That in order to carry out the foregoing resolutions, to bring peace and quiet to all parts of the Union, and to purify the Government, it is necessary that the present [Grant’s] National Administration should be overturned, and its place supplied by one heartily in accord with the foregoing principles.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1875
The railroad law of 1874 was a disappointment. It was created to curb the arbitrary power of the railroads and to put them under the control of the people. But because of the financial emergency that began in 1873, it was impossible to give it what its proponents would call a fair trial. Business was at a standstill, and the railroads were unable to meet their obligations that came from times of optimism and prosperity. When the State Grange considered reviving the matter in 1875, the response was tepid. The problem had not been solved. Yet public opinion was fast moving to the opposite position and the newspapers reflected, and in several instances influenced, the shift. “By the winter of 1875 the state press had come to an almost unanimous decision in favor of an about-face in the railroad policy of the state.”
The St. Paul Press viewed the possible impact of the law as “mischievous in the extreme.” Even though it had been administered leniently, the paper nonetheless concluded that as “experience had painfully admitted . . . the experimental legislation of last winter in this state was a monstrous mistake.” To the Minneapolis Tribune, the farmers’ movement was a senseless railroad war. “Ten years will not suffice to repair the injury to the state which the law has inflicted.” The St. Paul Dispatch, often the more progressive on political and social issues, argued, “The mistake which has been made in this war upon railroads is now very generally conceded, and few have the temerity to longer attempt to ride upon the commune sentiment as a political hobby.” “Never before in this country,” stated the St. Cloud Press, “have the railroad interests felt the result of unjust laws more than now. Never before have the people felt the result of these laws with the same bitterness as now.” And in reaction to a speech Commissioner Edgerton delivered in which supposedly he unreasonably limited the rates of a railroad, the St. Paul Pioneer editorialized, “[Edgerton] shows that he compelled the Winona and St. Peter railroad to run at a cost of $30,000 a year beyond their receipts, and then he asks: . . . Can we put our hands deeper into the pockets of the owners of this road, until we find whether, after the end of a few months, they have any more money left for us to take?” In other words, the railroad commission was “a cool and deliberate scheme of railroad plunder.”
So broad was the opprobrium against the law that the Winona and St. Peter Railroad, which had been the object of complaints sparking the call for regulatory legislation, was now pictured as suffering an injustice at the hands of tyrannical commissioners; and many came to believe that the Grange movement was the cause of the financial depression. In people’s minds, the railroad law and the economic panic were cause and effect, and Governor Davis suggested as much. The commercial and industrial interests, and particularly the railroads, were the first to suffer, but the effects of the panic were soon shared by farmers as well. Saby writes, “The grangers had never planned to cripple the railroad industry. They had meant to control the roads for the public interest.” But now they felt that more damage had been done than good, with them remarkably looking like the villains. They were no longer militant. In fact, two railroad companies were in the hands of receivers, three had defaulted in interest of debts, and others had maintained their credit only by levying assessments on their stockholders. The Grange Advance stated, “It was an illy advised law gotten up in a hurry near the close of the session as an excuse for not doing anything else, providing for three commissioners who should stand between the people and the legislature and bear the odium of the failure.” Though they were no longer militant, the Grangers still wanted some form of state regulatory control, but there was no consensus on what the new law should be. They, however, like everyone else, knew that a change to the law was needed. But when the legislature met in January the all-consuming issue was instead the senatorial election.
* * * * *
In the midst of the political shift, the Grangers’ influence had reached and started receding from the high-water point, and the conservatives reasserted their leadership within their respective Republican and Democratic caucuses; this development posed new opportunities for the growing list of men seeking to replace a man who so often in the past had infuriatingly eluded defeat: Alexander Ramsey’s time had come and gone. The docket for the legislature of 1875 included deciding who would collect the jewel in the crown of Minnesota politics—a seat in the United States Senate. It was the issue that nearly overshadowed all the others. As Donnelly biographer Martin Ridge has noted, “The Minnesota legislature which convened in January, 1875, faced serious problems, but these were virtually ignored because of a contest for the United States Senate.” And once again, Donnelly was in the middle of it.
Shortly after being elected to the state Senate in 1873, Donnelly began his campaign, focusing much of his efforts on gaining Democratic support, soliciting donations from eastern Democrats, and gaining assurances of support from Democrats who allied with “renegade” Republicans. Conservative Minnesota Democrats, however, rejected him. Though they liked his politics, especially when he was a thorn in the side of the Republican hierarchy, they did not trust him as their leader, a view that had only deepened since one of the party’s leaders, Louis Fisher, editor of the St. Paul Pioneer, rejected his efforts to formally unite all farmers by coalescing under the Anti-Monopoly Party banner. Donnelly had shown himself once too often to be ideologically independent and unwilling to consult with party regulars. With Republican votes splintered into the Davis and Washburn camps, Ramsey barely retained the plurality, holding six more than the second-largest vote getter, Ignatius Donnelly. Davis’s men, who normally would have deferred at this stage to Ramsey, remained determined to support anyone but Ramsey—anyone, that is, but Ramsey and Donnelly. Amos Coggswell declared that he would endorse Davis, but “preferred a good old-fashioned Democrat, if you can find him.”
Voting for the senatorship began on January 19. Wilkinson, voting with the Democratic-Liberal Republican caucus, supported Donnelly. But by the end of January it was becoming clear to supporters that his standing had not improved and there were calls for him to step out of the contest. By the first week of February the contest had entered into a new phase when Donnelly, realizing that he could not consolidate the opposition votes against Ramsey, dropped out of the race. Already some members of the caucus pushed for Davis to be the standard-bearer, but he was not acceptable to the group. Wilkinson worked with Senators Donnelly, Charles Berry, and House representative Frank Morse on the platform, which, when adopted, was clearly not designed for the policies of Davis. Thus, he, too, dropped out of consideration. The platform was one of protest against the federal military action in Louisiana as illustrated by Wilkinson’s sharply worded supplementary resolution to denounce both the policy and to call for the “overturn” of the Grant administration as the necessary effort “to purify the Government.” In that Davis was not a Liberal Republican, he dropped out of consideration, making way for a man more to their liking—a man of judicious temperament, an honored veteran of the Civil War, and a Democrat.
On February 1, Wilkinson explained why, “as a Republican—with unchanged views of the sacredness of the Union—in the presence of those who had known and voted for him as a Republican—he was proud to cast his vote for William Lochren.” It was the first time since 1870 that he had claimed the party affiliation, but it served him well now in attracting bipartisan support for a Democrat. In response to the characterization by the St. Paul Press of the candidate as a “State’s Rights Democrat of the extreme school” and his so-called friends who were “greatly surprised and pained” to hear of his endorsement, Wilkinson said, “At a time when the country called its young men to the defense of the Union, and when Minnesota sent out her young men to do battle for the common flag, I had not cared then to what party belonged these young men who followed that flag: I knew they were true to the Union.” Employing a tactic that he often criticized Republicans for using to elicit political support from voters, he waved the bloody shirt, and to great effect:
I remembered soon after the terrible battle at Gettysburg, I was there to visit the survivors of our First regiment which participated in the perils, losses and glories. I found General Hancock, Col. Colville, and Col. Adams and others disabled by their wounds. When I went over to see where the Minnesotans were buried, I found a line of graves opposite which was a crowd of the rebel dead. There stood Lt. Lochren’s company [applause] of 34, of whom only seven men besides Lt. Lochren came from the field. Through all, till the four years of war, Lochren remained in the service, and at last came home with the tattered flag he had followed so faithfully. [Applause.] . . . I have only to suggest that in these times there was need for men like Mr. Lochren, who would regard the constitution and be true to it as he was to the flag in those days of war.
On the day of the announcement, the votes for Senator were Lochren, 54; Ramsey, 47; Davis, 22; Pillsbury, 12; and 8 votes scattered among other candidates. On Saturday, the vote remained virtually the same with Lochren at 52 and Ramsey at 47; Davis at 23; and Pillsbury at 13. At one point during the night caucus it was agreed to cast the Democratic votes for Wilkinson, if he could rally enough Republican votes to elect him. It is not clear whether state Senator Wilkinson knew of this plan. In any event, the secret got out and at an early-morning caucus the Republicans suddenly resolved to concentrate upon Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Samuel McMillan, though Ramsey’s men held out hope that they could secure enough votes. The deadlock among the Republicans remained so until February 13, when Ramsey and Davis agreed to withdraw in favor of a compromise candidate, McMillan. For the Ramsey men, there were regrets, as the St. Paul Press of February 19 indicated, when it declared that the Republican Party in Minnesota was dead and that Chief Justice McMillan would be as good a man as any “to bury the corpse and administer the estate.”
* * * * *
Meanwhile, the survivors of the locust infestation of 1873 felt, hoped, that they had seen the last of the swarm. They knew that eggs had been laid but had little understanding of what it meant until the weather warmed and the eggs hatched. Soon unfledged grasshoppers began their ravages throughout the eleven counties afflicted in 1873. In some counties, by mid-June news circulated that the wheat crop had been “entirely destroyed.” Soon the same report came from more counties. By mid-July the newly hatched locust sprouted wings and took to the air. As they flew north and east to neighboring counties, new swarms from the West replaced them, and the ravage resumed. Calls of alarm were heard from as far north as Moorhead and as far east as Mankato as farmers watched helplessly while their crops were completely destroyed. In July 1874, The St. Paul Daily Pioneer reported, “Nearly all the farmers in that section [from the Blue Earth River westward] are ruined financially.”
They had studied the cycle. After spending the summer consuming the harvest the adult grasshoppers would deposit their eggs just beneath the surface of the soil in late summer, then the eggs would hatch in late spring, about the time when the wheat began to sprout. At that time, the fledgling pests would crawl to all vegetation, and satisfy their appetites until they sprouted wings, at which time they alighted on new food sources. Even so, it remained hard to predict where they would land, but once present, the experience would be nightmarish. One farmer claimed that the pests “can be found in our houses on our furniture in our clothing and even on our tables at our meals.”
The extent of the devastation in 1873 was too much for charities to address adequately, as Governor Austin had hoped. In 1874 Governor Davis recognized that government had to intercede. His solution was to call on county commissioners to furnish relief for the stricken communities, all of which had meager resources. Generous neighbors divided what resources they had with the less fortunate until whole communities had been reduced to a common destitution. Merchants and men of means had given and lent until they would be ruined unless they too could receive relief, presumably from their respective counties. Not all counties complied, however, questioning whether the governor had the authority to issue such an order. Citizens and donors of all sorts were left to make donations to local funds. An eighty-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 from New York sent one dollar in the name of his sense of “duty and privilege to contribute my mite to help the distressed.” The Ojibwe Indians of White Earth Reservation sent fifty-six dollars, together with a peace pipe, to signify that they had always been “the true friend of the white man and that they felt the deepest sorrow for their suffering white brothers.” An American in Paris sent one hundred francs.
Twenty-eight Granges contributed $316.80 in addition to $2,000 sent by the National Grange to aid suffering members. Historian Annette Atkins observes, “While the combined contributions of all the Grangers may have been generous, their efforts represented only a minor part of the assistance. Their later claim that ‘actual starvation must have resulted but for the nationwide Grange response’ can surely be chalked up to organizational pride and exaggeration. In fact, it is surprising that a group dedicated to relieving the social and economic maladies of the farmers did so little.”
In January 1875, Henry Sibley, who had been asked to study the impact of the devastation and who himself had raised funds, issued his report to the legislature, as he had the year before. He closed ominously with the admonition that if the state did nothing to help the farmers, “twelve hundred to fifteen hundred farmers . . . ‘will, from necessity, seek some other homes.’ ” He felt that $100,000 was “imperatively demanded to carry the suffering families over to another harvest and half as much more was needed to furnish seed for the next spring’s planting,” a handful of months away. This amount was unacceptable to legislators, preferring instead to appropriate $20,000 “for the immediate relief of the suffering settlers on the frontier.”
At that point, Senator William Murphy from Ramsey County felt this aid was not enough, and tried to raise the sum to $50,000. The debate revealed significant suspicion of the victims, “a suspicion,” notes Atkins, “obvious in all of the relevant 1875 legislation.” Whereas legislators in 1874 were clearly not in support of extending public aid to victims of the devastation, they did not question their victims’ integrity. But during the 1875 session, legislators did. Traditional nineteenth-century rhetoric of “rugged individualism” characterized their pronouncements about the chronically poor. Senator Joseph H. Clark of Dodge County, very much in that vein, opposed Murphy’s proposal, arguing that such aid would “tempt the people to sit down and wait for aid.” Reports of able-bodied men in frontier counties who had refused work because they were waiting for state relief had apparently convinced him that the needy “should be taught self-reliance” rather than pampered with free aid. Although the senators as a whole may not have shared Clark’s attitude, they did soundly defeat Murphy’s proposed increase. True to the general sense of distrust that policy makers held for the poor seeking public assistance, the approved bill for $20,000 was filled with severe and exacting stipulations requiring applicants to “[show] the necessity of relief.” Better the deserving many suffer than the undeserving few benefit.
On March 1, Wilkinson once again proposed a bill to increase relief funds to $50,000. Future governor John Pillsbury of Hennepin County, reflecting his persona as a penny-pincher, said it would cost too much. Later in March, the legislature appropriated $75,000 for the purchase of seed grain and allowed for immediate relief, if necessary. Instead of granting the governor the authority to distribute the grain, as the 1874 law had, the measure called on him to appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, three commissioners to manage and disburse the funds. The legislature did not add specific stipulations for distribution. As for the funds for relief, because of the stipulations, less than the $20,000 in appropriations was given out. “It was not found necessary,” reported Governor Davis in his annual message of 1876, “to extend the whole of this sum.” However, as one frustrated official in Martin County complained, “[The appropriated amount] seems to be so closely guarded as to be out of reach to nearly all.” Thousands of the settlers in the frontier counties would apparently be left to suffer because of a lack of true character, a lack of pluck.
In the spring, the eggs hatched. Many young locusts were killed off by an extended wet-and-cold snap in the northern parts of the state, and a natural parasite did extended damage to the eggs in north-central Becker County. In July when the young developed their wings, they began to migrate out of the state. Unfavorable winds kept most of them from leaving and also shut off new swarms. Damage in 1875 was considerably less than had been feared, with nineteen counties affected. Nonetheless farmers were devastated. Theodore G. Carter—farmer, land agent, and war veteran in Nicollet County near St. Peter—left a record of his trials, just as he had done for the Dakota Trials in 1862. Throughout the period of infestation, he watched his farm, business, and financial security disintegrate. In 1874, he lost most of his nursery stock, including over four thousand grapevines, and in 1875 he recorded that his crops “were either gone or fast going.” Before the end of the season he lost fifteen acres of wheat, five hundred cabbages, and all of his cucumbers, beans, onions, carrots, parsnips, and beets. More than half the damage in wheat took place in the counties of Brown, Nicollet, and Wilkinson’s Blue Earth.
* * * * *
On the day of the final vote of the “Grasshopper Bill,” the issue of women’s suffrage returned to the lawmakers after languishing for six years, when Representative Edwin Berry, a farmer and Baptist clergyman from Martin County, sponsored a bill to extend suffrage to unmarried women. The exasperated editor of the Mankato Union, Wilkinson’s organ, commented, “What [have] married women done that they are to be cut off from that boon which their spinster sisters would enjoy, and I await with anxiety the appearance of the bill in the Committee of the Whole, where we can hear [Berry’s] reasons for excluding our wives and mothers from the right so necessary to their welfare, and conferring it to young and inexperienced maidens.” It was time for all women to be given the right to vote, and the paper underscored the notion by reporting on the events of suffragist leaders and the National Woman Suffrage Association, under the reassuring yet curious byline “It’s all right now.” But most men in the House were not subscribers, and the struggle to gain traction for the bill remained, as before, difficult. For a while, the bill seemed to languish until two weeks later, when “friends of the bill,” as Union editor Harold Cleveland cleverly called them, revived it.
Another bill, however, one that was acceptable to Cleveland, was introduced into the Senate. “The senate has a sly little bill under discussion now, which will probably pass. This is an act changing the constitution so that women can vote at school district meetings.” What made the bill “sly” was that the language only asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment that authorized the legislature to extend suffrage to any class for any purpose it chose. Bill sponsors felt that rather than enfranchising women—even with the limited status of being “unmarried”—to vote on all matters political, the men of the state would vote “no” on the amendment proposal. This was why the Berry bill was untenable. Nowhere in the provision would the phrase “female suffrage” appear. To assure the men that the legislators, once empowered, would act “responsibly,” certain newspapers informed their readers that women would only be granted the right to elect school officials. Even so, reasoned the Union, the amendment would be a positive, but cautious, first step to full enfranchisement. “This will be a good entering wedge for the subject, and if adopted, the rest of the movement will follow in time. Hadn’t the House dropped their bill and adopted that of the Senate? A gradual movement of the kind might succeed, but not a sweeping one as the House measure hardly can.” Voters, the vast number of whom would not be following the debate or the campaign to come, would only see on the ballot that November, “Amendment to section four, article six of the constitution—yes.” The law would require those opposing the question to laboriously “write or print or partly print or partly write the following words—‘Amendment to section four of article six of the constitution—no.’ ” Intending to stack the deck, Wilkinson and other sponsors marshaled the vote to effectively send the question of woman suffrage for school board elections to the voters in November. On March 8, the bill was adopted.
Two days before Governor Davis signed the “amendment” bill, on March 6, the Senate finally took up the problematic issue with the irksome and erstwhile railroad law. As Saby observed, “Little enthusiasm was shown one way or another.” Frank L. Morse, a farmer from Minneapolis and a Democrat, introduced a bill in the House, which substituted a single advisory commissioner for the strong railroad commission under the law of 1874. The bill sailed through without any particular discussion in the Committee of the Whole, but when it came up for the final reading in the House, some members took issue. William Brown, a blacksmith from Rochester, protested that it was being rushed through without much consideration; and though he realized overwhelming sympathy for the railroads and support to get the bill passed, he objected to creating the office of railroad commissioner with merely the clerical powers of gathering statistics. In response, Soren Listoe, a newspaper editor from Breckinridge, summed up his position: “Some farmers howled for railroads, and some against them.” Since his people “howled” for them, he would encourage them by voting for the bill. The Morse bill passed the House by a large majority. Such was a vote to repeal the only railroad legislation on the books.
The bill would provide for a single commissioner to be elected for a two-year term. Already the respected J. J. Randall was being considered for that position. He would have the authority to inspect physical conditions of the roads, investigate their finances, and inquire into any alleged violations of law by corporations or their employees. He could issue subpoenas, examine railroad officials and employees under oath, and inspect their books. On the whole, however, the new bill reflected the diminished presence of Grangers in the legislature, for it was clear to reformers that it was a step in the wrong direction. Donnelly argued that the law enacted during the previous session, which he had strongly opposed, was better than this new law. As Folwell observed, “It was the last of the Granger acts, if it may be rightly so considered. . . . If the act had been framed by the attorneys of the companies it could hardly have been more satisfactory to them. The commissioner had power to hold down a swivel chair and transmit the required annual reports of the railroad presidents or managers.”
It indeed met with greater opposition in the Senate. The Senate committee on railroads reported against the repeal of the existing law, but later a joint committee on railroads, composed of selected members of the House and Senate, agreed to report favorably on the new bill. Committee members reasoned that the vote was not to be considered a mere repeal of the old law (even though this was exactly how it was being seen and hoped the new bill would become), but rather a positive measure based on good sound principles. A number of the Anti-Monopolists of the previous year rallied to the support of the law of 1874, which was about to be repealed. While they did not favor some of its details, they were in sympathy with its principles of state control. Senator Coggswell, one of the Anti-Monopolists, denied that the law had been injurious to the railroads. Senator Isaac Westfall, a farmer from Rochester, saw problems with the law but considered it merely as a compromise measure. Nonetheless, he committed himself to standing up for the right of the people to regulate freights and tariffs. Donnelly, who had voted against the law in 1874, now defended it, for he “preferred it to be no law at all.” But ultimately, the bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 28 to 13, and was approved by the governor. Thus, the Granger law was repealed. As noted historian Solon S. Buck wrote, “While it was perhaps unfortunate that the creation was so thorough and the principle of effective state control so completely given up by Minnesota in 1875, still . . . the act of 1875 was more suited to the conditions prevailing in the state at that time than were the rigidly restrictive railroad laws of 1871 and 1874.” Wilkinson had voted with the majority.
This was not the first time he had changed a course that he had previously set. In March 1862, as the Senate’s prosecutor against rebel sympathizers in the chamber, he presented charges against Senator Lazarus Powell of Kentucky, seeking to have the Southerner expelled. After presenting his case, Powell was permitted to argue in his own behalf two days later. Addressing the Senate on March 14, Powell insisted that he sought to resolve national difficulties through conciliation and compromise, rather than coercion. “If . . . a senator cannot speak and vote as he thinks proper and right without expulsion,” he concluded poignantly, “then the majority are masters and the minority are slaves, and a seat in the American Senate would no longer be desired by an honest man or a patriot.” But one of the key points he made was that rebel sympathizers and Union men in his state had called for neutrality. This point would dampen the ardor of at least one of his prosecutors.
Wilkinson, sponsor of the resolution, had a change of heart, and in the end, in a move that frustrated some of his allies, he agreed with Powell. In upholding a state of neutrality that existed in Kentucky, he now reasoned, it was appropriate for Kentucky to resolve to take up arms to repel any invading army whether it was Confederate or Union. This was not a position he took lightly. “I believe that at that very time Minnesota had troops on the soil of Kentucky. I know that the bones of some of them lie there today. How then can I, how can anybody, advocate the retention of a Senator who urged his own people to resist our forces when they were upon the soil of his State defending the Constitution of the country?” His answer was simple. The decision to be neutral was “the position that all of the people of the State of Kentucky took [Union men and rebels, alike]. I must say that it has somewhat changed my feelings in this matter.” Releasing his caucus, he stated that he now had “very little feeling about [his own] resolution.” That day, on March 14, the Senate voted down the resolution, 11 yeas to 28 nays, and permitted Powell to retain his seat. Wilkinson showed that he was capable, and at very unexpected times, to listen through the trumpet’s blare to the opposing side of an issue.
Wilkinson’s vote to approve repealing the railroad law won him accolades not from his caucus but from mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike. The Pioneer wrote:
The manly and honorable stand of Senator Wilkinson in the railroad question this present session, is the occasion of general remarks. Mr. Wilkinson is one of the few men who scorn to be consistent, when to be consistent means persistence in wrong, and he has shown at many periods of his career that he has dared to be right when to do so cost something of sacrifice and of political peril. The difference between Donnelly and Wilkinson upon the question under review, is the marked distinction between the statesman and the demagogue.
No less than his old enemies at the St. Paul Press, echoed in the Pioneer and reprinted by the Union, sang his praises. “It is so unusual for the St. Paul Press to say a word of praise of our Senator that the following comments of that journal upon Mr. Wilkinson’s discourse on the Morse railroad bill will excite surprise.” The Press, reported the Union, editorialized the following:
Senator Wilkinson had risen to a position in noble contrast to those small hucksters of last year’s bird-seat. He favored the repeal of the law of last winter, though he then voted for it, because experience has shown it to be a disastrous mistake. It required the courage and the magnanimity of the statesman to then sacrifice the party vanity of consistency to plant himself on the high judicial ground of justice and public policy.
The Dispatch likewise praised the senator for the character he displayed in his support of the railroad bill:
Among the advocates for the Morse bill in the Senate yesterday deserving especial mention, was Senator Wilkinson. In response to a sneering personal allusion by Senator Cogswell, Mr. Wilkinson said that he voted for the law last year to establish the principle of legislative control, and that he still believed in retaining, but the law of last year he believed had proved injurious in its details and he therefore favored the Morse bill. It is so rare for a public man to be willing to retrace his steps, even though he knows that he should do so, that this is noticeable.
No man need have any fear of a revulsion in his political fortunes because he supports the Morse bill. On the contrary, the day is not distant when the people will rise up and call him blessed for so doing.
The world had shifted, and so had a flattered Wilkinson.