Term: January 19, 1858 - January 15, 1861
Born: April 2, 1807
Died: September 27, 1870
William Fisher Packer became governor during one the most tumultuous periods of Pennsylvania's history—on the eve of the U.S. Civil War. Packer was born April 2, 1807 in Howard Township, Centre County, to a family of English and Quaker ancestry, James Packer (1773–1814) and Charity Bye (1780–1839). Like the two governors who preceded him, Packer became fatherless as a young boy when he lost his father at age seven.
And like earlier governors, Packer began his early career in newspaper work. At about age thirteen, he became a printer's apprentice at the
Sunbury Public Inquirer
and then at the
, followed by work as a journeyman at the
in Harrisburg. Although he studied law in Williamsport, a profession he never practiced, his entry into the political scene began as the owner and editor of the
in 1829, the same year he married Mary W. Vanderbilt to become the father of ten children.
Between 1832 and 1835, Packer served as superintendent of the West Branch Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. In 1836, he became co-founder of the Democratic administration's newspaper in Harrisburg, the
, and campaigned for the successful election of Governor David R. Porter. This led to his appointments as canal commissioner, 1839–1842, auditor general, 1842–1845, and, plunging deeper into politics, he was elected to the General Assembly, 1846–1849, became Speaker of the House, and was elected to the state senate in 1849. One of Packer's noted accomplishments was leading railroad development north and south into the Susquehanna Valley.
Packer was a follower of Governor George Wolf and, until the Kansas crisis, a friend of James Buchanan. Buchanan Democrats nominated Packer for governor. Despite the oratorical skills and political experience of his opponent Packer defeated the first Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate of the modern Republican Party, Congressman David Wilmot, who had been famous since 1846 for his verbal attacks on slavery. Packer also defeated Isaac Hazlehurst of the "Know-Nothings" or Native American Party. Packer himself was known for his conversational powers and command of large audiences. He garnered more votes than both Wilmot and Hazelhurst combined, which some attribute to Packer's stand on the issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union with or without slavery. With armed hostility already erupting in Kansas, Packer was against repealing a prohibition of slavery in new territories and was convinced that allowing slavery there would break apart the Democratic Party between the North and South. The Democrats were also more enthusiastic about a higher tariff desired by many Pennsylvanians to protect certain state industries.
In office, Governor Packer recommended an Emergency Banking Act, which enabled banks to continue to do business without meeting the specific requirements of state banking acts that had been in force since 1840. And he sponsored other acts requiring banks to limit their note issues—the circulating cash of the times—to the real assets they had deposited with the state.
He further reduced the state debt by selling off the remainder of the State Works canal system—the divisions of the Susquehanna, Delaware, North Branch, and West Branch—primarily to the Sunbury and Erie Railroad. But his orations against President Buchanan's support of Kansas's LeCompton pro-slavery constitution helped to split the Democratic Party. Packer also fully supported the new public school department set up by his predecessor to further the cause of education in Pennsylvania.
After breaking with President Buchanan over the issue of slavery compromise in Kansas, he joined the Democrats led by Stephen Douglas, but after Lincoln was elected president, Packer encouraged the idea of calling a national constitutional convention to find a compromise to avoid war and the dissolution of the Union. Leaving office in tenuous health a few days after South Carolina's secession, Packer retired to Williamsport. Because of declining health he was not active during the remaining years of his life, and he died September 27, 1870. He is buried in Williamsport Cemetery.