JOSEPH RITNER was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania and largely self-educated. He moved to Cumberland County during his teens to work as a farm hand. He later farmed for his uncle and eventually bought a farm of his own. He served as a private during the War of 1812. Ritner was named local road supervisor in Washington County and in 1820 was elected to the state Assembly—winning reelection for four additional terms, the final two of which he served as Speaker. He became involved with the Anti-Masonic movement in the late 1820s, and after two defeats for governor against his Democratic opponent, he won election in 1835. When the Second Bank of the United States was destroyed, Ritner signed legislation giving a state charter to Nicholas Biddle’s bank in exchange for a sizeable bank payment and loan to Pennsylvania. A supporter of public education, Ritner worked to prevent repeal of the Public School Law of 1834 and succeeded in securing passage of an improved law in 1836. Also a strong opponent of slavery, Ritner was the inspiration for an anti-slavery poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. At the same time, the reputation of Ritner’s administration suffered as the result of political district gerrymandering by Anti-Masons and the use by Thaddeus Stevens—the state legislature’s Anti-Masonic leader—of the public rail and canal system as a source of patronage. Ritner was the last governor to serve under the state Constitution of 1890 which was replaced in 1838 by a Constitution that limited Pennsylvania’s governors to two terms. In 1838 Ritner lost both reelection and what became known as the Buckshot War: a challenge to the validity of the voting in that election. After leaving office, he settled on a farm at Mountain Rock in Cumberland County. In 1848 he was appointed Director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia by President Zachary Taylor but was never confirmed because of Taylor’s death. He went on to serve as a delegate to the Republican National Convention of 1856 in Philadelphia.
Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 4. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 2. New York: James T. White & Company.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission