History's Headlines: The most hated man in the Lehigh Valley
1790s local congressman Samuel Sitgreaves went from promising politician to political pariah
There is no record of what the weather was like in Easton the day the body of Samuel Sitgreaves was laid to rest in the cemetery of Trinity Episcopal Church, a church he helped found.
But if Hollywood was trying to film the scene, movie moguls might have made it gray and overcast with just a grave digger and undertaker on hand to mark the former congressman’s passing. In reality, with the passage of time, the very location of Sitgreaves' grave in the churchyard has been forgotten.
As it was, the 63-year-old Sitgreaves, who died on April 4, 1827, was once among the brightest lights of the Federalist Party. But he passed from the world a political pariah who had not held public office for many years, a victim of the partisan, no-holds-barred political warfare of the 1790s.
Born in Philadelphia in 1764, the son of a prominent merchant, Sitgreaves' early life was surrounded by the birth of a new nation. He would have been 12 in 1776 and could very well have been among the crowd that gathered behind Independence Hall to first hear the Declaration of Independence read aloud.
Somewhere between 1783 and 1786 Sitgreaves decided on law as a career. There were no law schools in America at that time so he probably “read law,” as the saying was, in an attorney’s office and followed him to court. But in 1786, the nation’s capital of Philadelphia was almost certainly a place filled with many ambitious young lawyers- all hoping to make a name for themselves. Although it is impossible to know for sure, this may have been the reason why he left for Easton, where there was less competition.
Hanging out his shingle in Easton, Sitgreaves began to attract clients. The personable 22-year-old soon decided to enter politics. In 1789 he was selected to be the delegate from Northampton County to the state constitutional convention meeting that year.
Pennsylvania’s first state constitution was passed in 1776. By 1789, political differences and the general inefficient nature of the 1776 document led for calls that it be replaced. The Federalist Party, of which Sitgreaves was a member, led the charge for change.
In 1792 Sitgreaves hoped to be elected to Congress but was beaten for that seat by fellow Federalist Daniel Hiester. Finally in 1795 his chance came. That year he was elected from a congressional district that included Northampton (which then included what would become Lehigh and many other counties) and northern parts of Bucks and Montgomery counties, a huge slice of eastern Pennsylvania.
Sitgreaves had every reason to be pleased with his future. But what some regarded as the nation’s first major political battle was already brewing, even before he was sworn into office. A new political faction that called themselves the Democratic-Republicans were on the rise. Anger at the “elitist” Federalist Party was boiling over the Jay Treaty.
This treaty with former foe England was called a sellout, and John Jay, who negotiated the treaty, was accused of a cover up. The Washington administration was under siege by a Congress that demanded to see the background documents behind the treaty. Sitgreaves was among those Federalists leading the charge to keep the Democratic-Republicans from getting them.
Soon the controversy gave the United States its first political slogan. “Damn John Jay! Damn Every One Who Won’t Damn John Jay! Damn Every One That Won’t Put Candles in the Window and Sit Up All Night Damning John Jay,” was soon being heard at torch light rallies around the country. But Washington and Hamilton successful fought off the attack and the treaty passed the Senate.
The year 1797 was a very good one for Sitgreaves. He led the impeachment trial against Tennessee U. S. Senator William Blount, who was engaged in a conspiracy with agents of Great Britain to help seize the Louisiana and Florida territories from Spain and- for a large sum of money-turn them over to Britain.
When newspaper accounts of secret dealings between Blount and the British ambassador were printed, the Senator was expelled from the Senate. Sitgreaves was hailed as a hero and as the government’s expert on treason.
But in 1799, Sitgreaves' expertise on treason put him on a collision course with many of his constituents. He was named as prosecutor of John Fries and his fellow tax rebels for treason against the U.S.
But what Sitgreaves saw as “levying war against the United States,” many in his largely Pennsylvania German district saw as protesting for their constitutional rights and being unjustly charged for it. Although a jury found Sitgreaves correct, the court of public opinion did not. President John Adams pardoned Fries and the others, but the pardon came too late for two of them who had died while in prison of yellow fever.
Once the trial was over, Sitgreaves was sent to England to help iron out disputes on debts English merchants had owed to them since the Revolution. While he was there a presidential election swept the Democratic- Republicans into office.
On his return in June1801, Sitgreaves found that the Jefferson administration had no time for him. In fact, they even refused to pay for his expenses while England. It was not until 1830 that his heirs were finally reimbursed by an act of Congress.
The Federalist Party would never occupy the White House again and Sitgreaves would never run for office again.
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