Pennsylvania started off as the center of America: Philadelphia was the 13 colonies' largest city when it hosted the Continental Congress in 1776 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787. This was one of the newer colonies, founded 52 years after Massachusetts and 75 years after Virginia. Under the benevolent rule of the early Penns and with its Quaker traditions, Pennsylvania soon became the major settlement in the Middle Colonies: Its tolerance attracted Englishmen of all religious sects and thousands of Germans as well. Bordermen from Scotland, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland crossed the corduroy-like ridges of the Appalachians and settled the mountainous interior where General Braddock had been beaten by the French and Indians not long before, and where a decade later George Washington would again lead troops when the Whiskey Rebellion flared up. On the banks of the wide Delaware estuary, with its thriving commerce and rich hinterland, Philadelphia was, after London and Dublin, the largest Georgian city in the late 18th century. It seemed destined to be the London of America, the metropolis of government and commerce and culture.
But Philadelphia--and Pennsylvania--failed to hold the central position the Founders had expected. The nation's capital was put on the Potomac rather than the Delaware as part of a political deal, and the Erie Canal and the water-level railroad from the Hudson to Lake Erie channeled trade away from Philadelphia to New York. Philadelphia lost its chance to be the nation's financial capital when Andrew Jackson in righteous rage vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. Philadelphia's Quaker tradition, tolerant of diversity and indifferent to others' behavior, was overshadowed in intellectual life by New England's Puritan tradition, angrily intolerant and ready to use the state to impose cultural values from abolition to prohibition.
Instead, Pennsylvania became America's energy and heavy industry capital. The key was coal. Northeast Pennsylvania was the nation's primary source of anthracite, the hard coal used for home heating, and western Pennsylvania was laced with bituminous coal, the soft coal used in steel production. Connected with Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to become the Ohio, was the center of the nation's steel industry by 1890. Immigrants poured in from Europe and from the surrounding hills to work in western Pennsylvania's mines and factories. Pittsburgh became synonymous with industrial prosperity, the inspiration behind the civic pride that celebrated huffing smokestacks. In 1900, Pennsylvania was the nation's second largest state and growing rapidly. But the boom ended conclusively with the Depression of the 1930s, and in parts of Pennsylvania it has never returned. After World War II, both home heating and industry switched away from coal. John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers traded higher pay and benefits for payroll cuts. Even when coal prices boomed in the 1970s, strip mining created relatively few new jobs. Similarly, Pennsylvania steel began its decline three decades ago, when management decided not to keep up with new technology and agreed to big wage and benefit increases with the mistaken confidence they could pass the costs along. Big steel got import quotas in 1969--Pennsylvania has been the nation's most protectionist state since the first Bessemer converter furnaces were lit--but they didn't create jobs. By the time quotas lapsed in the 1990s, the industry had modernized, but mostly in huge new Indiana mills and small mini-mills scattered far from the factories that once lined the Monongahela.
The result has been the slowest population growth of any major state: There were 9.5 million Pennsylvanians in 1930, 12.4 million in 2004. Pennsylvania cast 36 electoral votes for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 21 for John Kerry in 2004; it had 30 congressman, as many as California, in 1960, but now has 19 to California's 53. People growing up here are as likely to leave the state as stay, and few out-of-staters move in. Pennsylvania looks and sounds today more like it did in the 1940s than any other major state.
Although Pennsylvania started off as our center of government, government has not been central to Pennsylvania for most of its history. During the Civil War, Pennsylvania was the site of the northernmost advance of the Confederate Army, at Carlisle, just north of Gettysburg; for generations after, it was the most Republican of the large states--for Lincoln and the Union, for the steel industry and the high tariff. Its malodorous Republican machines built parties which were not representative of one ethnic segment but had a place for just about everyone: in Philadelphia's huge City Hall, a knockoff of Paris' Hotel de Ville; in Pittsburgh's massive, Roman-columned City-County Building; in Harrisburg's grandiose Capitol with its rotunda modeled after St. Peter's in Rome and staircase modeled after the Paris Opera. In 1932, Pennsylvania was the only big state that stuck with Herbert Hoover and voted against Franklin Roosevelt. But the New Deal, John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers and the CIO industrial union movement, and a series of bloody strikes made industrial Pennsylvania almost as Democratic in the 1930s and 1940s as it had been Republican from the 1860s to the 1920s. Even then, parts of Pennsylvania not heavy with big steel factories and coal mines--the northern tier of counties along the New York border, the central part of the state around the Welsh railroad town of Altoona, and the Pennsylvania Dutch country around Lancaster, an area referred to by political consultants as the "T"--remained the strongest Republican voting bloc in the East. Philadelphia became a heavily Democratic city, but in the suburban counties, the antique Republican machines stayed in control. The result was a key marginal state in presidential elections from the 1950s to the 1990s.
In the 1980s, prosperous eastern Pennsylvania trended Republican and ailing western Pennsylvania trended Democratic. In the 1990s, culturally liberal eastern Pennsylvania trended Democratic and culturally conservative western Pennsylvania trended Republican. The east is larger--metro Philadelphia cast 33% of the state's votes in 2004 and metro Pittsburgh 20%--and the state has mostly gone its way: Pennsylvania voted Republican for president in 1980, 1984 and 1988 and Democratic in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Metro Philadelphia, which voted 50%-49% for Michael Dukakis in 1988, voted 59%-41% for John Kerry in 2004. Metro Pittsburgh, which voted 59%-40% for Dukakis, gave Kerry only a 52%-48% margin. In 1988, the senior George Bush carried Pennsylvania east of the first mountain ridge by 53%-46%, but lost the state west of the first ridge 48%-51%. In 2004, the regions were the other way around. George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania east of the first mountain ridge 44%-56% but carried west of the first ridge 53%-46%. These countervailing trends can best be explained by attitudes on cultural issues. Metro Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania are like the rest of the Northeast, liberal on issues like gun control and abortion; content with the economy, voters here moved toward Clinton-Gore Democrats in the 1990s. Pennsylvania west of the first mountain ridge, however, is full of strong-belief Catholics and Protestants and hunters who do not want their guns taken away. Relieved of economic stress, voters here moved toward Republicans in the 1990s.
In Pennsylvania, there is an unusually fine balance on cultural positions. Abortion is not political death here: The late Governor Bob Casey, a strong opponent of abortion, was re-elected by a wide margin in 1990. And when Governor Tom Ridge first ran for the office in 1994, an anti-abortion independent got 13% of the vote, and Ridge won with only 45%. To be sure, Gore was able to carry the state in 2000 and Democrat and former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell was elected governor in 2002. But Gore's margin was just 51%-46% and Rendell's not much larger, 53%-44%. Republicans have done very well otherwise. They hold both of the state's U.S. Senate seats and, thanks in part to a partisan districting plan, have a 12-7 edge in the House delegation. In 2002, they held the offices of attorney general and treasurer, held their margin in the state Senate and increased it in the state House: Rendell had no coattails. Rendell's victory in 2002 and John Kerry's 51%-48% victory here in 2004 were largely regional: they piled up big majorities in the Philadelphia media market and ran unimpressively elsewhere. Compared to 2000, the Democratic margin in metro Philadelphia increased by 96,000 votes, but George W. Bush increased his margin by 34,000 in metro Pittsburgh and 122,000 in the rest of the state--including many coal and manufacturing counties. Pennsylvania seems likely to be closely contested again in 2006.