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House Speaker Biographies

Photo credit:

"Pennsylvania Governors." Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. August 26, 2015. www.phmc.pa.gov


Photo credit:

"Pennsylvania Governors." Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. August 26, 2015. www.phmc.pa.gov

 

Joseph Ritner

Born: March 25, 1780, Alsace Township, Berks County, PA.  Died: October 16, 1869, Carlisle, Cumberland County, PA. Member of the House: Washington County, 1821-1827.  Affiliation: Democrat.

Joseph Ritner was born March 25, 1780, in Berks County, Pennsylvania.  He had little formal education, learning from tutors and his older siblings rather than attending school himself.  He worked as a laborer on farms across the state, as well as a weaver, a trade his father practiced, in winter months.  On May 26, 1801, he married the former Susannah Alter, and the couple had 9 children: Joseph, Abraham, Henry, Michael, Jacob, Susan (Kreichbaum), Emma, Margaret (Alter), and Peter.  Ritner pursued farming in the southwestern part of the state, largely on lands in Allegheny and Washington Counties, where he relocated after his marriage.  He joined the Pennsylvania Volunteer’s as a private in the War of 1812, serving under Captain Benjamin Anderson, from October 2, 1812 to April 2, 1813.  In the spring of 1819, Ritner was elected local supervisor of the roads and introduced the use of ploughs to mend roads in Buffalo Township, Washington County.  He served again in this position the following year.       

Ritner was elected to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Democrat for the 1821-1822 session.  He was re-elected for the next 5 consecutive sessions, serving in total from 1821-1827.  Ritner was elected the 56th Speaker of the House on December 6, 1825.  He was unanimously re-elected Speaker for the following session on December 5, 1826.  As Speaker, Ritner signed Act 50 of 1826, better known as the Personal Liberty Law, which made it illegal to forcibly transport individuals across state lines.  The law aimed primarily at protecting the rights of free African-Americans who were vulnerable to kidnapping for sale into slavery.  Ritner also signed Act 95 of 1827, which called for a significant expansion of the Pennsylvania Canal System.

Ritner later became affiliated with the Anti-Mason Party, which was led by Thaddeus Stevens and based on a platform of opposition to the perceived dominance of secret society members in state government.  Following his tenure in the House, Ritner was chosen that party’s gubernatorial candidate in 1829 and 1832, but he was not elected until a successful campaign in 1834.  Ritner served one term as Governor, from 1835-1839, during which time he spoke openly against slavery and antieducation movements in the state legislature.  Ultimately, the legacy of his governorship was the preservation of the Free Public School Law of 1835 through supplements passed by the legislature ensuring areas throughout the state implemented the new law.  This law was objected to by many politicians, but greatly increased Pennsylvania children’s access to education.  Ritner also supported state regulation of banking, signing an extension of the charter for Philadelphia’s Second Bank of the United States with Act 135 of 1836.

Following his tenure as Governor, Ritner was appointed by President Zachary Taylor to the position of director of the United States Mint in 1848, but he never formally held the position due to Taylor’s untimely death. Toward the end of his career, Ritner’s allegiances shifted to the Republican Party, and though he served as a delegate at the first Republican National Convention in 1856, he soon left politics to focus on promotion of local education initiatives and his Cumberland County farm. 

Joseph Ritner died on October 15, 1869, in Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. He is interred at Mount Rock Methodist Churchyard in Mount Rock, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.