William Findley was born in northern Ireland's Ulster Province in 1741 or 1742, and immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1763. After fighting in the Revolutionary War, he served in both state and national government. Throughout his political career, Findley supported democratic principles such as free speech and direct elections. Findley died on April 5, 1821, in Unity Township, Pennsylvania.
William Findley was born in the province of Ulster in northern Ireland, in either 1741 or 1742. At about the age of 21, he emigrated from Ireland to America, landing in Pennsylvania in 1763. He then worked as a teacher. Findley fought for independence during the Revolutionary War, serving first as a private and ultimately as a captain.
Political Career in Pennsylvania
As the Revolutionary War wound down, William Findley moved to western Pennsylvania, purchasing a farm in Westmoreland County. It was from this location that Findley was elected to take part in Pennsylvania's 1783 Council of Censors, a body set up by the state's 1776 constitution. Findley also served in the state's General Assembly from 1784 to 1787.
After politicians like Alexander Hamilton pushed for a stronger national government than the Articles of Confederation permitted, a new federal Constitution was written in 1787. When it came time for Pennsylvania to ratify the new document, Findley, an anti-Federalist who wanted a national government with limited power, strongly objected to the document's lack of provision for trial by jury, freedom of speech and other measures he felt were necessary to safeguard the rights of individuals and of the states. Despite Findley's vote against it, Pennsylvania quickly ratified the new Constitution. However, many of the protections Findley desired were in the Bill of Rights. With these amendments, Findley and other Anti-Federalists were able to support the Constitution.
With a new federal Constitution, Pennsylvania needed its own new governing document. As a delegate to the state's constitutional convention in 1789-90, Findley was a key part of a coalition that succeeded in obtaining the direct election of state senators (at the time, the U.S. Senate was indirectly elected by state legislatures). At the convention, Findley also introduced a resolution to educate the poor for free.
Although some of his fellow politicians looked down on him for his work as a weaver and his lack of formal education, William Findley was a popular figure in Westmoreland County, and would even go shopping for his neighbors while away working in government. This popularity helped Findley win election to several terms in Congress, beginning from 1791 to 1799, and then from 1803 to 1817 (he returned to state government from 1799 to 1802, as a member of Pennsylvania's state Senate). For his first two congressional terms, Findley was elected as a member of the Anti-Administration party. After that, Findley served as a member of the Jeffersonian Republican party.
Findley was in Congress during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, a defining moment for the young United States. Western farmers, who had little cash on hand, had objected to a 1791 federal tax on distilled spirits. A small farmer himself, Findley initially sympathized with the cause. However, he tried to quiet the rebellion when it grew stronger in western Pennsylvania. Neither Findley's talks with the rebels nor with President George Washington led to a peaceful solution. The rebels only dispersed, without violence, when Washington sent 13,000 militia troops to the area. In 1796, Findley published a book about the uprising, History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the Year 1794.
Retirement and Legacy
At the end of his congressional career, William Findley, as the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was designated "Father of the House." After retiring from Congress in 1817, Findley returned to his western Pennsylvania farm. He died on April 5, 1821, at the approximate age of 80, in Unity Township, Pennsylvania.
Although not as well known today as some of the politicians he worked and interacted with, Findley was an important leader whose staunch belief in democratic principles helped to shape a new nation.
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