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Historical Highlights

Frederick Muhlenberg

Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg (part 2)


Around 1796, politics became intertwined with Frederick Muhlenberg’s personal life to a life-threatening extent.  Frederick’s brother-in-law, Bernard Scheaffer, had developed a reputation for having issues managing his rage – and this extended to politics.  As Jay’s Treaty came up for negotiation in the Senate, an effort by George Washington and members of his cabinet to clear up outstanding tensions with the British that remained after the Revolution caused a great deal of controversy.  Frederick Muhlenberg cast the vote which ratified this Treaty, thus taking a position of smoothing over American-British relations which had a highly contentious outcome. There was much public fury over this decision, and Bernard Schaeffer carried this out physically against his brother-in-law by stabbing him on May 4, 1796.  Muhlenberg survived the incident, but his vote had been so unpopular that he never regained the status which he had once held. When authorities attempted to punish Schaeffer for this attack on the former Speaker, Schaeffer stabbed the constable who was trying to arrest him.[1]

After this controversial move, Muhlenberg struggled in elections. Still, he is reputed as highly influential in early Pennsylvania and United States history.  Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg was the only Speaker of the House for Pennsylvania ever to go on to become Speaker of the House for the United States.  His portrait hangs in the Speaker’s Gallery in Washington, DC.[2]  When considering the history of our state and nation, it is easy to focus on the names that are never ignored – Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Hamilton, but it is important to remember names like Muhlenberg that shaped the course of the Legislature in the then-fledgling government just as significantly.  The importance of Muhlenberg’s contribution to national and state history has been gaining more acknowledgment in the past few years, and an organization called The Speaker’s House has dedicated its efforts to preserving the home in Trappe, PA in which Muhlenberg lived while serving in these notable public offices.  The house is currently being renovated in an attempt to return it to its appearance during Muhlenberg’s residence.  More information about the house can be found at www.speakershouse.org

[1] Wallace, Paul A. The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania, 1950.
[2] Muhlenberg, Frederick A.C., Gallery of Speaker’s Portraits, Pennsylvania House of Representatives. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/VC/visitor_info/gallery/gallery.pdf.