WILLIAM FINDLEY was, after Arthur St. Clair, the most prominent man of his day in Westmoreland counts history. Those who are familiar with the \\ hisky Insurrection cannot fail to remember the faith our people had in hint at that time, vet he lived more than a quarter of a century after that, and his hold upon the people increased constantly from year to year.
He was born in Ireland in 1741 or 1742 and came to Pennsylvania in 1762. He did not locate in Westmoreland county until the close of the Revolution, though it is said that he was ready to come here with Bouquet in 1763 but was deterred from doing so by the Indian troubles in this section. He was descended from old Scotch Covenanters. His ancestors had been driven from Scotland because of their religious belief during the reign of James the Second. He came to America, intending to locate in South Carolina, but changed his mind because of the extent of human slavery in the south. It is scarcely likely that he was opposed to slavery from principle, but rather that, intending to perform manual labor himself, he came to a state where free labor was highly respected. -Nevertheless, he could have owned slaves in Pennsylvania but never did.
When a youth at home he had access to more books than most young men of his day, and he acquired a taste for literature which remained with him throughout his entire life. When the Revolution began he entered the army as a private, and rose to the rank of captain, which was not a high rank for a man of his ability to attain. At the close of the war he purchased lands near Latrobe. or between that place, St. Vincent's Monastery and Beatty Station, on the Pennsylvania Railroad. The latter now passes over his farm. It was then practically uncleared land: that which had been partly cleared had been neglected during the war, and was little else than a tangled mass of underbrush. To convert this into a productive form became his chief employment for some years. Then he built a log cabin in which he lived, and in which he also set up a loom, for he was a weaver by trade, and for some years plied the shuttle when not engaged in actual farming. with an industry which characterized his whole life. Many a web of cloth he wove for his surrounding neighbors, wove fabrics of flax and wool, and the linsey-woolsey mixture with which both he and his neighbors were clad from one year's end to another. When he afterwards built a better house the loom still remained in the log cabin, and did duty long after he was engaged in a wider field.
In religion lie was by birth a Covenanter, but, settling in a strong Presbyterian section, he connected himself with that church and remained with it through life. In church affairs, as in everything else, he was a leader. He was not as well educated as many of the prominent men of his day, but he had the confidence of all classes, both high and low, and in this he surpassed all men in our county. He was very early elected to the assembly of Pennsylvania and there met Hugh Henry Brackenridge, who then represented that part of our county, now embraced in Allegheny county. Brackenridge had been elected for the sole purpose of securing the formation of a new county, while Findley, as may be supposed, was anxious to have the county remain intact. They were therefore hostile to each other from the first. Findley was also one of the council of censors, and on the same beard with him sat Gen. Arthur St. Clair. They were perhaps never hostile to each other, but were always on opposite sides, for St. Clair was a Federalist. Findley and William Todd were representatives in the constitutional convention of 1789 from Westmoreland county, the convention which formed the constitution of 1790. In this convention he introduced a measure which he tried to have incorporated in the organic law of the state, providing that in all parts of the state the children of poor parents should be taught at the state's expense. The people were not ready for such a measure. Nearly forty years afterwards, Thaddeus Stevens, by sheer force of his mighty intellect, put a similar provision on the statute books, in direct opposition to the expressed instruction of his constituents, and for this daring act has since been revered by every right thinking man, woman and child in Pennsylvania. Yet the level-headed old Westmoreland weaver more than a generation before, and when Stevens was yet unborn, advocated the same measure, and proved himself to be far in advance of his age.
In 1790 he was elected to the second Congress and took his seat in 1791. He was elected for four consecutive terms, remaining there till 1799. He was therefore in Congress during the Whisky Insurrection, and to this is due in part the confidence our people reposed in him at that time, for the country people always look up to and expect everything from their member of Congress. In 1802 he was again elected after an absence of four years, and kept there steadily as long as he would stand for the honor, for fourteen years. Had it not been for his age he could probably have remained many years longer.
His enemies in Congress said he was a demagogue. This may have been true, for it is noticed that he always came out in favor of the people and advocated what they wanted, which was not always what they should have had. It perhaps mattered little to him what they wanted ; if they were largely of one mind, Findley favored it. A good public servant cannot always be bound by the will of those he represents, but, like Stevens. he must sometimes oppose the wishes of his best friends, and advocate theories because they are just and not because they are favored by the arbitrary caprice of his people. In the Whisky Insurrection he went with his people and went wrong.
He was a fluent talker in conversation, but made few if any public addresses. While he could not address a public meeting, he could organize one, shape its actions to suit himself, and get from it, in the end, all that he desired. He was, in other words, a natural born leader of the people, and his enemies may have been right in saying that he feared to try to lead them in any direction except the one in which they wanted to go. He electioneered among them and made them think he was indeed one of them. He attended house and barn raisings, and when in the strength of manhood, before age weakened him, he lifted as many logs as the best of them. He visited the farmer in his fields, and, taking the plow in his own hands, showed them how well he could turn a furrow. By all these means, which his enemies styled demagogic, he enlisted the support of the common people, who largely predominated in his day, and they remained loyal to him as long as he lived. In all theso matters he differed widely from Brackenridge. Though both were great in their leadership, they led through entirely different methods. Brackenridge was a scholar, an orator, a philosopher, a lawyer, and a man of the highest culture. On one occasion he was called to account for opposing Findley because he had been a weaver, to which he wittily replied that he did not oppose him because he was a weaver, but because he was nothing else than a weaver. Findley was, however, much more than a weaver. He was perhaps stronger out of Congress than in it. The Scotch-Irish were always loyal to him to a man. Party lines were not so closely drawn then as now. Men voted for Findley because he was Findley whom they knew, and not because he was the representative of any party.
There were many great statesmen of that day who feared that the then untried constitution of the United States was not strong enough; that the people were granted too many liberties, and that, in a short time, we would have a reign of anarchy. We were so closely connected with the monarchies of the old world that they had but little faith in our people governing themselves. Findley was opposed to many of the prominent measures of Washington's first administration, as was common among the anti-Federalists of that day; yet he wrote a book to defend the constitution, and in it showed considerable research and ability. His book is now out of print. In it he took the ground that church and state were and should be always separate institutions. Bred, as he and most of our people were, under the dominion of the English government, when the established church was one of its main features, this was indeed advanced ground, though now it is a proposition which needs no argument. His work was widely read in its day, and may have done great good. He also wrote a "History of the Insurrection," which has been quoted as authority by such men as Hildreth. Fisher Ames called the book "a history of Findley's own insurrection, not the Whisky Insurrection." It is not a great work, and seems to be written by him rather to apologize for his own actions in the unfortunate trouble than to give a true account of it. There are errors in it which have never been attributed to a willful desire to misstate facts, but rather to the misinformation of the author. It has been the most lasting and is probably the best of his works, mainly because it dealt with a national subject. Brackenridge, no less than
Findley, sought to apologize for his part in the Insurrection. But Brackenridge was an educated lawyer whose every instinct should have warned him against participating with those whose object was to subvert the majesty of the law.
The Fanners' Register, now the Greensburg Democrat, was the only paper published in Westmoreland county during most, if not all, of Findley's life in Congress. To its columns he was a frequent contributor under the no rz de plume of "Sidney." This he admits in an article published on November 8, i8o8. To contribute to newspapers was a common means in those days, to which public men resorted to reach the people. As a newspaper writer he was direct and forceful, and his articles were doubtless very potent with the unlettered constituency whom he represented.
He also published a work called "Observations," and still another, called a "Review of the Funding System." taking sides with Jefferson and Gallatin as against Washington and Hamilton. Neither of these works would attract attention now, but they had no mean circulation.
When Jay's Treaty was brought up before the house he perhaps did not want to vote either way, so he left the house. The sergeant-at-arms was sent for him and brought him in and he was compelled to vote. This was great material for his enemies, who did net fail to use it against him.
He must have been a very hard worker all his life, for his books and contributions to newspapers alone are almost a life's work. He never missed a session of Congress. He never forgot that he had been a farmer.
William Findley was a large man, with light complexion, clean shaven face, and was very tasty in his dress. He always, when away from home, wore knee-breeches, a shad-bellied coat, and long waistcoat. These, with silk stockings and a cue, completed his make-up. These were changed to home-spun garments and white felt hat when about his home and busied with the many duties oof his farm.
Going to Philadelphia, and after i800 to Washington to attend Congress, he always went on horseback, for which purpose he kept a special horse, and for several weeks before he started his horse was allowed to a season of rest. Weeks before the journey began, the Findley household was busy preparing his clothes, the linens, and little personal possessions he teas to take with him. He went away in time for the first session in December, and did not return till its close, sometimes in July or August. So his departure was a matter of some import to his community. All the neighbors came to his house on the day- of his departure to wish him well and to bid him good-bye. There were George Smith, William Todd and John Proctor, all men of note in our county's history; the Sloans, the Craigs and the Lochrys, names not by any means unfamiliar to the reader.
His connection with the Whisky Insurrection has always been considered against him. It cannot but be admitted that he did wrong in its inception, and probably the example of so eminent and just a man led many weaker men astray. But, at all events, he did no worse than Gallatin and Brackenridge. Of all these he came first to a true realization of the situation, and after that did all he could to rectify the errors he had committed. The frankness with which he admitted his error, and his untiring efforts to repair the wrong done, have more than half redeemed him from his faults. But more than all this is the fact that he retained through all the troubles, the highest respect and confidence of Washington, who never knowingly countenanced nor confided in a real enemy of the Republic.
He died at his home, on April , 1821, in the eightieth year of his age, and was buried in Unity cemetery, near his home, and near the present town of Latrobe.
Source: Page(s) 642-646, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2008 for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)
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