William Cameron Sproul was born at Andrew’s Bridge, Lancaster County on September 16, 1870, the son of William Hall Sproul and the former Deborah Dickinson Slokum.[i] William benefited from a superior education, attending high school in Chester County, private school at Negaunee, Michigan, and graduated with honors from Swarthmore College, 1891. He later received a 1912 doctorate from Franklin and Marshall College. Sproul earned honorary PhDs from Gettysburg College, Penn, Swarthmore, Pitt, the Pennsylvania Military College, Lafeyette, Allegheny College, and Grove City College.[ii] The senator married Emeline Wallace Roach of Chester County, granddaughter of shipbuilder John Roach. His early business pursuits included a half-interest in the Chester Daily Times and Morning Republican, and mining, transportation, and banking investments in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.[iii] Sproul entered the state Senate in November 1896, serving 22 consecutive years. He earned the Senate’s top position as the 1903-1905 pro tem and annually served as caucus and floor leader, appealing to both stalwart and progressive Republicans. The senator supported election reform, opposed state and industrial discrimination against un-naturalized immigrant workers, fought for passage of Senator Crow’s 1913 Workers Compensation Act, and aided legislation establishing the Departments of Forestry, Welfare, and Labor. He sponsored rail-oil-coal-steel trust busting legislation, supported reform of Pennsylvania’s corrupt fee system, backed the federal Ship Subsidy Bill (establishing the Merchant Marine), and championed the 8-hour workday. Sproul substantially influenced the adoption of the 17th Amendment, providing the popular election of U.S. Senators, and advocated passage of a 1913 bill establishing the Public Service Commission. After 1918, William became Pennsylvania’s 29th post 1790 governor, accepting former pro tem Edward E. Beidleman as his running mate. Senator Sproul received the national convention nomination as Republican successor to President Woodrow Wilson, promising the convention on June 8, 1920 - “No Bosses.”[iv] Boies Penrose was not impressed. Objecting to Sproul’s progressive philosophy, Boies persuaded William to settle for the vice presidency and step aside from contention of the top spot, Penrose casting his lot for Pennsylvanian “old guard” Philander Knox. Although Penrose constantly, if not disingenuously reported Knox as his second choice, the new boss secretly admired the old “pol” and machine puppet Warren Harding. On June 12, 1920, Sproul bowed out of competition altogether, throwing his 60 Pennsylvania delegates to Harding.[v] Harding then picked up Calvin Coolidge as a running mate after Sproul declined the invitation – the duo elected to national office the following November. Had Sproul accepted the Penrose offer to run for the vice presidency, he would have become Pennsylvania’s second U.S. President after Harding died in office. Notwithstanding the former pro tem’s brush with presidential fame, his term as governor stands among the most productive of the era. Sproul introduced legislative initiatives reorganizing the public school system and promoted passage of the Edmunds Act – the federal government’s controversial anti-bigamy and cohabitation law. His $120 million highway bill followed the progressive spirit of the 1903 Sproul Highway Department Act and the 1911 Sproul Highway Bill. Under his watch, the Public Welfare Act finally passed on May 25, 1921, the state art commission was formed, he designated April 25, 1919 as Arbor Day, and spirited a much-needed reorganization of the National Guard. Regarding Arbor Day, Sproul’s intent to plant one tree for each Pennsylvania World War I casualty energized a huge reforestation project, culminating with Sproul State Forest, Clinton County. In reference to the National Guard, Sproul abolished the archaic governor’s staff corps of honorary colonels. He reorganized the banking and insurance departments and authored compromise legislation, submitted to placate those with authority to enforce prohibition laws. He played a dual role in guiding the ratification of the 18th and 19th Amendments.[vi] William founded the Seaboard Steel Casting Company in 1900, was a trustee of Swarthmore College, and directed the Pennsylvania Training School for the Feeble Minded. Governor Sproul received an appointment as president of the Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission and represented the Commonwealth as the first chair of the National Governor’s Association, 1919-1922. He belonged to the Union League, the University Club, the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia, and the Manhattan Engineers’ Club of New York. Gov. Sproul passed away on March 21, 1928 at 57 years old.
[i] Beers, 72; also: Story of Philadelphia, ed. J. St. George Joyce (Philadelphia, 1919), 355; also; Who’s Who, ed. Lewis R. Hamersly (NY: L.R. Hamersly, 1904), 700.
[ii] PHMC: Governors of Pennsylvania, www.phmc.state.pa.us, 2.
[iii] A Quarter Century of Progress, 485.
[iv] Chester Times, June 8, 1920.
[v] Chester Times, June 12, 1920.
[vi] A Quarter Century of Progress, 486.