Lost 1779 legislative journal returned to Pennsylvania
By STEVE ESACK
Charles Hoffman was a common soldier killed somehow, somewhere in what was then a 4-year-old war for independence from Great Britain.
His death left his widow with a household of sorrow and plenty of needs. So she asked Pennsylvania lawmakers for financial help — and got none at first.
The official notation of her request begins: “A petition of Rachael Hoffman Widow of Charles Hoffman late a Soldier in the Pennsylvania Troops, setting forth the difficulties...labours and praying relief..."
The fledgling Legislature, meeting in Philadelphia as the Revolutionary War raged in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere, let her petition “lie on the table." That meant it did not vote to help her that day, but eventually passed a law granting “half pay" to the widows of “freemen of Pennsylvania," just as it had been doing for officers' widows.
That slice of everyday misery and legislative action is outlined in exquisite cursive script on the linen pages of a 1779 journal containing the original minutes of the bicameral Revolutionary General Assembly — today's state Legislature.
The 183-page journal, which painstakingly depicts the inner workings of the third session of the General Assembly, is now back in Pennsylvania after being found in a New York home. An Essex, N.Y., library official recognized its authenticity and historical significance.
This summer, the official worked with the book's owner to donate it to the Pennsylvania State Archives, where it sits in a secure, climate-controlled vault alongside other unique handwritten logs that catalog the earliest years of the commonwealth, which then consisted of 11 counties, 72 term-limited lawmakers and a 12-member executive branch.
“It's exciting to get any record from this time period," Pennsylvania state archivist Aaron McWilliams said. “It's a picture of the workings of government at that time and of the people at that time."
And, 239 years later, it's fascinating to see how much things have changed — and stayed the same.
Here are three things that changed:
Residents sought state protection from wolves in York County.
Lawmakers were giving $100 signing bonuses, a hunting shirt and shoes in lieu of one pair of leggins to those willing to guard against Native American and British raids in the frontier regions of what would now be Northampton County and points north, and north and west of what is now Northumberland County.
Today Pennsylvania has 67 counties with 203 full-time, nonterm limited lawmakers in two chambers, House and Senate.
What hasn't changedHere are two things that stayed the same:
Like today, lawmakers granted themselves meal and travel per diem allowances for showing up to work in the Capitol. The 1779 per diem rate was “two pounds, five shillings" and “one pound, six pence" per mile of travel. That was on top of daily pay for session days: “eight dollars" for rank-and-file lawmakers, “four pounds" for the speaker and five pounds for the clerk. Today's per diem rate is $163 for lawmakers who live 50 miles away from Harrisburg. Annual pay is $87,180 for rank-and-file lawmakers.
Residents, primarily from Quaker and Mennonite areas, petitioned to change a law that required them to take an unpopular oath of allegiance to the state. Lawmakers kept the oath on the books.
“The book is a snapshot into the Revolutionary War period and into the workings of government," McWilliams said. “It shows what the General Assembly was considering day-to-day, what petitions were coming in, the communities they were setting up and the bills that they passed and didn't pass."
The state always has had copies of the meeting minutes. John Morris Jr., the House's original clerk, had several years of meeting minutes compiled into one volume. Those records have been put on microfilm or digitized for the internet.
But seeing the actual book brings the stories to life. The book's spine is still intact, holding together a brown hardback cover that protects the thick paper, which contains hidden watermarks that identify the initials of the person or company that made them. Several different people wrote the March 16 to Sept. 27, 1779, minutes in swooping, connected cursive letters. Neat scratch-out marks and glued addendums corrected mistakes.
Those details caught the eye of Monica Rumsey, a board member at Belden Noble Memorial Library in Essex, N.Y. She found the book in July in a stack of old books owners dropped off for help in determining their origins. Rumsey called the Pennsylvania Archives and explained her find. She then contacted the book's owner, Edie Morris of Mechanicville, N.Y., who agreed to donate it. Morris did not know how it ended up in a family home she inherited, but did say her ancestry stretches to Colonial Philadelphia, according to a summary by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Too often people who find historic artifacts try to sell them for personal gain, said David Carmichael, Pennsylvania's chief archivist. Not Morris.
“I admire Ms. Morris for returning this document to its rightful home," he said.