Pennsylvania where he married Elizabeth Harlow Fuller on November 4, 1829, establishing a law practice during the same period.[iii] Kingsbury served as a ruling elder at the Honesdale Presbyterian Church, superintendent of the Sunday school, and from 1833 to 1840, became the owner-editor of the Wayne County Herald.
Elected to the Senate in 1837, Kingsbury represented Wayne County in the upper house through 1841, becoming Speaker of the Senate in April 1840. The senator fought the 1838 repeal of the inheritance tax bill, supported Pennsylvania’s retail-import tax, backed Jackson’s U.S. Bank stance and Van Buren’s sub-treasury program, rejected privatization and advocated the continued state operation of the improvements program, and favored the election of state judges and canal commissioners.
The Honorable Kingsbury received the Speaker’s gavel during the 1840 Special Session: his primary task, to create new revenue streams for a foundering state economy, one that showed its first officially recorded deficit in history at the end of 1840.[iv] The tax bill, accordingly, represented the most important issue of the special session, pitting improvement proponents against administration Democrats, the latter interested in re-instituting the state’s broad-base tax system.
What appeared clear in 1840 was an empty Treasury’s critical need for replenished revenues. Since the 1836 repeal of “levies on real and personal property,” the people of Pennsylvania enjoyed the rare treat of living in a quasi tax-free society. Unfortunately, the state’s ambitious infrastructure program could not continue unless sources of public funding emerged.
As a corrective measure, Kingsbury supported “An Act to create additional revenue,” a bill eventually enacted on June 11, 1840. The law placed taxes on bank stock, certain personal property, household furniture, carriages, watches, the income of public officials, and a broad range of miscellaneous items. Eleven senators, who opposed the improvement bill, likewise objected to the tax bill. Whigs John Ewing and John Strohm crossed party lines to enable Speaker Kingsbury to win a 17-15 victory over the objections of Penrose and Norristown Democrat John Sterigere.[v] After recently witnessing the state’s first red ink, Kingsbury’s bold move to push the politically suicidal tax bill ultimately reinvigorated the Commonwealth and served as a signal point for future state dependence on revenue legislation.
In 1841, Kingsbury’s concern for the state’s economic woes so disturbed the pious man, that he moved a resolution, asking for an opening Senate prayer to preserve the public works program. During the same session, he led opposition to the state’s relief bill, with specific intent to kill a provision that bailed out the foundering United States Bank in Philadelphia. Fortuitously, he proved successful, as the bank closed its doors the following year. Destined for greatness, Senator Kingsbury tragically died young four years later, April 15, 1844, age-40.[vi]
[i] E.A. Weston, A History of Brooklyn, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (Brooklyn, Pennsylvania: W.A. Squier, 1889), 104.
[ii] Dwight J. Stoddard, Prominent Men of Scranton and Vicinity, Wilkes Barre and Vicinity, Pittston, Hazleton, Carbondale, Montrose and Vicinity, Pennsylvania (Scranton: Tribune Publishing Co., 1906), 261.
[iv] State government had actually shown 24 prior years of deficit spending (payments from the state treasury exceeding receipts), however, these instances had never been recognized as “state debt.”
[v] SJ, June 10, 1840, 817.