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09/23/2021 03:19 PM
Pennsylvania State Senate

John P Penney

Photo credit:

Penney Portrait, edited from 1874 Constitutional Convention Album, Pennsylvania State Archives, PHMC




Session Position District Party
1859 N/A Whig
1861 N/A Whig
1863 Speaker N/A Republican
 Counties   Allegheny


1817 - 1873

The son of James and Jane Sill Penney of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the tall, lanky, “Lincolnesque” John P. Penney was born December 15, 1817.  His grandfather arrived in Massachusetts before the Revolution, serving later as a member of the militia unit involved in action at Lexington Green after the “alarm” of April 9, 1775. One of ten children, John’s brother, Thomas, served as an 1852 state representative. The family boasted impressive professional credentials, three brothers matriculating as medical doctors and two as attorneys. Penney graduated from Jefferson College in 1843, later marrying Margaret Gilfillan. From 1842 through 1846, the senator served as a tutor at Indiana Academy, hired by school co-founder Judge Thomas White, Senator Harry White’s father. Penney’s instructional responsibilities included tutoring young Harry and classmate Matt Quay. John returned to Allegheny County in 1847 and studied law under Francis Flannigan, who sponsored John before the 1849 bar.  Penney established a successful practice with partner E.P. Darlington, viewed as “one of the ablest lawyers in the state and a man of unquestioned integrity.” He initiated a new partnership within the year, combining forces with William Sterret, inviting recent Jefferson College graduate Matt Quay as an understudy. That invitation launched one of the most phenomenal political careers in Commonwealth history. John emerged as a prominent leader of the early Allegheny County Republican Party, elected to the Pennsylvania Senate in October 1858. He eventually served two terms in the upper house, assuming the Speaker’s chair in April 1863, after chairing the Judiciary Committee. Senator Penney exhibited genuine commitment to his Allegheny constituency while showing a measured balance in support of either the Cameron or Curtin faction. He nevertheless crossed Cameron as an antagonist to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s efforts to evade payment of the tonnage tax, an issue supported dearly by Cameron. The battle manifested itself as the rural agriculturalist and urban laborer’s major showdown with a privileged, corporate monopoly.  Penney crossed party lines to join Berks Democrat Hiester Clymer in the debate against exemption. John’s stand on the issue attracted bi-partisan political allegiance and led to his consideration as a possible nominee for governor. Incumbent Andrew Curtin, however, remained the incumbent front-runner, and the senator declined to interfere with the war governor’s opportunity for re-election. Penney’s political martyrdom, however, preceded a decidedly more onerous challenge in the 1864 session. The general question confronting the body concerned whether Pennsylvania should “prosecute the war or abandon it.” Penney’s Union-Republican majority believed execution by military force should continue – Peace Democrats did not agree.  In either case, legislation in support of the two positions required party control of the upper house.  But unforeseen problems arose. Governor Curtin fell ill preceding the session, and Penney’s former school student, Senator Harry White, was captured by the Confederate Army in Virginia. Curtin left the country for a brief recuperative trip to Cuba, and White became a coincidental prisoner of war at Libby Prison, Richmond. In addition, a brooding public, miffed over the tonnage tax vote, reaped vengeance on three Republican Senate seats, reducing the GOP advantage to one vote. That vote appeared tenuous since it belonged to the absent Senator White.  With White gone, should Penney resign the chair to hold a new Speaker’s election, an inevitable 16-16 gridlock might freeze all Senate proceedings. Penney, therefore, called no election and assumed the chair, legally claiming his previous session election as a valid mandate, a constitutional point that famed legislator and attorney A.K. McClure agreed with. There existed a legitimate reason why he did so. With Curtin ill, the first concern involved the availability of a legally elected successor should the governor die. If the Chief Clerk called for a Speaker’s election, Penney stepped down as interim chief, and the inevitable, protracted deadlock vote might fail to produce a successor to direct the executive department. Fortunately, Curtin’s physician wired Harrisburg, indicating the governor’s certain path to recovery, on his way home, and due in Harrisburg by March. Unfortunately, there existed no constitutional provision to account for an interim governor. While the 1838 charter stipulated a successor in cases of death or a voluntarily vacated seat, it did not provide for a temporary executive in cases of convalescence. With that in mind, an executive veto appeared impossible, and any bill might become law without the governor’s signature after 10 days. Compounding Senate operations problems, Penney had not received a letter of resignation from Harry White; thus, he remained a legally elected member of the body – the Speaker hoping all along for White’s quick return by prisoner-trade, enabling the legislature to pass critical bills related to the war and the Commonwealth’s internal issues.  Curtin eventually returned alive and White’s official resignation came from Richmond. Senator Penney issued a writ of special election in Indiana County, and Union Party member Thomas St. Clair immediately replaced the incarcerated Senator. The Honorable John Penney returned as the duly elected Speaker on March 8, 1864 and the Senate organized. Throughout the process, Cooper noted that no-one “ever took a more critical position than did Mr. Penney in the matter, and his vindication was complete.” The situation led directly to the 1874 Constitution’s establishment of the lieutenant governor’s position. Concerning other legislative matters, Penney, aided by Morrow Lowry, valiantly defended the Emancipation Proclamation before a highly critical Democratic caucus. On March 11, 1862, Democrats presented a House resolution prohibiting further migration of slaves into Pennsylvania. Republicans Lowry and Penney asserted the moral high ground, assailing the initiative as “insidious dogma.” After recommitment and little change, the opposed measure confronted extremely harsh language and moral outrage. The two condemned the resolution via committee report. The measure passed with their critical commentary attached, wherein, Penney and the committee extended an open invitation to Southern slaves to settle in Pennsylvania, noting “were all slaves to come, treason would be shorn of its strength.” Descending to its point of origination in the House, Democratic and Republican anti-abolitionists restored much of the resolution’s original “anti-Emancipation” language. The measure returned to the Senate on April 1, 1863, Lowry and Penney condemning the (Democratic) party, whose ostensible tradition embraced the “preserving and defending the rights of man.” Penney refused to pass the resolution without its attached, original Senate committee report of condemnation. Senator Penney retired from the Senate in 1865 and delivered his vote for Lincoln as a member of the Electoral College.  Resuming his legal practice, forming another Pittsburgh partnership with past Speaker William George Hawkins, John remained an important force in Allegheny County Republican politics for the remainder of his life. The Honorable John Penney passed away in Pittsburgh on January 4, 1873.  He and Margaret’s only son, Colonel John Penney, Jr., became a legend and driving force behind the formation of the modern Pennsylvania National Guard. A.K. McClure observed that Penney “was one of the ablest lawyers of the State and a man so blameless in his public career that even his bitterest political enemies found it difficult to assail him.”