Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Tradition Begins

Dear Kaitin. Our political adventures begin with Michael Harshaw. He was my great grandfather, add 2 more greats for you. He was a tall, red-haired Irishman, born in 1807 in the townland of Ballydogherty, County Armagh. The Harshaw family leased a small amount of land there, allowing them to survive the harsh times, until his father, Andrew Harshaw, died, leaving a widow and 7 underage children. Poverty immediately overcame them. Young Michael quickly joined in the struggle for survival,leaving school to work as a field hand.

As Ireland offered no solution for their poverty, America was the family's only hope for survival. Michael was selected to make the first trip to America. He was expected to get work and save enough to bring the rest of the family, one by one to the promised land. When this plan was successfully concluded, Michael returned to complete the education that poverty had interrupted. Through years of effort, supporting himself all the while, he graduated from what is now the University of Pittsburgh, and became a Presbyterian minister to a small parish in Southern Illinois.

This most principled man soon encountered the problems of slavery. The quiet hills which surrounded Michael's farm became embroiled in the battle to extend slavery. A secret organization designed to promote the extension of slavery by any means necessary, the Knights of the Golden Circle, threatened anyone who opposed them.

It was in this atmosphere that the Republican Party in Illinois was formed. Michael Harshaw admired Abraham Lincoln and quickly became a supporter of the new party. He admired their position against the spread of slavery, as he too was a strong opponent of slavery, his home being a station on the Underground Railway. Now a proud citizen of the United States, he determined to vote for the new party at the first opportunity.

The Knights of the Golden Circle warned voters that they intended to prevent any supporter of this new party from voting. This was not a threat that would deter Michael. He saddled his horse, and rode to the school house where the voting was to take place. He was not surprised to see that a mob of the Knights had surrounded the voting site. Calmly, he dismounted and walked toward the angry men. In his strong Irish voice, he warned them that he was entitled to vote, and he intended to exercise that right. Should anyone in the crowd attempt to prevent him from voting, someone would likely get hurt.

His pronouncement was greeted with grunts, and murmurs. But no one made a move toward him, until Carl Jenkins pushed his way to the front and announced that he would "brain anyone who touched the preacher." The crowd parted, and Michael marched into the school and proudly cast the first Republican vote in Southern Illinois.

With this act of heroism, Michael led the Harshaw family into the Republican Party. Michael's descendants remained staunch Republicans for over a century.

Not many people have such a proud tradition. Not many Americans today can claim an ancestor who risked his life to exercise his right to vote. You and I are very lucky we can vote without a greater worry than the weather and finding a place to park.
Love, Gram

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