(Portrait: With Permission, Montgomery County Historical Society)
Born October 13, 1793 in Upper Dublin Township, Montgomery County, the Honorable John Sterigere was the son of Peter and Elizabeth Sterigere. Originally a teacher, John taught at Puff’s Church School before he embarked for legal and political careers.
Governor Findlay appointed Sterigere justice of Montgomery County in 1818. Three years later, John secured a seat in the state House of Representatives, a position he held four consecutive sessions. He next replaced Congressman Phillip S. Markley in 1826; returned to Washington in 1827 as a Jackson Democrat; was re-elected in 1829; while studying law and qualifying for the Montgomery County bar. He served Congress through 1831, chairing the Committee on Private Land Claims. After service in the U.S. House of Representatives, Sterigere campaigned for the Pennsylvania Senate, however became an 1831 victim of the Wolf-Muhlenberg nominating caucus dispute. Sterigere later earned a prestigious appointment as delegate to the 1838 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, the experience enabling the former congressman to gain a seat in the state Senate. During the convention, the senator followed party dictate, opposing abolitionism and adding the “white only” clause to the suffrage law, controversial language that denied franchise to African Americans and energized the abolition and equal suffrage movement in Pennsylvania.
An extended term in the Senate evaded him once more due to the 1838 Constitution’s term modification, reducing senatorial service from four, to three years. The process involved each member drawing random numbers indicating one, two, and three years; assuring an equal number of annually contested seats. Sterigere drew one. He re-entered the race a year later but lost his bid for re-election to Abram Brower, a consequence of a redistricting plan that combined Montgomery with Chester and Delaware Counties. Again he planned resurrection. Arriving at the doorsteps of Philadelphia’s most powerful Jackson Democrats, he quickly gained caucus trust, political muscle, and an avenging cadre of redistricting lobbyists committed to modifying the objectionable senatorial district boundaries. The plan successful, in 1843 Montgomery divided from Chester and Delaware, and the new district finally elected Sterigere to a full three-year term.
Sterigere emerged as a political strongman in 1843 with a great deal of Senate influence. Ostensibly supporting Montgomery County neighbor Governor Shunk, the senator was also a strong backer of James Buchanan’s national ambitions. John provided solid support behind Buchanan’s 1847 quest for the presidency but was frustrated at the state convention after the successful nomination of Lewis Cass. A further blow to Sterigere occurred as a re-elected Governor Shunk left office in July 1848 due to failing health. Speaker of the Senate William Freame Johnston assumed the executive’s seat, subject to the results of a subsequent fall special election. Senator Sterigere (now out of office) rallied local Pottstown, Montgomery County support to select a successor – provided that the person was John Sterigere. The senator again disappointed, he fell by the wayside as a popular choice when the state caucus settled on Morris Longstreth, who eventually lost to Johnston by 299 votes.
Senator Sterigere ultimately fell from grace among Pennsylvania’s Democratic power brokers; however, he remained a staunch supporter of Buchanan and anti-abolitionism, supporting the future U.S. president at the 1852 Baltimore Convention. Buchanan’s initial failure to ascend to the White House represented another of Sterigere’s unfulfilled dreams, as his champion lost the election to Franklin Pierce. The Honorable John Benton Sterigere died the morning after election night, October 13, 1852, at 59 years old. Ironically, the ballot listed his name as a candidate for state senator. Despite a career laced with state and national political intrigue, John Sterigere was an untiring public servant in Pottstown and Montgomery County. He receives credit for initiating most of the mid-nineteenth century improvement programs in that area and is otherwise remembered as a stern, no-nonsense individual, who held disdain for those who wasted the “peoples’ vote.” The Senator never married.
M. Auge, Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (Norristown: 1879), 173; also: History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, ed. Theodore Weber Bean (Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1884) 512- 515. Portrait: Courtesy Montgomery Co. Historical Society