Question of the Week
This man was the last President of Pennsylvania and the state’s first Governor. Who was he?
Answer: Thomas Mifflin
As the Commonwealth’s gubernatorial race heats up, it is interesting to remember that Pennsylvania once elected a President instead of a Governor. Perhaps even more interesting is the man who held both offices: Thomas Mifflin.
Prior to the establishment of the governor's office with Pennsylvania's 1790 constitution, the Supreme Executive Council administered the state’s executive branch. At the head of this council sat the president of the state. Seven men – including Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson – served as president between 1776 and 1790. Thomas Mifflin was both the state's last president (serving from 1788-1790) as well as its first and longest-serving "governor" (serving from 1790 to 1799).
The son of a merchant and city alderman, Mifflin was born into a prosperous Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1744. Educated at the College of Philadelphia (later part of the University of Pennsylvania), Mifflin became an outspoken critic of the British Parliament’s taxation policies as early as 1769. A Pennsylvania delegate to both Continental Congresses – where he championed colonial rights and pressed for independence – Mifflin joined the Continental Army following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concorde in 1775.
Mifflin worked initially as General George Washington's aide-de-camp until appointed Quartermaster General, tasked with procuring and distributing supplies to the Continental Army. Despite his Quaker faith, Mifflin went on to become a decorated officer, participating directly in the battles of Long Island and Trenton and eventually attaining the rank of brigadier general. For his participation in the war, Mifflin was expelled from the Society of Friends.
Returning to politics after the war, Mifflin continued in the Pennsylvania legislature (1785-88), succeeded Franklin as president of the Supreme Executive Council (1788-90), and chaired the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention (1789-90). In this last capacity, Mifflin oversaw the writing of the state's constitution, which abolished the office of President and created the role of state governor. Mifflin ran without a party affiliation – the only Pennsylvania governor to do so – and was elected under the new constitution in 1790.
During his 9-year tenure as governor, Mifflin contended with popular uprisings, financial problems and one of the worst outbreaks of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. His administration oversaw the organization of state political parties and addressed Pennsylvania’s war debt – incurred during the Revolution. Mifflin again served in the field, personally commanding the Pennsylvania militia that quelled the Whiskey Rebellion (1794).
Ironically, Mifflin was able to manage the expenses of the Continental Army and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but woefully unable to managing his own personal finances. Quite literally chased out of Philadelphia by his creditors in 1799, Mifflin died the following year in Lancaster. He was buried, at state expense, at the German Lutheran Church in Lancaster.
In HSP's library are a number of books about the formation of Pennsylvania's 1790 constitution and Thomas Mifflin, such as Thomas Mifflin and the Politics of the Revolution (call number Gm. 506) and Politics as Played when Philadelphia was the National Capital, 1790-1800 (call number Wn*.73.).
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.