Home / General / Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, II: Pennsylvania

Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, II: Pennsylvania


A couple of notes as we go forward in this series:

1. I am doing the states in order of joining the union.

2. Some of you are bringing up state-level politicians. That was really interesting to me. I hope you keep doing that. But understand that outside of some western states, I just don’t have that level of knowledge. But again, I did appreciate the alternatives you all suggested for Delaware. Good subjects for future research.

3. Judging current politicians is always a work in progress. It may surprise you to know that Rick Santorum is not going to make this list. I hope no one is disappointed.

Now, onto Pennsylvania: The Keystone State!

I believe Pennsylvania should change their state motto to “Official Supporting Cast of 19th Century Politics.”

Pennsylvania has always been an important state and so its leaders always got a boost to their national standing. It’s a deep list in the Keystone State, but one that skews very early in time. I narrowed the field to 10 candidates and not a single one began in politics after 1910. I suppose Tom Ridge or Arlen Specter might come close to the top 10, but in recent decades, Pennsylvania politicians have played important but not central roles in American political life.

1. Benjamin Franklin. I originally visualized this project as mostly covering the post-1787 period. But Franklin casts such a huge shadow of Pennsylvania politics that even those almost all of his achievements occurred before 1787, there’s no question that he is the most important politician in state history. I don’t feel I need to recap his important role in creating the United States of America.

2. Albert Gallatin. Here’s where the supporting cast players start. Gallatin was a very important man. Essential even. Both Jefferson’s and Madison’s Secretary of Treasury, Gallatin shaped early American economic policy more anyone but Alexander Hamilton. One can also argue that Gallatin’s financial policies were deeply flawed, as were the entire Democratic-Republican Party, and that his follies hurt the nation in the War of 1812. I think that’s unfair, as there were real reasons Americans feared the rise of corporate capitalism, but the Federalists understood far better than the D-Rs how to make a national economy work.

3. Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee the Civil War. A powerful abolitionist, Stevens wrote much of the financial legislation that helped the Union win the war. The abolitionist in Birth of a Nation is based upon Stevens, which only helps me think more highly of him. Hated by the post-Reconstruction white South–what higher calling could there be?

4. James Buchanan–normally, a state’s only president would make the top 3, but when are the worst president in history, you don’t get there.

5. Gifford Pinchot–Progressive governor, first head of the United States Forest Service.

6. Robert Morris–Revolutionary leader, provided incalculable financial assistance to the cause.

7. Philander Knox–Taft’s Secretary of State, pusher of Dollar Diplomacy, invader of Latin America. Also Attorney General and 2 time Senator.

8. David Wilmot–short career but he sure burned bright. As a Congressman, he introduced the Wilmot Proviso, attempting to ban slavery from territories acquired during the Mexican War. Later came back to Washington as a senator for 2 years during the Civil War.

9. Matthew Quay. Twice senator, but he’s on here because he was the 2nd most important political boss of the Gilded Age (behind Mark Hanna–again we see the Pennsylvania guy come in #2).

10. George Dallas. Senator, major diplomat, Polk’s Vice-President.

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  • Scott Lemieux

    Pierce was probably worse, and Andrew Johnson was way worse. #hobbyhorse

    • Murc

      Pierce and Johnson totally make my top five (Those two, Buchanan, Nixon, and Tyler, if you’re wondering) but you seriously think Johnson was worse than Buchanan for the top slot? Johnson was merely sympathetic to a band of defeated traitors. Buchanan actively aided them.

      (Tyler makes my list as the only President to commit treason, fyi. That ranks a spot in the top five.)

      • mattc

        For me, it comes down to this question: if you switched Pierce and Buchanan’s terms, would there would have been any appreciable difference in the outcome of the sectional crisis? I don’t think so. Therefore, Buchanan’s place of ultimate ignominy is essentially due to bad timing.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Buchanan was within the political mainstream, and was dealing with an impossible situation. A much better president still wouldn’t have averted the Civil War (as Lincoln’s election demonstrates). Johnson, on the other hand, had to constantly oppose Congress in order to defend the vision of the traitors.

      • Are you leaving out Dubya because you’ve decided he doesn’t belong in the bottom five, or because it’s too early to make the call?

        I don’t see how he can ruled out entirely.

        • Murc

          No room, basically.

          If Tyler hadn’t committed treason, W would have his slot. That pushes him out of my personal bottom five into my personal bottom ten.

          • Anonymous

            But Tyler’s support of the Confederacy came 20 years after leaving office. It makes him a bad person, but doesn’t reflect adversely on his presidency, anymore than we rank Taft higher for being Chief Justice, or J. Q. Adams for his career in Congress, or Hoover and Carter for their post-presicential good works.

            • rea

              that “Anonymous” is rea

            • Murc

              I would ordinarily agree with you, rea, but in my mind, having been President of the United States and then committing treason is an act of sufficient calumny to actually retroactivley tarnish you.

              And I actually rank Hoover higher as a President than a lot of people do.

            • Tyler is loathsome as a president specifically because he decided to make southern extremism his ticket for potential re-election, naming Calhoun Secretary of State who then released the Pakenham Letter, declaring aggressive slave expansion as American foreign policy. Combined with his all-out bid for Texas statehood and few characters did more in the 1840s to cause the Civil War.

          • Worse than Nixon?

            Sure, you can’t point to the Cambodia bombing and the long continuation of the Vietnam War as being worse, even, than the Iraq War. However, as bad as Nixon was, he has the rapprochement with China to mitigate it. It’s tough to think of anything of significance Bush did well, never mind something of major global importance.

            • Er, you CAN point…, that is.

            • Malaclypse

              Bush also normalized torture. Lots of Presidents have wars of aggression on their hands. Normalizing torture really puts Bush into a special place in hell.

              • Good point.

                Even recognizing that it was the Bush administration itself – and, from what I’ve read, Bush himself, rejecting Cheney – that ended the “Enhanced Interrogation Program,” Bush ended it for policy reasons, and never acknowledged that it was morally or legally wrong, so that would count as “normalizing” it. A future president who wanted to start torturing people again would merely be undoing a policy, as opposed to crossing a moral or legal line, in may people’s minds.

                So, I guess I agree with you. Bush made torture into something “normal,” something “reasonable people” can disagree over.

    • I’m hardly going to defend Johnson and certainly he’s one of the 3 worst presidents. I will only say 2 things. 1) When the nation falls apart around you and your basic response is, “let’s just let the next guy handle it, I’m going home,” that’s pretty awful. 2) Nobody thought it was a good idea for Andrew Johnson to be president. He wasn’t elected and never would have been. Lincoln deserves no small share of the blame for Johnson–Lincoln’s obsession with luring “moderate” whites back into the Union was arguably his worst tendency since it was never going to work.

      Of course, one can say that this has nothing to do with evaluating Johnson’s presidency and that’s true except that for whatever reason I find running on a major party platform behind these ideas more loathsome than being an accidental president who is awful. I guess I put the really odious Tyler in the same category. Both are bottom 5 presidents, but I’d rank Pierce and Buchanan below them.

      Finally, I think we should hold the First Annual LGM Homecoming Gathering at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in beautiful Greeneville, Tennessee.

      • Robert Farley

        Finally, I think we should hold the First Annual LGM Homecoming Gathering at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in beautiful Greeneville, Tennessee.

        I’ll make the reservations…

      • Scott Lemieux

        When the nation falls apart around you and your basic response is, “let’s just let the next guy handle it, I’m going home,” that’s pretty awful.

        Sure, but to rank Buchanan worse than Johnson, I think you have to point to some plausible set of actions that by that time could have averted the Civil War. I really don’t see any. Johnson (like Tyler) was worse because he actually had choices and made really bad ones.

        • Murc

          I think you have to point to some plausible set of actions that by that time could have averted the Civil War.

          I dispute the conditional, Scott.

          For me, the reason Buchanan is dead last comes not from anything he could have done during his term, but for what he FAILED to do during his lame duck period.

          You are absolutely correct that even if Buchanan had been possessed by the time-traveling ghosts of Washington and FDR the day after Lincoln’s election, there’s basically nothing he could have done to prevent the Civil War. But there’s a long miles worth of difference between ‘War is upon me; time to sack up’ and ‘Well, the Union was awesome while it lasted. Time to start planning retirement.’

          He didn’t even TRY. I could actually forgive him if he’d made the ATTEMPT. That counts for a lot in my eyes. Rolling over and giving tacit approval of the dissolution of the U.S to please a bunch of slaveholders? Man, fuck that guy.

          Johnson can go fuck himself as well, of course, but Johnson, despite his near-criminal sympathies for the defeated south, actually, you know, was loyal, and he did his bit during the war. That means he’s not as bad as Buchanan, in my book.

          • Scott Lemieux

            But Johnson did everything he could to restore slavery in all but name, and he had far more discretion than Buchanan.

            • Murc

              All true.

              This is one of those things where the split is gonna come down to personal feeling on the subject. We both agree that Johnson and Buchanan belong in the top three worst, we just disagree on ordering.

              This, by the way, is why instead of ordered lists when it comes to the Presidential Rankings Game, I prefer ‘buckets.’ Worst three, worst ten, best five, top and bottom halves, etc.

  • Murc

    God DAMN did people have awesome names back in the 19th Century.

    Philander Knox? That’s a name that says ‘I secretly solve crimes. While wearing a laser monocle. And a top hat with a clock in it. From my zeppelin. Which is crewed by my steam-powered robot butler and my sexy corset-clad assistants.’

    • firefall

      Sadly, due to a budget shortfall he was limited to sexy BUSTLE-clad assistants :(

    • LOL, Murc!

  • mattc

    Thank you, Scott. I tried to make this point at alterdestiny, but got bogged down w/ comparing presidents across eras, but Buchanan is essentially interchangeable with Pierce or any Northern Doughface who could plausibly have become president in the immediate antebellum period. Treasonous fealty to the slaveocracy was de rigeur for Democratic presidential nominees. He was a terrible president, but it was a time when only the terrible were eligible for the presidency. I just don’t think you can declare a guy the WORST president unless he caused unique damage to the country. Among one termers alone, Andrew Johnson blows Buchanan away for shittiness.

    • Craig

      Stephen Douglas was hardly unelectable, and even given his many faults, it’s hard to see him rolling over as obsequiously as Buchanan.

      Buchanan had as great a chance to avert the Civil War (or at least strangle it in its infancy) as any single man, and did nothing. And as seen by the example of Jeremiah Black, Edwin Stanton, Joseph Holt, et al, this was not necessarily the default option for Northern Democrats at the time. For that sin of omission, he is easily the worst President.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Buchanan had as great a chance to avert the Civil War (or at least strangle it in its infancy) as any single man, and did nothing.

        MattC is correct. Nobody who could have become president in 1856 was going to avert the Civil War. Yes, Buchanan’s blundering over LEcompton was immoral, but it was also politically logical. Popular sovereignty was not going to keep the Democratic coalition together no matter how the president came down on specific details. And Kansas/Nebraska was Pierce and Douglas’s ugly baby in any case.

        • mattc

          Yes, there were Northern Democrats who had less reprehensible views that Buchanan, but none of them could have been the party’s candidate in 1856.

          • Craig

            That doesn’t seem relevant to the question of whether or not he was the worst President.

        • Craig

          During the winter of 1860-1861, secessionists seized Federal forts and armories, without a word of protest from the Buchanan administration. (If Major Anderson hadn’t occupied Fort Sumter on his own hook, there would have been no Stars and Stripes there for Confederates to fire upon.) In 1861, the Confederacy had neither the industrial base to manufacture arms, nor the opportunity to import them from Europe. They couldn’t fight a war with just shotguns and squirrel rifles – not for long, anyway. The rifles, cannon, ammunition, and powder seized during this period went a long way towards sustaining the Confederacy during its first year.

          John Floyd, Buchanan’s own Secretary of War, increased arms shipments into Southern states during 1859-1860. It wasn’t until Floyd resigned over an unrelated matter that Buchanan countermanded the last of these orders.

          Also, there were numerous Army officers whose sentiments and behavior during this period were blatantly disloyal, even before their resignations, and who could easily have been arrested. None were.

          Had the President actually taken the initiative in enlarging the Army during this winter period, the summer campaign of 1861 might have gone much differently. But Buchanan, of course, did nothing, even while secessionist military units were forming in the open.

    • He was a terrible president, but it was a time when only the terrible were eligible for the presidency.

      “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”

  • I’ll second Thaddeus Stevens – even among Radical Republicans, he was one of the few who understood how crucial the distribution of land would be to the future of democracy in the South. If he had been listened to, American history would have changed profoundly.

    I’d also point out one major omission – Thomas Paine was a Philadelphian.

    • Bill Murray

      I’d also point out one major omission – Thomas Paine was a Philadelphian.

      Maybe in Sarah Palin’s America. The only place Paine ever bought a residence was New Jersey. He didn’t live there that much and he’s buried with the Dick van Dyke show in New Rochelle (where New York had given him a small estate.

      • StevenAttewell

        Since when is owning a house the sole qualification for reaidence?

        Paine came of age politically among the radical artisans of Philadelphia.

        Read Eric Foner’s book on him.

        • StevenAttewell

          * residence

      • Thomas Paine was not a politician. He was a political writer.

  • jon

    What, so now William Penn is chopped liver?

    Santorum deserves his own hallowed, frothy vale.

    • I’m not really taking into account the colonial period. The world was too different then. Only the national period.

  • jt

    Certainly in keeping with the Supporting Cast role but a bit more contemporary, I’d argue that Harris Wofford fits in this list somewhere.

    • Craig

      For what? Being a decent liberal who got beat by a lunatic?

      • Walt

        Harris Wofford single-handedly revived the cause of universal health care in the US. He campaigned on it, then Clinton picked it up, making it a national issue again.

        • Craig

          How do you know that Clinton took his cue from an obscure half-term Pennsylvania Senator? Reforming health care had been a goal of Carter, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, and Truman. That’s half of the postwar Presidents up to the 1990s, and most of the Democrats. I don’t think one needed to be clairvoyant to expect the next Democratic President to take another stab at it.

          • Walt

            There’s no question on this point. Clinton picked it up from Wofford. It might have made a comeback on its own, but Wofford introduced it into the public discourse.

          • Hogan

            An obscure half-term Pennsylvania senator who came from behind to beat a popular former governor, with health care as his signature issue, in a campaign run by James Carville and Paul Begala. No, I’m sure that had nothing to do with anything.

      • Hogan

        And for being JFK’s principal adviser on civil rights and one of the founders of the Peace Corps.

  • Jiminoregon

    What? No Billy Penn?

  • Jonathan

    “Philander Knox”

    Best. Name. Ever. Much like the founders of Quantum Mechanics, he has a porn-name already.

    • Murc

      Second best.

      As we all know, the best male name ever is ‘Max Powers.’

  • elm

    I’d put Robert Morris much higher: he pretty much single-handedly funded the Revolution. Without him, there’s no U.S. (or, at least, we look a lot more like Canada than we currently do. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily.)

    • Brett Turner

      Agreed, Morris should be ranked higher, ahead of Gallatin at least. Morris pretty much financed the Revolution.

      Maybe he loses points as a financier rather than a politician, and Erik seems to be discounting pre-1787 accomplishments.

  • CapnMidnight

    I’d say Ed Rendell should get a mention for (a) being a a nationally-recognizable (thanks to Buzz Bssinger, among others) model of certain type of turn of this century boosterish, “reforming” (read union busting), gentrifying, mostly effective big city mayor (see also Willie Brown, Giuliani minus the law-enforcement worship, Bill White maybe), (b) being the rare big-city mayor who gets elected governor, in state (like most) where there is no great love between country and city, and (c) bringing the phrase “wussification of America” into political discourse.

    Also, because for trivial and real reasons, your lists would do well to look to state and local pols. Federalism can be damn annoying, but it’s here, and it has served to make those politicians occasionally important– notably, if I recall your bio, in the fields of your interest.

  • CapnMidnight

    Reflecting on my own comment while carrying the laundry downstairs, I decided that “union busting” was unfair. Please substitute “resisting,” “antagonizing,” or “bad-mouthing,” as your tastes and sensibilities may direct.

  • CapnMidnight

    And, hey, didn’t Wilson Goode make a bit of national name for himself, in a very not-good way (first successful air strike on the continental US)?

    • ajay

      I hadn’t heard of the MOVE bombing before. That’s quite a story. I would love to understand the thought process that goes “we’ve tried tear gas, we’ve tried water cannon; let’s drop a bomb!”

    • Malaclypse

      first successful air strike on the continental US

      I made the same claim here about a week ago, and learned, to my chagrin, that Tulsa beat out Philly by 63 years.

      That’s quite a story. I would love to understand the thought process that goes “we’ve tried tear gas, we’ve tried water cannon; let’s drop a bomb!”

      I think a lot of this was fueled by the incredible personal animosity between Wilson Goode and Frank Rizzo, who “handled” the first incident with MOVE. I suspect that at the top of Goode’s list of priorities was zero police casualties. Protecting everyone else was well down on the list.

      • Hogan

        It’s not clear how much operational control Goode had, or chose to exercise, and having allowed the situation to fester for a year and a half he had nothing but bad options at that point. From the commissioner on down, the attitude of the Philly PD was that the score was MOVE 1, PPD 0, and now it was their turn, and no mayor was going to get in their way.

        I can also imagine a briefing in which Goode is told “we recommend deployment of an entry device to facilitate access through the rooftop” without anyone mentioning a satchel of C4.

      • CapnMidnight

        Mal, I’m pretty sure I got that “fact” from you, and utterly failed to check it. One gets what one deserves, I suppose.

        • Malaclypse

          I was corrected later in that thread.

          Interestingly, I got that from the Philly media at the time, who really were quite appalled.

  • One candidate might be Thomas Mifflin — brigadier general, controversial revolutionary quartermaster, signer of the Constitution, the last president of Pennsylvania and the first governor of Pennsylvania. Also as US President (serving between Elias Boudinot and Richard Henry Lee) he signed the ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Most importantly, he has about a hundred uninteresting places and things named after him in the eastern half of the state.

    • Law Prof

      Good to know! But, then, who’s “Dunder”?

    • Craig

      Thomas Mifflin was the President of Congress, not a United States President.

  • rea

    Simon Cameron, Senator, Ambassador and Secretary of War, who famously would not steal a red-hot stove.

    • Cameron probably would have been #11 though the James Wilson suggestion makes sense too.

  • Aws

    Have there really been no prominent pennsylvania politicians in the 20th century?

    • mark f

      Snarlin’ Arlen?

    • Hogan

      Hugh Scott, Senate minority leader in the ’70s and one of the first people to tell Nixon that resigning would be a really good idea.

    • There’s Dan Flood, the man who capitalized on the disasters wrought by Hurricane Agnes to briefly bring the Snidely Whiplash moustache back into fashion … Mike Doyle, the man who made a speech about Girl Talk on the floor of Congress … and of course the late John Heinz.

      • mark f

        “In one example, Mr. Chairman,” Girl Talk “blended Elton John, Notorious B.I.G. and Destiny’s Child all in the span of thirty seconds.” Wow! I want to see this guy walk into the local record shop and ask for DJ Drama’s latest mixtape. They’d think it was a raid.

    • Hogan

      John Murtha.

      The Abscam crew, starring the great Ozzie “Money talks, bullshit walks” Myers.

  • Western Dave

    How does Frank Rizzo not make the list? He became the prototype for the Republican big city mayor that would become the Guiliani/Bloomberg mold (even though he didn’t switch parties until after his term). He was a high profile supporter of Nixon and was famous enough to get mentioned in Doonesbury.

    See for example:

    And the strips themselves:


  • DY

    How can financial assistance provided by Morris be “incalculable.” Isn’t it the opposite – its precisely calculable. Better adjectives please.

  • Western Dave

    Sigh, my links to Doonesbury strips have got it stuck in moderation. But Frank Rizzo belongs on the list.

    • Malaclypse

      Okay, as someone who remembers the “Rizzo Forever” campaign – why? Aside from turning police brutality and corruption into a selling point, what did he do?

      And how can I possibly be forgetting and 70s-era Doonesburys? I thought I had that era memorized. When did Rizzo make an appearance?

      • Western Dave

        You’ll have to wait for it to come out of moderation. Do I know how to build suspense or what?

        • Murc

          Can we get an over/under started on that happening?

          I’m in at 48 hours, and I’ll take the over.

          • Malaclypse

            I found it using this way cool site.

            But I think my question still stands: Aside from turning police brutality and corruption into a selling point, what did he do?

            • Western Dave

              Ok, here goes my argument for Rizzo. He’s the prototype for the Republican big city mayor and Reagan Democrats later mastered by Giuliani et. al. (although it’s important to note he didn’t convert to Republican until late in his career, he was an avid Nixon supporter). Basically, he a) integrated and professionalized the Philly police force (I know, I was shocked when I read this too, but apparently it’s true. He lifted the ban on African-American cops getting patrol cars, instituted bi-racial squad cars as an early form of community policing, and, at least according to Wikipedia, Philly had the highest proportion of African Americans on the force of any major American city by the time of his getting elected mayor). b) Hiked taxes (specifically the wage tax) which helped Philly avoid the bankruptcy crisis facing other big cities and c) he understood quality of life issues were key, also a future hallmark of successful mayors. For the most part, he avoided disastrous redevelopment ideas and focussed on the neighborhoods. He ended the raids on gay bars and busted mobsters and cops who demanded kickbacks from them. He did start one major infrastructure project (tying all the SEPTA lines together) that was vital, and only one (the Galleria) that was awful. But I think he was more important as a cultural figure. And despite all this praise: I frickin’ hate the guy and I didn’t even move here until after he was dead. See also:

              • Hogan

                Hiked taxes (specifically the wage tax) which helped Philly avoid the bankruptcy crisis facing other big cities

                He may have delayed the bankruptcy crisis by ten years or so by raising taxes; he hastened it by signing a contract with District Council 33 that included virtually unlimited health benefits, in exchange for the council’s endorsement in his reelection campaign.

                • Western Dave

                  Yeah, delayed. And the weird turnabout on gays and lesbians was typical of him. He comes to prominence busting gay bars as part of the vice squad. But as mayor he helped them go legit and later claimed he had only busted the bars because they were laundering money for the mob. And later on his mea culpas to Philly’s African-American community was apparently sincere. And the polling shows, had he lived, he would have crushed Rendell with a huge crossover black vote. A reversal of his defeat of Dilworth.

      • DocAmazing

        I don’t know if Rizzo deserves the blame–I’d have to take the time to look up the timeline, and I can’t be bothered right now–but there was a period where large cities elected asshole ex-police-chiefs mayor and got pretty much exactly the consequences you’d expect. Ed Davis, Frank Jordan, Frank Rizzo–a law’n’order Festival of Cretins. I think Rizzo kicked it off with the whole “Hizzonner Da Mayor” schtick (which Willie Brown tried to rip off) and the idiocy flowed from there.

        • Hogan

          And they called it the birth of the backlash.

          I’ll wait to hear the argument for Rizzo, but the only mayor I can think of who definitely belongs in this series is the elder Daley.

          • CapnMidnight

            Even setting the bar that high (which I think is a poor refelction of what people living in the US will experience as “prominence”), you’d have to count Giuliani. And probably Boss Tweed (not a mayor, but swept in by this question) and/or James Michael Curley. But we can fight about those in a few days/weeks when Erik gets to NY and Mass.

            And then wait a month or so, and talk about Tom Bradley.

            • Hogan

              Curley is a maybe. I think it’s too soon to tell about Giuliani.

              • CapnMidnight

                Thank you, Comrade Zhou.

  • Jestak

    Two words–James Wilson.

    Got to go to class, more detail later.

    • Jestak

      Okay, James Wilson. Other than James Madison, he was the most influential participant in the Constitutional Convention and had a considerable influence on the development of the Constitution, He then took a central role in the ratification convention, and capped his career as one of the first Justices of the Supreme Court.

    • CJColucci


  • Erik-
    A bureaucratic suggestion: You might want to keep a running list of links to prior posts for each state at the bottom of each new post you do.

    • If there’s a way to do that without having to copy and paste 49 links by the end, that’s a good idea. Note that my computer idiocy is coming to a head here.

    • Jestak

      Alternately, you could create a tag for each post in the series.

      • I think I did that with the “Most Prominent Politician” tag. Or did it not come up?

        • Jestak

          I’m not seeing it anywhere–but that seems to be generally true with all posts, not just this one.

  • Dennis Brennan

    * Dick Thornburgh (governor, AG under Bush)
    * Andrew Mellon
    * Nicholas Biddle

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