U.S. senator. Patterson was born in Waterloo, Pennsylvania, on August 8, 1830. He graduated from Jefferson College in 1848, after which he went into the newspaper business. He edited the Juniata Sentinel in 1852 and then became an owner and editor of the Harrisburg Telegraph, the “home organ” of Simon Cameron, one of the state’s most powerful Republicans. Patterson was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1854 and served one term. He served in the Civil War as a captain in a volunteer infantry unit. In 1862 he sought election to Congress but was defeated. From 1863 to 1869 he was a banker in Pennsylvania.
In 1869 Patterson moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where he was involved in banking and railroad development. In that connection he was accused of bribing legislators to pass laws favorable to his interests, but no action was taken. In 1872 Patterson was a candidate for the U.S. Senate from South Carolina. It was alleged that his only qualification was money with which to bribe legislators. On the day of the election, the Republican Columbia Daily Union warned that “the people will regard his election as a direct bargain and sale.” He won the election but was immediately arrested for bribery based on the statements of two legislators who claimed that they had been paid to vote for him. He was never tried, although newspaper reports accused him of using as much as $50,000 to secure his election. From that time forward, Patterson carried the nickname “Honest John”—honest because if he promised a bribe, he always paid it. While many of the allegations against Patterson are questionable, some legislators who voted for him later complained that they had not received promised bribes, with one quoting Patterson as saying that “the damned election had cost him more than it was worth.”
Serving in the Senate from 1873 to 1879, Patterson advocated stronger federal enforcement of Reconstruction measures and increased federal appropriations for the South. In the disputed election of 1876, Patterson supported the Republican claimants to election, unlike South Carolina’s other Republican senator, the conservative Thomas J. Robertson. Patterson argued in Washington for federal support for South Carolina Republicans, but to no avail. In 1877, after Democrats had retaken control of the state, Patterson and other leading Republicans were indicted on bribery and corruption charges. However, the administration of Wade Hampton III abandoned its investigations after federal officials agreed to drop charges of election fraud against South Carolina Democrats. Although cleared, Patterson was not a candidate for reelection in 1878.
After leaving the Senate, Patterson remained in Washington until 1886, when he returned to Pennsylvania and engaged in business. He died of pneumonia in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, on September 28, 1912, and was buried in the Westminster Presbyterian churchyard.
Current, Richard Nelson. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Reynolds, John S. Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865–1877. 1905. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Seip, Terry. The South Returns to Congress: Men, Economic Measures, and Intersectional Relationships, 1868–1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.