Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bellefonte, Centre County
Bellefonte lawyer Andrew Gregg Curtin served as Pennsylvania's Governor from 1861 to 1867.
Born on April 22, 1815, in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin began his schooling at Milton Academy in Pennsylvania and continued his education in the study of law at the Dickinson College in Carlisle. He served as Governor of Pennsylvania from January 15, 1861, to January 15, 1867. Afterwards, he was named Minister to Russia and completed three terms in the House of Representatives, serving as chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs and Committee of Banking and Currency. From 1886 until his death on October 7, 1894, he practiced law in his hometown of Bellefonte.
Andrew Gregg Curtin, born April 22, 1815, began his life in the town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Roland Curtin, an iron manufacturer, and Jane Gregg, daughter of U.S. Senator Andrew Gregg. Unlike his ancestors, Andrew Curtin decided to pursue law as opposed to taking a hand in the iron manufacturing industry. He began his early studies at the Milton Academy, a preparatory school located in Milton, Pennsylvania. In time, Curtin gained enough educational ability that he was admitted to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There he studied under the renowned Judge John Reed who was known to be one of the principal Pennsylvania lawyers at the time. After completing his schooling, Curtin gained admission to the Centre County bar in 1837. According to The Agitator, "His great information, his vigorous mind, and his candor, recommended him to the courts, his winning style made him powerful with juries."
In the years to follow, Curtin was able to sustain a livelihood as a very successful lawyer while working in his hometown of Bellefonte. In 1840, Curtin undertook his first foray into politics by becoming involved in Whig William H. Harrison's successful campaign for the presidency. In 1844, Curtin married Catherine Irvine Wilson and the couple later had seven children together. The same year of his marriage, Curtin continued his political involvement by delivering speeches all across the state for Whig candidate Henry Clay. According to the Agitator, it was in this campaign that "Curtin first acquired his wide spread reputation for effective and resistless popular eloquence." In 1848, after being placed on the Whig electoral ticket, Curtin campaigned for winning presidential candidate Zachary Taylor, and repeated his efforts in 1852 for the unsuccessful Winfield Scott.
In 1854, Curtin's refusal to run for governor played a key role in the election of James Pollock as governor of Pennsylvania. As a result of his election as governor, Pollock had to give up his Senate seat. After the collapse of the Whig Party in the early 1850s, most joined the new Republican Party. Curtin and his Republican allies opposed Simon Cameron's efforts to claim the vacant Senate seat in 1854. Although Cameron eventually won the seat with the help of Democratic votes, it was the beginning of an intense political feud between the two men.
Pollock rewarded Curtin with positions as the Secretary of the Commonwealth and Superintendent of Public Instruction. In his newly-appointed role, Curtin chiefly concerned himself with improving Pennsylvania's public schools. He increased legislative funding for public schools and established a system of state schools for training teachers. He was so passionate about the value of education that in one of his own government reports he wrote:
Our preeminence amongst the nations of the earth does not result from the fertility of our soil, our free form of government, and abundant physical resources. These constitute powerful motive forces, but the great leading power is the universality of education.
After six years in this office, Curtin decided to return to practicing law. He had not, however, completely given up his political involvement. At the Republican convention in 1860, Curtin convinced the Pennsylvania delegation to abandon Cameron and nominate Abraham Lincoln as the party's candidate instead. Lincoln received the party's nomination and his floor managers promised to reward both Curtin and Cameron. Cameron was awarded a position in Lincoln's cabinet with the understanding that he would assist Curtin in his campaign for the governorship of Pennsylvania. Curtin won the 1860 gubernatorial election. He took office January 15, 1861. This year was the first in the American Civil War, an event that would greatly influence Curtin's entire term in office.
Throughout his term as governor, Curtin remained supportive of Abraham Lincoln. He obtained supplies, equipment, and troops for the Union Army, staunchly supporting the ideals of a united country and a united government. In fact, when Curtin had to make the decision for Pennsylvania to remain a part of the Union or secede to the Confederate States he said:
No part of the people, no State, nor combination of States, can voluntarily secede from the Union. To permit a State to withdraw at pleasure from the Union is to confess that our Government is a failure. Pennsylvania can never acquiesce in such a conspiracy, nor assent to a doctrine which involves the destruction of the Government.
This stance proved to be monumental in the outcome of the American Civil War since Pennsylvania was the "keystone," bridging the great divide between the northern and southern states.
Curtin's stance meant a new danger for the citizens of Pennsylvania, however, so he lobbied for a budget to be put into place that would fund a defense for the state—that funding produced the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps. After the Union defeat at Bull Run in 1861, this reserve corps was recruited to protect Washington D.C. from Confederate troops. In 1862, Curtin, suffering from failing health, planned a meeting of Northern governors at Altoona, Pennsylvania. At this meeting, the governors decided to support the Lincoln administration in its proposed emancipation of Southern slaves and a military draft of civilians.
To the many soldiers in the Union armed services, and to President Lincoln himself, Curtin was very much a respected figure. In 1863, with his first term ending and his health greatly impaired because of the stresses he felt from his responsibilities, he was inclined to reject running for another term. It was in this year especially that he experienced great inner-turmoil because Pennsylvania had seen its bloodiest three days at the Battle of Gettysburg. Curtin's constituents wrote in the Evening Telegraph that they would "speak the full measure of his worth as a man, as a patriot and a statesman" in the upcoming election, and Curtin remained faithful to their loyalty by accepting his re-nomination for a second term in office. President Lincoln recognized Curtin's stressful position and suggested that he take a foreign mission, but Curtin remained where he was most needed—with his citizens.
With the fighting intensifying, Curtin began focusing primarily on the needs of Pennsylvania soldiers and their children. He increased funding for hospitals and also took care of supporting and schooling children left parentless by the war. These children became wards of the State and were clothed, fed, and placed in loving homes. When money was most scarce, Curtin still was able to persuade the state to raise over $4 million to be used for these children. His compassion and generosity for these war orphans were so great that he even had Pennsylvania fund the state Orphans' School so that these children had every means necessary to a proper education. Due to his efforts for soldiers and their families, he was given the nickname "the Soldiers' Friend."
During the last winter of the war, Governor Curtin was so physically ill from the overwhelming struggles of the ongoing conflict that he had to spend the remainder of his term in Cuba, upon recommendations by his physicians. Upon his return to the States at the conclusion of the War, he was encouraged to run for the U.S. Senate; however, he lost to longtime rival Simon Cameron. In 1868, Curtin tried to run for the Republican vice-presidential nomination but was blocked by Cameron and his allies. Instead, after Grant's successful election to the presidency, Curtin was named Minister to Russia. He proudly served in his position in St. Petersburg until 1872, at which time he was forced to resign due to his health.
In the same year, Curtin publicly backed the Democratic nominee for president, Horace Greeley, after becoming jaded by the first administration of Republican President Grant. Curtin switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party when he ran for election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1878, but was defeated. Two years later, he was successful and served three terms in the House of Representatives, before retiring in 1887.
Andrew Curtin remained in Bellefonte and resumed his law practice until his death on the seventh of October, 1894. He was buried with full honors in Union Cemetery. He is renowned for his dedication to his state during the most turbulent time in American history. A biographical profile in The Agitator remembered him as "a man of dignified presence, of gracious and gentle demeanor, kind-hearted, genial, and sunny-tempered, he is beyond all question, the most popular man of his age in Pennsylvania."
His contributions echo in today's Pennsylvania heritage. In his honor, there have been monuments created in at least four different locations, including Bellefonte, Gettysburg, and the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. There was also a World War II ship named the SS Andrew Gregg Curtin. This statesman remains unforgotten in his home town of Bellefonte where he will forever be considered a hero for his dutiful and unwavering dedication to his state and country during the American Civil War.
McClure, Alexander Kelly. Abraham Lincoln and the Men of War-Times. Philadelphia: The Times Publishing Company, 1892.
McClure, Alexander Kelly. The Life and Services of Andrew G. Curtin. Harrisburg: C.M. Busch, 1895.
Photo Credit: "Gov. Andrew Curtin, PA." between 1855 and 1865. Photography. Licensed under Public Domain. Cropped to 4x3. Source: Library of Congress : Brady-Handy photograph collection. Source: Online Resource.
Tara L. Belcher; suppl. by Lindley Homol
Written by Tara L. Belcher; suppl. by Lindley Homol, Spring 2008; 2009; updated 2015