Negro suffrage is but a stepping stone to universal equality in everything, even to the detestable and God-forbidden principle of miscegenation.
Chatfield Democrat, 1865
One year after the 1864 debate over the Willey amendment, Willard Saulsbury’s words still stung. Though he was not talking specifically about Minnesota, he might as well have been. Minnesotans had indeed not extended voting rights to the black men of the state. What moral integrity they had over the Delaware senator and his slaveholding constituents was lost in Minnesota’s duplicity with the antiblack impulse within its own borders; and by extension, for such a proud man as Wilkinson, his own. In 1864 Wilkinson supported black suffrage in the Senate during the debate over the organization of Montana Territory. While the House of Representatives had limited suffrage to white male inhabitants, Senator Wilkinson moved to enfranchise “every free male citizen and those who have declared their intention to become such,” and got his bill passed by a vote of 29 to 8 on the Senate floor. Even in the House of Representatives fifty-four Republicans supported the Wilkinson bill, and only twenty voted against it.
But Wilkinson had not been successful in his home state. As a member of the first territorial legislature in 1849, he had supported an amendment to remove the word “white” from the voting eligibility provision, a change that would have extended the franchise to Minnesota’s black men, but soon relented to political pressures to exclude that class. Seven years later, in 1857, during the constitutional convention, as a nondelegate, he could only look on as fellow Republicans shot down all efforts to enfranchise the black man. In 1849 there was no Republican Party and the Democrats controlled the territory; but in 1857 there was a Republican Party, and it would soon have control of the state government. Still, the will for that sort of change was not there.
Politicians—including those whom Wilkinson considered sincere and high-minded—continued to defer to the prejudices of the voters. Even after the current Republican-dominated legislature had approved a referendum on black suffrage to be held in the November election, party leaders nonetheless seemed ambivalent and opinion makers were divided. The die for an anemic and disorganized campaign was already cast by the time Wilkinson came home from Washington. Too many men were choosing the wrong side. Righting the ship would be complicated, because for far too many Minnesotans, black suffrage and black homesteading were one and the same. Promoting the first without the other, which only exacerbated the politics of black suffrage, would be like threading a needle. The circumstances around the unfortunate timing of the prospective black colony in March would have to be handled delicately. It was fortunate that Captain Montgomery of Le Sueur County was an ambitious young man with an eye to his own future. On the larger matter of black suffrage, Wilkinson, as a recently unseated but still widely respected senator, though now of diminished political stature and no patronage, had to figure out how to lead from the rear.
Already some of his most influential and reliable friends had staked out strong opposition against the amendment, a harbinger of the fading prospect for success of the measure. No less than the Wilkinson-leaning Mankato Union now called on voters to “effectively kill it.” Cheering on the paper and all other Republicans who agreed was the city’s Democratic newspaper, the Weekly Record, which reported, “We are gratified that at least two Republican papers of this State . . . have come out manfully in opposition to the proposed amendment of the Constitution . . . [for] they are sustained by the more intelligent and responsible members of their party.” Despite this apparent meeting of minds, their reasoning, as the Weekly Record conveniently ignored, was quite different. The Democratic editor argued that with ratification of the measure, Minnesota would be the only state in the North to enfranchise African Americans, which would induce “wholesale immigration of that class of person. While there are doubtless some respectable and worthy exceptions, they are, as a people, ignorant, indolent, and addicted to petty thieving.” The editor was wrong on both counts. Wisconsin had enacted a black suffrage amendment in 1849, which would be affirmed by the state supreme court in 1866, to no measurable increase of the black portion of the general population.
Nonetheless, the Weekly Record editor had touched a nerve, not only among Democrats but also many Republicans who had supported Lincoln, the war, and emancipation, but who feared undue competition from those whom they had fought to free. With Negro suffrage came the impression that Minnesota was receptive to Negro empowerment, which would promote Negro immigration, Negro employment, and in turn Negro residency, resulting, within the farm state of Minnesota, in the dire inevitability of Negro homesteading. Here for them, the interests of suffrage and homesteading threateningly converged. The editorial was nothing less than a rallying call to protect what rightfully belonged to the white man.
On the other hand, the Union argued that the measure was too broad. In its opposition, under the unfortunate and misleading title, “Nigger on the Brain,” the editor argued that the well-intended, but unwise, legislature missed the opportunity to require citizens to be intelligent. Unlike the editor of the Weekly Record, who intimated that “intelligence” was on full display when Republicans supported Democratic principles (in this instance, a former slave could never be “intelligent”), the Union’s notion was more nuanced. Intelligence was not exclusive to race. Black men, just because they were black, were not incapable of being thoughtful, enlightened, or at least what lawyers referred to as “reasonable,” and were not relegated by their race to impulsive, uncouth, and irresponsible behavior; not, in short, like the Irish, a large number of whom supported the Democratic Party. The problem was that legislators, through the measure, wasted the opportunity to elevate the level of civilization by requiring a higher standard of character from its citizens. “We are in favor of allowing every intelligent man of lawful age, whether black or white, to vote; but we are not in favor of allowing a man who is not intelligent, to exercise this vote privilege. . . . No doubt an ignorant negro is just as well qualified to become a citizen of Minnesota as an ignorant Irishman, but no more nor no less. Because an error has been committed in our present State constitution allowing a man to vote simply because he was white, no matter how ignorant, is no reason why we should commit another error by allowing ignorant negroes to stand on an equality with our ignorant whites.”
Fault rested with the legislature for failing to grapple with the criterion against which the lofty qualities of “intelligence” should be measured. The editor seemed to be espousing the kind of intelligence that came from a liberal arts education, which exposed the student to a wider range of subjects and encouraged the development of critical thinking skills, which fostered within the learned man the capacity for independent thought. In the end, it was left to the editor to offer what he had to know to be a more practical, albeit inadequate, criterion: “We should be glad to see our Legislature turning its attention towards making an amendment to our constitution allowing none to exercise the right of the Legislative franchise who are not sufficiently intelligent to read our State constitution.” This, he argued, would filter out ignorance. In the near future, starting in South Carolina and Louisiana, Southern states would soon use the same kind of law to filter out not ignorance but the entire black electorate. This was not what the Union editor had in mind.
By the time Wilkinson returned to Mankato the readers of the Union were embroiled in heated debate over the newspaper’s position as well as whether the measure should be approved. To the credit of the newspaper, it, more than any other paper in the region, had opened its pages to opposing views on the matter. One reader argued that black men should be allowed to vote or else relieved from all taxation. Another argued that ignorant Irishmen should be disenfranchised. But it was a reader who signed his piece “C.A.S.” who feared that the measure would usher in miscegenation and competition for jobs and land. The antidote for him was colonization, a position he insisted black men would accept. “As I do not intend to come into competition with the negroes, I have no personal fears on that question.” The black man, the reader insisted, never asked for the privilege.
A reader named John Kellett took issue with the paper’s perceived racism against the Irish: “I may be called an ignorant Irishman. My education was obtained fifty years ago in a school house built of rolling stones and road mortar thatched with straw, no table, no chair, only those used by the teacher; yet few countries have given more facilities for education during the last forty years than Ireland has, and the ignorance of those you allude to is not a want of knowledge of reading and writing.” But he took equal offense at the appearance of the word “nigger” in the editorials and published letters: “We can afford to call [him] ‘black man’ or ‘colored man’ or any such name without descending to a nickname or anything bordering on it.” Then Kellett turned his sarcastic attention to C.A.S. “He says, ‘the negroes do not want the privilege.’ That is a blunder. They want all the rights of man[;] nothing more or less will satisfy either themselves or their advocates throughout the Union.”
C.A.S. responded, holding that black men at arms had not shown themselves worthy of suffrage: the war would continue for another month before Grant and Lee would meet at Appomattox: “In the present struggle in the United States, what part have they taken? Has there ever been a regiment of negroes raised in the free states, out of a population of 225,84[?] . . . The negro North and South has remained the idle spectator in the present struggle so far as he could. The negro enlisting South in our armies have no choice. They are marched in like so many cattle, having no means of support, and getting none unless they enlist. Ask our returned soldiers about this and see if I am right. . . . While the struggle goes on, [negroes] still look on, unless forced to enlist, notwithstanding they are the most interested or should be, in the result. If freedom from slavery is not worth fighting for in the name of heaven, what is?”
There was no ringing endorsement of what C.A.S. wrote. In fact, in the weeks that followed, several letters appeared taking issue with aspects or the totality of his argument. John Kellett, “the ignorant Irishman,” wrote with blunt eloquence on the moral and historical duty to support black equality. “We are not asking any favors or privileges for the colored race. We are not. We demand justice. Rights are rights. . . . The measure of the rights of God and men are thus defined by the best authority: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself.’ ” But even though more letters printed in the Union generally favored the abolition of slavery, and an inherent equality between the races, few spoke in favor of the present measure. Few readers expressed outward support for the views of C.A.S., but it would seem, given the election returns in November, that many subscribers to this Republican newspaper came to embrace some aspect of his view: black suffrage was a bridge too far.
Throughout the month of March, a wounded and preoccupied Wilkinson had not stated his position on the subject, and few seemed for now willing to seek it out. Simply put: he was a man out of office, not because he had chosen to retire, but because his bid to return had failed. In the political world, this was worse. The party had rejected him and he was no longer at the head of a ticket. His views, simply put, meant less than when he was a United States senator. But he was still a loyal Republican, capable of delivering a spellbinding speech; of tapping into the hearts of those who had seen him as their leader; and whose opinion, despite his diminished stature in Minnesota’s political world, still mattered. In this regard, he remained a political asset, a person with whom major candidates wanted to share the stage. And if he was considering a run for office in the near future, a consideration people who knew him best recognized as realistic, and a triumphant return to, perhaps, his beloved seat within the old Senate chamber in Washington, campaigning for as popular a candidate as Colonel William Marshall could be of considerable mutual benefit.
In these appearances, as on October 26 before a Mankato crowd, Wilkinson’s role was simple: appear on stage, offer a few words of endorsement before introducing “the next Governor of the State,” and then step aside. He was only to support the candidate and his views, and Marshall was for black suffrage. Marshall was another member of that rare breed of mid-nineteenth-century Minnesotans who championed black equality at a time when the concept was unthinkable even among some of the most upstanding citizens. He had cofounded the Republican Party and early showed the capacity to breach the line separating pro-abolitionists and antiblack sympathizers, and men in between those two camps. As a Missourian by birth, raised among yeomen stock within slaveholding country, he possessed a commoner’s touch that made him that much more accessible to the working man; and as a dashing commander, he enjoyed the admiration of his troops, even those who otherwise disagreed with his racial views. And yet he was at ease facing racism, for he understood as a result of growing up in the South, that, as he had told a Mankato audience in 1865, racism was something learned, not inherent to nature. He was the ideal candidate to run for high office, to be the standard-bearer of his party.
As for Wilkinson, weeks before the election, he appeared nightly in different towns in southern Minnesota, keeping a full expression of his views on black suffrage to himself. He was a Marshall man. In that role Wilkinson spoke in the smaller towns throughout the southern counties of Minnesota. The region had become Wilkinson’s political base and it was there that he stumped during the final days of the campaign, appearing nightly in a different town, sometimes with a candidate for lesser office, sometimes by himself. Whether he wanted once and for all to divulge his position on black suffrage or was bowing to public demand, Wilkinson finally scheduled a time to speak on the matter.
He would speak on three occasions in three separate towns. None would be in Mankato or anywhere in Blue Earth County, but only in neighboring Faribault County. It was as if he was testing the political waters to assess not just his ability to bring an audience to a particular issue, but to draw an audience to him. At this late hour, it was improbable that he would say anything to controvert the Marshall and Republican position on black suffrage even if he was so inclined, given his now-recognizable aspiration to return to Congress, even if in fact it meant repudiating the Union’s position. But there would not be a public quarrel between Blue Earth’s favorite son and his organ. It was as if they had agreed to disagree in silence. The Union announced the scheduled speeches, saying simply, “We are not certain as to what Mr. Wilkinson’s views are, or what he will counsel the Republican voters in reference to negro suffrage, but we trust the people will give him a full hearing as his acknowledged abilities as a statesman, and his experience as a counselor of the actions entitle his opinions to be respectfully considered.” As improbable as it was that the Union knew little of Wilkinson’s views, at least officially the paper and its readers would remain in the dark.
The only known account of Wilkinson’s remarks appeared in a sarcastic letter in the Democratic Weekly Record, yet it depicted some sense of what happened that night. “Last Saturday evening the citizens of Blue Earth City were somewhat surprised by the appearance of the former United States Senator Wilkinson. . . . This being his first appearance in this section since 1861, there were just 28 individuals who felt sufficient interest in the drama to obtain a room and listen to Wilk’s oration.” Wilkinson, according to the correspondent, was not in his best voice. “I have heard Wilk talk before, when I thought he spoke well, but he seemed to be oppressed with some great and terrible thoughts, and this oppression was naturally communicated to his audience, most of whom went away feeling rejoiced that the terrible scene was over. [Nonetheless,] he spoke long and quite loud,” wrote the correspondent, snidely referencing Wilkinson’s evident purpose in being there really to prepare for another run for Congress. Then the correspondent got to the point—namely, Wilkinson’s stance on black suffrage and his avowed endorsement of black-white political equality. “He thought that Jeff Davis’ nigger was as good as himself. Here he was in good rapport with his listeners. This seemed [to spark] cheering.”
It would seem that the reported “cheering” was meant to be sarcastic: what intelligent white man could ever support black suffrage? A week later, when the votes were cast, Marshall defeated Rice for governor, and the entire Republican slate won their seats. However, the measure failed not only statewide but, in particular, Blue Earth County. In Faribault County, however, where Blue Earth City was, the measure was approved nearly two to one. Most Republican officeholders supported the measure. However, as noted by U.S. Supreme Court Chief justice Salmon P. Chase, two men were notably absent from the column. Senator Alexander Ramsey and Congressman William Windom had distanced themselves from the issue, for which both were roundly criticized by the party brethren.
It is hard to know whether Wilkinson could have swung Blue Earth County to support black suffrage in 1865. What is evident is that he did not appear to try. The year 1865 was peculiar. At the beginning of the year his own party had wounded him politically. If he wanted to return to the Senate he needed the support of Republicans in Blue Earth County, who were divided over black suffrage, as well as from the state party, which officially was not. Wilkinson may have felt that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Moreover, at the time, as a board director of an investment firm he had a fiduciary duty to avoid attracting controversy to J. J. Thornton and Company and obstructing the business it did. Its business would principally be acquiring and selling land. How could its most prominent director, especially without the backing of the Union, be the champion for black suffrage and not, in effect, endorse its logical progression—black homesteading? Marshall could do it but his political star was on the rise. This was not the case for Wilkinson, who in 1865 could not predict that the same would be his fate, and without that certainty, it would be harder to rebuild his machine. Conceivably he could have aggressively campaigned for black suffrage without losing standing within his home base, but for Wilkinson this was a year of caution. He had not been a part of the caucus that launched the campaign.
Besides, too many people saw and feared the connection between suffrage and homesteading, seeing, as “C.A.S.” saw, the inevitability of unseemly competition, a curious perception since freedmen and -women remained mostly unskilled, unpropertied, and, in a word, impoverished. Yet, as historian Leslie Schwalm has written, “Steady inflation had already brought home the cost of war, and some midwesterners felt that Federal aid to fugitive slaves was depriving more worthy citizens of support. . . . In the Midwest, it was particularly because of the juxtaposition of the Federal government’s conduct regarding the Dakota Sioux, white citizens, and former slaves that some came to believe Washington was failing to act in the best interests of white citizens, even demonstrating preferential treatment of nonwhites . . . In a region where the very presence of white settlers was sanctioned by the state-supported effort to dominate and expel Native Americans, the Federal government’s failure to divert manpower and resources to a more immediate and brutal military response was viewed by whites as a deep betrayal. That sense of betrayal was sharpened by the belief among white settlers that even while their needs were ignored, large sums of public funds were being spent to support fugitive slaves in the South.” In other words, many whites, like many Indians at the outset of the Dakota War, held one belief in common: black people were unduly getting resources that should have gone to them.
How, some wondered, could a laboring white man compete against that, especially after Congress had discontinued the colonization effort, which could have diverted the pending flood of freedmen away from the North and Midwest? The antifederal government seed had been planted, and with it the deeper bias against the black man and woman. “Negro suffrage . . . means much more than the simple fact of conferring the right of voting upon the released slaves of the South, and their little less enlightened brethren of the North,” argued the Chatfield Democrat. “It don’t mean that the privileges of Sambo are to cease when he shall march to the polls and affect your vote with his, but you must take him to your home, have your wife wait on him, let him kiss your sister, set up with your daughter, marry her as he wants her, and raise any number of tan-colored grandchildren,” concluding breathlessly, “[Negro suffrage] is loaded with the fetid breath of mongolism and carries with it the putridity that will blot from earth the white race of this continent.” Other papers published similar views—stories that insisted interracial rape was the logical product of black suffrage.
To further legitimize the antisuffrage sentiment, the Democratic press claimed that the heroic Civil War veterans were also against the measure. It was not hard to find Union soldiers who felt that slaves, contraband, and freedmen enjoyed privileges that the white soldiers did not receive. The testimonials had special cachet for readers in the southwestern counties when they came from “our boys” who served in the Seventh Regiment of Minnesota Volunteers, a unit made up largely of young farmers from the same area of the state who joined initially to fight the Dakota in 1862. One soldier from Blue Earth County reportedly said in 1862, “I am as much in favor of abolishing slavery as anybody . . . but since I have been in the Army and seen them better treated than white men . . . I lost all my love for the colored Gentlemen.”
Later that year, the St. Paul Pioneer exaggerated reports of contraband receiving better rations of fresh bread than white soldiers, who were issued “hard, mouldy wormy crackers.” And in July 1864, even Senator Wilkinson added to this resentment when he advised the Senate that he wanted to see more “black soldiers enter into the contest than to have all our white men annihilated before the war shall be over.” The words came back to haunt him when they were used to echo the sense that many white men felt: white men had carried the inordinate burden of fighting for black freedom.
These were testimonials from enlisted men who, due to their deployments, had no encounters with, for example, the consolidated Sixty-Fifth and Sixty-Seventh regiments of the U.S. Colored Infantry, bivouacked in the disease-laden swamps of southern Louisiana, sent there under orders from their white commanders. Nevertheless, it was common to report in 1865 that white soldiers would vote monolithically and that black suffrage would surely be defeated. In the midst of intense patriotism and when freedom was no longer the issue, it was a powerful argument but hardly authoritative. What mattered more was that white men proudly saw no conflict embracing freedom while rejecting equality. It was a position validated by what civilians presumed the soldiers would take. Because the soldiers had marched through fire, they, more than any politician, had moral authority on the matter. If, in fact, there was a soldiers’ voting bloc, it would be a powerful bloc indeed. Few proponents were willing to challenge the presumption by showing leadership.
Within this vacuum, the sentiment against black suffrage grew. During the suffrage campaign, the Weekly Record reported that Minnesota’s soldiers were almost unanimous in support of ex-military men Marshall and Christopher Columbus Andrews, the latter running on the same ticket for lieutenant governor, but against black suffrage. “Ninety-nine, one hundredth percent of the returned soldiers are opposed to negro suffrage, and while they might admire Marshall and Andrews personally, none can be mislead [sic] by them to favor this fanatical proposition.” The admiration was indeed felt deeply, forged in battle, solidified in grace. The man running for governor—William Rainey Marshall—showed mythic courage during the Battle of Nashville. On another occasion, after an exhaustive march, the men were allowed to slaughter sheep for supper. “When the men had their supper ready, seeing that Col. Marshall and some of the officers had nothing to eat, they were invited to eat with us.” Perhaps the most poignant moment, summing up a series of such “moments” that endeared the colonel, by now a brevet brigadier general, to his men, occurred at Fort Snelling on August 10, 1865, after being mustered out of service. One soldier characterized Marshall’s men’s profound regard for him: “After receiving our discharge and pay we bade our comrades good-by. . . . We expected some of our officers would be there to see us off. Only one came, Colonel Marshall; he bade us good-by, shaking each one by the hand, the tears rolling down his cheeks. The boat started off, and he stood looking after us as though he had parted with his best friends.”
Despite Marshall’s courage, inspiring leadership, and the extent to which his men admired him, he did not leverage his popularity to lead his men to support black suffrage. As a result, while many rejected the measure, many more seemed to reflect the ambivalence of a Lincoln Republican serving as an officer in the colored regiment. To his brother James who lived on the family farm in Le Sueur, Captain Thomas Montgomery wrote, “I am anxious to hear the decision of the election this fall. I hope [William] Marshall is elected but I think it will be a close run on account of the point at issue—negro suffrage.” Marshall did not go to the front, and as rebel bullets whizzed by, draw his saber and exhort his men, “Follow me, boys, Follow me for the Union and our martyred President!” That November, black suffrage failed at the polls. The Democrats succeeded in carrying ten counties, “their greatest achievement since soldier balloting had been inaugurated.” In Blue Earth and Nicollet, counties that could have been sites for the black colony Tibbetts foresaw, Marshall won the election while the Negro suffrage measure failed.
For Wilkinson, the lesson was clear. It was not an issue of timing: when could there have been a better time to ask Republicans to approve a black suffrage measure than in the immediate victorious aftermath of the Civil War and the echo of the assassin’s gunshot. Rather, the lesson was that in order to ask men to do what they were disinclined to do, one had to lead from the front. Wilkinson, focused and determined, would have to be able to say that he would be the first to take the bullet for his men.