DAVID RITTENHOUSE was born near Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was preparing to enter Princeton University when a fire forced the school’s closure. He went on to clerk for his father, who was Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, after which he worked as a clerk and then manager of an iron plantation. In 1814 he became part owner of Sligo Iron Works, a firm that failed five years later. In addition to his business ventures, he studied law and farmed, specializing in horse and cattle breeding. He served three terms in the Pennsylvania Assembly, after which he was appointed prothonotary (i.e., chief clerk) of the Huntingdon County courts and then Recorder of Deeds and Register of Wills. In 1836 he began a term in the Pennsylvania Senate, where he remained until winning the 1838 race for governor against the Whig Anti-Masonic incumbent. Porter took office during the depth of the depression following the Panic of 1837, forcing him to address financial difficulties throughout his two terms in office. During his administration, imprisonment for debt was abolished and Porter quelled serious nativist riots in Philadelphia in 1844. He was a strong advocate of separation of powers and sought to curb legislative interference in the executive and judicial branches of state government, earning him strong enemies in the state legislature and an unsuccessful effort at impeachment. After leaving office, Porter withdrew from politics but supported James Buchanan’s advancement to the presidency in 1856 and pressed for construction of a transcontinental railroad, working with Governor Sam Houston of Texas to promote the southern route. Porter also established an iron business in Harrisburg and experimented with one of the first furnaces to use anthracite coal as a smelting fuel.
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