John Christian Kunkel
A Henry Clay Whig from Harrisburg and a descendant of the Whitehill political family, John Christian Kunkel represented the Senate’s Dauphin-Northumberland district, 1852 to 1854, succeeding Thomas Carson on a first-ballot vote for Speaker, April 1853. Kunkel joined a long line of state senators, elected at the close of one session and defeated at the opening of the next. In John’s case, he lost a January 1854 bid for the Speaker’s chair to Colonel Maxwell McCaslin of Greene County.
John Kunkel was the son of George and Catherine Ziegler Kunkel, born September 18, 1816 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.[i] He attended common school in Gettysburg, later graduating from Jefferson College (Canonsburg) in 1839. He studied law at Dickinson College, subsequently read with James McCormick, joined the Dauphin County bar in 1840, and established a sizable Harrisburg practice.[ii]
Kunkel entered politics in 1844, canvassing for Henry Clay and the Whig national ticket. On the tide of the party’s rising popularity, the county elected Kunkel to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1844, 1845, and 1850. He advanced to the Senate of Pennsylvania in October 1851, John serving a three-year term and a brief interim as Speaker in April 1853.
He chaired Judiciary in 1852, preceding his election to the Senate’s top position. Kunkel opposed the 1850 Compromise and Fugitive Slave Act, insisted on the return of the Parker sisters, supported repeal of the Walker Tariff and passage of the Ten-Hour Labor Law, and backed the Common Schools (County Superintendent) bill of 1854.
The senator’s eyes, however, focused on a congressional seat. During two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1854 and 1856, the Honorable John Kunkel tied his political star to Simon Cameron and the emerging Peoples and Union-Republican Party. Congressman Kunkel “was regarded as one of the ablest statesmen at the national capital.”[iii] In Washington, he quickly ascended to the chair of the Committee on Militia during the 35th Congress. Retiring from office in 1858, he became active in the state Union-Republican caucus, representing the Cameron faction in the contentious 1867 Williamsport state Republican Convention. After a dozen years of state and federal government service, John returned to a prominent Harrisburg law practice, marrying Elizabeth Crain Rutherford. Senator Kunkel died from “paralysis” on October 16, 1870.[iv]
20th Century Bench and Bar of Pennsylvania
[i] William Henry Egle, History of the County of Dauphin in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, 1883), 514.
[iv] Ibid. Kunkel’s “Congressional Biography” indicates his date of death as October 14, 1870.