From Independence to the Civil War: 1776-1861

PENNSYLVANIA IN THE REVOLUTION

Pennsylvanians may well take pride in the dominant role played by their state in the early development of the national government. At the same time that Pennsylvania was molding its own statehood, it was providing leadership and a meeting place for the people concerned with building a nation.

Philadelphia was the nation's capital during the Revolution, except when the British threat caused the capital to be moved successively to Baltimore, Lancaster, and York. While Congress was sitting in York (October 1777 to June 1778), it approved the Articles of Confederation, the first step toward a national government. After the war, the capital was moved to New York, but from 1790 until the opening of the District of Columbia in 1800, Philadelphia was again the capital. In 1787, the U.S. Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia.

The Declaration of Independence – The movement to defend American rights grew into the movement for independence in the meetings of the Continental Congress at Carpenters' Hall and the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. The spirit of independence ran high, as shown by spontaneous declarations of frontiersmen in the western areas and by the political events that displaced the old provincial government.

The War for Independence – Pennsylvania troops took part in almost all the campaigns of the Revolution. A rifle battalion joined in the siege of Boston in August 1775. Other units fought bravely in the ill-fated Canadian campaign of 1776 and in the New York and New Jersey campaigns. The British naturally considered Philadelphia of key importance and, in the summer of 1777, invaded the state. On September 22, they captured the capital. The battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Whitemarsh were important engagements of this period. Following these battles, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge from December 1777 to June 1778. News of the French alliance, which Benjamin Franklin had helped to negotiate, and a British defeat at Saratoga caused the British to leave Philadelphia in the spring of 1778. Washington's little army emerged from Valley Forge reorganized and drilled for battle. Frontier Pennsylvania suffered heavily from British and Indian raids until they were answered in 1779 by John Sullivan's and Daniel Brodhead's expeditions against the Six Nations Indians. Pennsylvania soldiers formed a major portion of Washington's army, and such military leaders as Arthur St. Clair, Anthony Wayne, Thomas Mifflin, and Peter Muhlenberg gave valuable service. Pennsylvania also aided in the creation of the Continental navy, with many ships being built or purchased in Philadelphia and manned by Pennsylvania sailors. The Irish-born John Barry became first in a long list of Pennsylvania's naval heroes.

The Arsenal of Independence – The products of Pennsylvania farms, factories, and mines were essential to the success of the Revolutionary armies. At Carlisle, a Continental ordnance arsenal turned out cannons, swords, pikes, and muskets. The state actively encouraged the manufacture of gunpowder. Pennsylvania's financial support, both from its government and from individuals, was of great importance. By 1780, the state had contributed more than $6 million in paper money to the Congress and when the American states had reached financial exhaustion, ninety Philadelphians subscribed a loan of £300,000 in hard cash to supply the army. Later, in 1782, the Bank of North America was chartered to support government fiscal needs. Robert Morris and Haym Salomon were important financial supporters of the Revolution.

FOUNDING A COMMONWEALTH

A Pennsylvania Revolution – Pennsylvania's part in the American Revolution was complicated by political changes within the state, constituting an internal Pennsylvania revolution of which not all patriots approved. The temper of the people outran the conservatism of the Provincial Assembly. Extralegal committees gradually took over the reins of government, and in June 1776 these committees called a state convention to meet on July 15, 1776.

The Constitution of 1776 – The convention superseded the old government completely, established a Council of Safety to rule in the interim, and drew up the first state constitution, adopted on September 28, 1776. This provided an Assembly of one house and a Supreme Executive Council instead of a governor. The Declaration of Rights section has been copied in subsequent constitutions without significant change.

Many patriot leaders were bitterly opposed to the new Pennsylvania constitution. Led by such men as John Dickinson, James Wilson, Robert Morris, and Frederick Muhlenberg, they carried on a long fight with the Constitutional party, a radical group. Joseph Reed, George Bryan, William Findley, and other radicals governed Pennsylvania until 1790. Their most noteworthy accomplishments were the act in 1780 for the gradual abolition of slavery and an act of 1779 which took ownership of the public lands away from the Penn family (but with compensation in recognition of the services of the founder). The conservatives gradually gained more strength, helped by the Constitutionalists' poor financial administration.

The defeat of a mob of undisciplined militia and poor laborers who attacked James Wilson's private Philadelphia home on October 4, 1779, known as the "Fort Wilson riot," was a turning point because Constitutional radical leaders like the Supreme Executive Council's president, Joseph Reed, repudiated the rioters and thus acknowledged that sound financial policies, rather than mob attacks on businesses and commercial entrepreneurs, were needed to win the revolution and preserve a worthwhile society.

The Constitution of 1790 – By 1789 the conservatives felt strong enough to rewrite the state constitution, and the Assembly called a convention to meet in November. In the convention, both the conservative majority and the radical minority showed a tendency to compromise and to settle their differences along moderate lines. As a result, the new constitution embodied the best ideas of both parties and was adopted with little objection. It provided for a second legislative house, the State Senate, and for a strong governor with extensive appointing powers. In 1791 the State Supreme Court, in deciding a property dispute, implied that it had the power to dismiss acts of the legislature which it deemed unconstitutional. The court has asserted this important principle of judicial review ever since.

FOUNDING A NATION

Pennsylvania and the United States Constitution – Because of a lack of central power, as well as insurmountable financial difficulties, the Articles of Confederation could no longer bind together the newly independent states. As a result, the Federal Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787. The structure that evolved remains the basis of our government today.

The Pennsylvania Assembly sent eight delegates to the Federal Convention. Four of these had been signers of the Declaration of Independence. The delegation included the venerable Benjamin Franklin, whose counsels of moderation on several occasions kept the convention from dissolving; the brilliant lawyer and aristocrat from New York, Gouverneur Morris, who spoke more often than any other member; and the able lawyer James Wilson who, next to Madison of Virginia, was the principal architect of the Constitution. Pennsylvania's delegation supported every move to strengthen the national government and signed the finished Constitution on September 17. The conservatives in the Pennsylvania Assembly took swift action to call a ratifying convention, which met in Philadelphia on November 21. The Federalists, favoring ratification, elected a majority of delegates and, led by Wilson, made Pennsylvania the second state to ratify, on December 12, 1787. When ratified by the ninth of the thirteen states, on June 21, 1788, the Constitution went into effect.

POPULATION AND IMMIGRATION

Large areas of the northern and western parts of the state were undistributed or undeveloped in 1790, and many other sections were thinly populated. The state adopted generous land policies, distributed free "Donation Lands" to Revolutionary veterans, and offered other lands at reasonable prices to actual settlers. Conflicting methods of land distribution and the activities of land companies and of unduly optimistic speculators caused much legal confusion. By 1860, with the possible exception of the northern tier counties, population was scattered throughout the state. There was increased urbanization, although rural life remained strong and agriculture involved large numbers of people. The immigrant tide swelled because of large numbers of Irish fleeing the potato famine of the late 1840s and Germans fleeing the political turbulence of their homeland about the same time. As a result of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, the 3,737 African American slave population of 1790 dropped to 64 by 1840, and by 1850 all Pennsylvania African Americans were free unless they were fugitives from the South. The African American community had 6,500 free people in 1790, rising to 57,000 in 1860. Philadelphia was their population and cultural center.

ACHIEVING FINAL STATE BORDERS

The establishment of a national government during the Revolution helped resolve lingering border controversies. In 1776, Virginia's new constitution accepted the 1681 Pennsylvania Charter's land provisions. An agreement between Pennsylvania and Virginia was signed in Baltimore at the end of 1779, leading to the extension of the Mason-Dixon Line westward to the full five degrees of longitude from the Delaware River promised in the Charter. It was also agreed that Pennsylvania's western border would be a meridian line traced directly north to Lake Erie from the point on the Mason-Dixon Line five degrees west of the Delaware.

The Continental Congress convened a special tribunal at Trenton, N.J. in 1782, which resolved the territorial dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania by accepting Pennsylvania's 1681 land entitlement over the claims of Connecticut and the Susquehannah Company. The status of land titles already granted in northeastern Pennsylvania by the Susquehannah Company and Connecticut was not fully resolved until 1809.

The last major acquisition to the state and the only one not foreshadowed by William Penn's Charter of 1681 was the Erie Triangle. Colonial New York, on the basis of treaty arrangements with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, claimed land up to Lake Erie and west of it, into Ohio. In 1780, New York State ceded these claims to the national government to form a national domain. But the western border of New York was unstated until its legislature decided that it would be a meridian drawn south from the most western point of Lake Ontario. The land west of this and south of Lake Erie became the Erie Triangle. When Pennsylvania's 42° parallel border was marked all the way to the lake, in 1787, Pennsylvania realized that it had received only four miles of virtually unusable lakefront, so spokesmen convinced Congress to sell the state the Triangle, which had a natural harbor. Congress insisted that the area must be surveyed and Indian claims of ownership satisfied. Working with United States' negotiators, Pennsylvania obtained a surrender deed from the Seneca Chief Cornplanter in 1789, although other Iroquois did not accept Cornplanter's right to sign a deed. In 1791 Pennsylvania again purchased the Triangle from Cornplanter and paid the United States by canceling Revolutionary War debts the national government owed the state. On March 3, 1792, President Washington issued Pennsylvania a deed for the Triangle. This gave Pennsylvania her total present expanse, although Native Americans were again paid to relinquish claims to the Triangle at the Treaty of Canandaigua, N.Y. in November 1794.

POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS

Reaction Against the Federalist Party – From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. While Washington was president, the state supported the Federalist Party, but grew gradually suspicious of its aristocratic goals. From the beginning, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania was an outspoken critic of the party. When Thomas Jefferson organized the Democrat-Republican Party, he had many supporters in Pennsylvania. Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania's first governor under the Constitution of 1790, was a moderate who avoided commitment to any party but leaned toward the Jeffersonians. The Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania in 1794 hastened the reaction against the Federalists and provided a test of national unity. The insurrection was suppressed by an army assembled at Carlisle and Fort Cumberland and headed by President Washington. Partly as a result, Jefferson drew more votes than Adams in Pennsylvania in the presidential election of 1796. It was a foreboding sign for the Federalists, who were defeated in the national election of 1800.

Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democratic Dominance – In 1799 Mifflin was succeeded by Thomas McKean, a conservative Jeffersonian Democrat-Republican, who governed until 1808. McKean's opposition to measures advocated by the liberal element in his party led to a split in its ranks and an unsuccessful attempt to impeach him. His successor, Simon Snyder of Selinsgrove, represented the liberal wing. Snyder, who served three terms, 1808 to 1817, was the first governor to come from common, non-aristocratic origins. In this period, the state capital was transferred from Philadelphia to Lancaster in 1799 and finally to Harrisburg in 1812. During the War of 1812, Pennsylvanians General Jacob J. Brown and Commodore Stephen Decatur were major military leaders. Born a Quaker in Bucks County, Brown showed the skill to effectively command the headstrong American militia. He successfully defended Sackets's Bay from British invasion in 1813 and commanded the American army that defeated the British at Lundy's Lane in July 1814. Oliver Hazard Perry's fleet, which won the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, prepared the way for defeat of the British and their Indian allies under Chief Tecumseh in the battle of the Thames, twenty- four days later. Perry's fleet was built at Erie by Daniel Dobbins, a native Pennsylvanian. Today, the Historical and Museum Commission has extensively restored Perry's flagship, the U.S. Brig Niagara, which may be appreciated by the public when visiting Erie. Pennsylvania militia and volunteers formed a large contingent in the force that defended against a British invasion of the Chesapeake in the summer of 1814. Stephen Girard, Albert Gallatin, and Alexander James Dallas helped organize the nation's war finances, and Gallatin served as a commissioner negotiating the Peace of Ghent. In 1820, a coalition of Federalists and conservative Democrats elected Joseph Hiester governor, whose non-partisan approach reformed government but destroyed his own supporting coalition. The election of 1820 marked the end of the use of caucuses to select candidates and the triumph of the open conventions system. The Family Party Democrats elected the two succeeding governors, John Andrew Shulze (1823-1828) and George Wolf (1829-1834), who launched the progressive but very costly Public Works system of state-built canals. Attitudes toward President Andrew Jackson and his policies, especially that concerning the Second Bank of the United States, altered political alignments in Pennsylvania during this period. In 1834, Governor Wolf signed the Free School Act which alienated many, including Pennsylvania Germans, so that the Democrats lost the next governorship to the Anti-Masonic Joseph Ritner, who also had the support of the Whig Party. In a dramatic speech on April 11, 1835, Representative Thaddeus Stevens persuaded the Assembly not to repeal the Free School Law. But the Assembly's subsequent investigations of Freemasonry's secret activities, instigated by Stevens, proved to be ludicrous, and the Democrat David R. Porter received 5,000 more votes than Ritner in the 1838 election. Ritner's followers claimed fraud, and violence nearly erupted in the "Buckshot War," until several of Ritner's legislative followers bolted and placed Porter in office.

The Constitution of 1838 – In 1837, a convention was called to revise the state's laws and draft a new constitution. The resulting constitution, in 1838, reduced the governor's appointive power, increased the number of elective offices, and shortened terms of office. The voters were given a greater voice in government and were better protected from abuses of power. However, free African Americans were disenfranchised despite protests from blacks in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The burning of Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, a new center intended for holding many reform activities, in the same year showed that the new constitution coincided with an awakened hostility toward abolition and racial equality.

Shifting Political Tides and the Antislavery Movement – After the adoption of the new constitution in 1838, six governors followed in succession prior to the Civil War, two of whom were Whigs. State debts incurred for internal improvements, especially the canal system, almost bankrupted the state, until the Public Works were finally sold in 1857. The search for a sound banking and currency policy and the rising political career of James Buchanan dominated this period. It was marred by the tragic religious riots of the Native American Association at Kensington in 1844.

The annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico which ensued in 1846 were generally supported in Pennsylvania. Two Pennsylvania regiments became part of General Winfield Scott's expedition in 1847, taking part in the landing and battle at Vera Cruz in March, the battle of Cerro Gordo, the capture of Pueblo, and the September 13 capture of the citadel of Chapultepec which completed the taking of Mexico City. The number of men serving in the two regiments was 2,415, although far more had tried to volunteer. However, many Pennsylvanians were opposed to expansion of slavery into the territory taken from Mexico. David Wilmot of Bradford County became a national figure in 1846 by his presentation in Congress of the Wilmot Proviso opposing slavery's extension, and his action was supported almost unanimously by the Pennsylvania Assembly.

The Quakers had been the first group to express organized opposition to slavery. Slavery had slowly disappeared in Pennsylvania under the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, but nationally the issue of slavery became acute after 1820. Many Pennsylvanians were averse to the return of fugitive slaves to their masters. Under an act of 1826, which was passed to restrain this, a Maryland agent was convicted of kidnapping a fugitive in 1837, but the United States Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in 1842. The state forbade the use of its jails to detain fugitive African Americans in 1847. The Compromise of 1850, a national program intended to quiet the agitation over slavery, imposed a new Federal Fugitive Slave Law, but citizens in Christiana, Lancaster County, rioted in 1851 to prevent the law from being implemented. Opposition to slavery and the desire for a high tariff led to the birth of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, first identified by that name in November 1854. A major national party by 1856, much of its national organization was formulated in Pennsylvania.

But the state elections of October 1854 were marked by extremism and bizarre events. In May 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which cancelled the national compromise over the extension of slavery, known as the "Missouri Compromise" or "Compromise of 1850," and made the vast Kansas and Nebraska Territories eligible for slavery. The major political parties both split over the issue. Governor William Bigler, a Democrat, sought re-election on his record of opposing the graft involved in the state-owned canal system, but Bigler aligned himself with the shady Simon Cameron, an opponent of slavery, and broke his ties with veteran politician James Buchanan. Meanwhile, the Know-Nothing Party, opponents of Catholicism, sprang up and conducted a secret campaign. They supported the free-soil Whig James Pollock for governor and many of them later drifted into the infant Republican Party. At the root of their rise in Pennsylvania had been their resentment against Bigler's and Buchanan's insistence that President Franklin Pierce appoint the Catholic jurist James Campbell to be the U.S. Postmaster General. As their methods involved secret pledges from both known Whigs and Democrats to oppose Catholicism, the extent of their voting strength and number of members they controlled in the General Assembly was never clear, but Pollock won the governorship.

In 1856, the Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan was elected President because of a deadlock over the slavery issue among the other major politicians, and he then announced a policy of non-interference with slavery in the states and popular sovereignty (choice by the electorate) in the federal territories. Because of controversy over the admission of Kansas as a state, Buchanan lost the support of most Northern Democrats, and the resulting disruption within the Democratic Party made possible Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency in 1860.

The Civil War followed. The expression "underground railroad" may have originated in Pennsylvania, where numerous citizens aided the escape of slaves to freedom in Canada. Anna Dickinson, Lucretia Mott, Ann Preston, and Jane Swisshelm were among Pennsylvania women who led the antislavery cause. Thaddeus Stevens was an uncompromising foe of slavery in Congress after he was re-elected to the House of Representatives in 1859. Pennsylvania abolitionist leaders were both African American and white.

African Americans – African American leaders included those who made political appeals, like James Forten and Martin R. Delany; underground railroad workers Robert Purvis and William Still; publication activist John B. Vashon and his son George; and the organizer of the Christiana Riot of 1851 against fugitive slave hunters, William Parker.

African Americans made several cultural advances during this period. William Whipper organized reading rooms in Philadelphia. In 1794, Rev. Absolam Jones founded St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, and Rev. Richard Allen opened the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, both in Philadelphia. The first African American church in Pittsburgh was founded in 1822 by a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.

Women – Courageous individual women worked not only for their own cause but also for other reforms, although the status of the whole female population changed little during this period. Catherine Smith, for example, manufactured musket barrels for the Revolutionary Army, and the mythical battle heroine Molly Pitcher was probably also a Pennsylvanian. Sara Franklin Bache and Ester De Berdt Reed organized a group of 2,200 Pennsylvania women to collect money, buy cloth, and sew clothing for Revolutionary soldiers. Lucretia Mott, a Quaker preacher and teacher, was one of four women to participate at the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833, and became president of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton she launched the campaign for women's rights at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Jane Grey Swisshelm, abolitionist and advocate of women's rights, used newspapers and lectures. In 1848, she launched her abolitionist paper, The Saturday Visiter, which featured antislavery propaganda and women's rights advocacy. Also during that year, her essays influenced the state legislature to grant married women the right to own property.

ECONOMY

By 1861, the factory system had largely replaced the domestic system of home manufacture, and the foundation of the state's industrial greatness was established. The change was most noticeable after 1840 because of a shift to machinery and factories in the textile industry. By 1860, there were more than two hundred textile mills. Leather making, lumbering, shipbuilding, publishing, and tobacco and paper manufacture also prospered in the 1800s.

Pennsylvania's most outstanding industrial achievements were in iron and steel. Its production of iron was notable even in colonial times, and the charcoal furnaces of the state spread into the Juniata Valley and western regions during the mid-1800s. Foundries, rolling mills, and machine shops became numerous and, by the Civil War, the state rolled about half the nation's iron, aiding the development of railroads. The Baldwin Locomotive Works were established in Philadelphia in 1842, and the Bethlehem Company was organized in 1862. The Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown were established in 1854 and, by the end of the Civil War, were the largest mills in the country. William Kelly, a native of Pittsburgh, is regarded as the true inventor of the Bessemer process of making steel.

Although much importance is given to the discovery of gold in California, the discovery and development of Pennsylvania's mineral and energy resources far overshadowed that event. Cornwall, in Lebanon County, provided iron ore from colonial times, and ore was also found in many other sections of Pennsylvania in which the charcoal iron industry flourished. The use of anthracite coal began on a large scale after 1820 with the organization of important mining companies and acceptance of new ways to use the coal.

Labor – After the Revolution, the use of indentured servants sharply declined. The growth of industrial factories up to 1860, however, enlarged the gulf between skilled and unskilled labor, and immigrants were as much downtrodden by this as they had been under indentured servitude. Local, specialized labor unions had brief successes, especially in Philadelphia where, in 1845, a city ordinance placed a ten-hour limit on the laborer's day. In 1827, the country's first city-wide central labor union was formed in Philadelphia. Depression years following the panic of 1837 caused many trade unions to collapse, but the formation of the Iron Molders' union under William H. Sylvis in 1859 signified a renewed spirit within organized labor. The state's mechanics' lien law of 1854 was another victory for the rights of labor.

TRANSPORTATION

Roads – The settlement of new regions of the state was accompanied by provisions for new roads. The original Lancaster Pike connecting Philadelphia with Lancaster was completed in 1794. By 1832, the state led the nation in improved roads, having more than 3,000 miles. The National or Cumberland Road was a major route for western movement before 1850. Between 1811 and 1818 the section of this road in Pennsylvania was built through Somerset, Fayette, and Washington counties. It is now part of U.S. Route 40.

Waterways – Most of the state's major cities were built along important river routes. In the 1790s, the state made extensive studies for improving the navigation of all major streams, and canals began to supplement natural waterways. Canals extending the use of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers were chartered before 1815, and the Lehigh Canal was completed in 1838. The vast system named the State Works of Pennsylvania soon overshadowed privately constructed canals. The system linked the east and the west by 1834, but the expense nearly made the state financially insolvent. The belief that the canals brought economic progress to distant regions, however, seemed to provide ample justification for the high cost.

Although canals declined rapidly with the advent of the railroad, Pennsylvania's ports and waterways remained active. The steamboat originated with experiments by John Fitch of Philadelphia from 1787 to 1790, and Lancaster County native Robert Fulton developed it as a practical medium of transportation on the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers.

Railroads – Rail transport began in 1827, operated at first by horse power or cables. The tracks connected anthracite fields with canals or rivers. The Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad, completed in 1834 as part of the State Works, was the first ever built by a government. Pennsylvania's first railroad built as a common carrier was the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, completed in 1835.

Major railroads chartered in the state included the Philadelphia and Reading (1833) and the Lehigh Valley (1846, reincorporated 1853). However, the most important of all was the Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered April 13, 1846, and completed to Pittsburgh by 1852. It absorbed so many short railroad lines by 1860 that it had nearly a monopoly on rail traffic from Chicago through Pennsylvania. And whereas Pennsylvania had reached its maximum of 954 canal miles by 1840, total railroad trackage grew by 1860 to 2,598 miles. In miles of rail and in total capital invested in railroads, Pennsylvania led all other states on the eve of the Civil War.

CULTURE

Education – The most lasting gift of state government to Pennsylvania's society was the establishment of the public education system. The 1790 constitution told the legislature to provide schools throughout the state capable of providing a free education to children of the poor. But only a paupers' school system was created until passage of the Free Schools Act of 1834. By special legislation state funds had earlier assisted individual schools, and Philadelphia's Central High School was created as a school district by the legislature in 1818, but that was not the comprehensive system intended by the constitution. A state common school fund was created in 1831, but the school system itself was only enacted in 1834 with the compromise provision that any local unit could opt not to have schools. State Senator Samuel Breck of Philadelphia was the architect of the compromise. Initially only 51 percent of all the local governments chose to enter the system. Opposition was so strong that repeal seemed certain in 1835, but Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Adams County spoke so eloquently against repeal that it was defeated. The Common Schools system was at first administered by the Secretary of State, who also held the title of Superintendent of Schools. Gradually more localities opted to have schools; finally an act of 1849 removed local governments' right to opt out. An act of 1854 made major changes, strengthening both the local school districts and the state's powers. School districts received corporation powers and became in effect strong bureaucracies operating side by side with the civil governments of cities, boroughs, and townships. The school districts' boards of directors could choose classroom subjects and text books, were allowed to define grade levels, and could expel disruptive students. County superintendents were also created and appeared at first to be merely inspectors. But in time they became very powerful and were considered to be agents of the state government. They enforced the teaching of six specific, required subjects (called "the branches"), but their power was most obvious in choosing and certifying all the teachers. The 1854 education act also required separate schools for African Americans whenever at least twenty black pupils could be accommodated in a locale. This was repealed in 1881, although many of the segregated schools that had been created continued in later years.

In 1857 the office of Superintendent of Common Schools was separated from the Department of State. A statute that year also authorized creation of normal schools, predecessors of the state teachers' colleges, to train teachers, although they were to be privately owned and only partially funded by the state. The first of these, at Millersville, was chartered in 1855 and accepted under the statutory normal school requirements in 1859. Two dynamic leaders in the pre-Civil War state education movement were Thomas R. Burrowes, who had been Secretary of State under Governor Ritner, and James P. Wickersham, who was Lancaster County's supervisor. Both reached out to schools statewide by publishing educational journals and materials, and they lent their influence to movements to expand state involvement into secondary education, teacher training, and school buildings, as well as extending the number of mandatory annual school attendance days. Public high schools existed at first only in urban communities or areas where special arrangements had been included in school charters. The specialized Farmers' High School, predecessor of The Pennsylvania State University, was opened in rural Centre County in 1855, exclusively for training farmers.

Science – The traditions of scientific inquiry established in Pennsylvania by Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, and the Bartrams continued. The American Philosophical Society was the first of many organizations founded in Philadelphia to encourage science. The Academy of Natural Sciences was founded in 1812 and the Franklin Institute in 1824. The American Association of Geologists, formed in Philadelphia in 1840, later grew into the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientific leadership of Pennsylvania was represented by many individuals, a few examples of whom can be mentioned. James Woodhouse (1770-1809) pioneered in chemical analysis, plant chemistry, and the scientific study of industrial processes. Isaac Hayes (1796-1879) of Philadelphia pioneered in the study of astigmatism and color blindness. The Moravian clergyman Lewis David von Schweinitz (1780-1834) made great contributions to botany, discovering more than twelve hundred species of fungi.

Literature and the Arts – Charles Brockden Brown of Philadelphia was the first American novelist of distinction and the first to follow a purely literary career. Hugh Henry Brackenridge of Pittsburgh gave the American West its first literary work in his satire Modern Chivalry. Philadelphia continued as an important center for printing with J. B. Lippincott taking the lead and, for magazines, with the publication of The Saturday Evening Post. Bayard Taylor, who began his literary career before the Civil War, published his most notable work in 1870-71 – the famous translation of Goethe's Faust.

In architecture, the red brick construction of southeastern Pennsylvania was supplemented by buildings in the Greek Revival style. The New England influence was strong in the domestic architecture of the northern tier counties. Thomas U. Walter and William Strickland gave Pennsylvania an important place in the architectural history of the early 1800s. Walter designed the Treasury Building and the Capitol dome in Washington. The nation's first institution of art – the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts – was founded in Philadelphia in 1805, although by then such painters as Gilbert Stuart, Benjamin West, and the Peale family had already made Philadelphia famous.

Philadelphia was the theatrical center of America until 1830, a leader in music publishing and piano manufacture, and the birthplace of American opera. William Henry Fry's Lenora (1845) was probably the first publicly performed opera by an American composer. Stephen Foster became the songwriter for the nation.

Religion – In the years between independence and the Civil War, religion flourished in the Commonwealth. In addition to the growth of religious worship, religious attitudes led to the enlargement of the educational system. In this period, churches threw off European ties and established governing bodies in the United States. In 1789 John Carroll of Maryland became the first Catholic bishop in America, and Pennsylvania's Catholics then looked to that see for guidance. Philadelphia became a separate diocese in 1808, Pittsburgh in 1842, and Erie in 1853. The Russian Prince, Demetrius Augustine Gallitzen, entered the priesthood and served the Catholics of central Pennsylvania's mountain district for thirty years. In 1820 the establishment of a national Lutheran synod was the last of the breaks from Europe by a major Protestant denomination. Some new churches were formed: Jacob Albright formed the Evangelical Association, a Pennsylvania German parallel to Methodism; Richard Allen formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816; and John Winebrenner founded the Church of God in Harrisburg in 1830. Rabbi Isaac Leeser, whose works laid a foundation for Conservative Judaism in America, performed his ministry, editing, and writing in Philadelphia from 1829 to 1868. Presbyterianism, which was the largest Protestant denomination before 1860, drifted westward and had its stronghold in western Pennsylvania. Quakers, although decreasing in number, led many humanitarian and reform movements. Although anti-Catholic riots occurred at Kensington in 1844, German and Irish immigrants enlarged the number of Catholics in the state.