You have chosen the anniversary of the great Proclamation of Emancipation, and if in this city the majority was against you, the grand agricultural people were for you.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1869
St. Paul, Minnesota.
January 1, 1869, six years to the day that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ingersoll Hall was alive with the jubilation of the black men and women of Minnesota who had crowded into the large auditorium in which they would normally not have been allowed. This evening they were there to hear and cheer the political leadership of the state welcoming them at last into the community of Minnesota citizens. The enthusiasm of the audience did not dim even after the sixth speech. But now, late into the program, with the introduction of the next speaker, the crowd’s enthusiasm reached an even higher pitch, not because he was the most entertaining orator of the day—that honor went to the last speaker of the evening, Ignatius Donnelly—but because he was the one political leader who did more to persuade the white men of the state to extend the right to vote to black men. To a sustained ovation, Morton Smith Wilkinson, former U.S. senator, recently elected member to the House of Representatives, and a genuine hero to black equality, took center stage and prepared to speak, as he always did, not from notes but from the fire deep within his combative heart.
All eyes were cast upon him—including, it seemed, those from the four banners hanging overhead that displayed the weathered faces of generals Ulysses S. Grant and Philip Sheridan, Frederick Douglass, the conscience of America, and their beloved Abraham Lincoln; but Wilkinson seemed unaffected by it all. He was accustomed to speaking before large crowds and being a witness and, on occasion, a participant to historic events; and he was not one to be impressed by great men. Whether on the battlefield or in the president’s office, Wilkinson had ventured into both quarters to scold the men in charge for not being more aggressive against the rebels and the Dakota in 1862 and 1863. Wilkinson now viewed the banners—even the beatific likeness of the martyred president, perhaps even the blacks seated before him, as symbols—stained fibers of the bloody shirt, indeed icons—so fundamental to a political party that had lost its way. He and the Republicans were indeed at odds.
His slender frame, prominent forehead and chin, and broad, thin-lipped mouth that on most recent occasions appeared severe and humorless, reflected the intensity through which he delivered words that could fill the packed hall with the fervor of an Old Testament prophet. His visage was in stark contrast to the triumphant celebration now occurring within the very city that had for fifteen years mocked the abolition of slavery and rejected black suffrage. But at forty-nine years of age, he was their champion, the general of their occupying army. Yet, while he embraced their freedom and their right to vote as the highest principles of the American experiment, he knew little about the people for whom the great struggle had been fought. Not since his youth in central New York, where his father harbored and then led fugitive slaves to freedom, had he had an African American in his home, and even then, he was but a child looking on as they hid, huddled and muted in the shadows within his father’s barn. From that time onward grew his abiding faith in the nobility of the American farmer. It would be with that noble figure in mind that Wilkinson, responding to the moment tonight, would proclaim two simple messages. The first, to the survivors of slavery: nothing less than a commitment to hard work could erase the yoke of prejudice and bring them closer to full equality; the second: all that could be done for black Minnesotans had been done, and now it was left to them to do the rest. “So far as Minnesota is concerned, we have done our part in the enfranchisement of the colored race. The solution of that question [of how your race can gain respect] remains with you.”
It was a message and moment to get through. But even as he spoke, even as he drew tearful and cheering black men and women to their feet, his mind was already elsewhere. Only those in the hall who knew him best could sense within him the welling up of that pugnacious restlessness that always came with the advent of a new crusade. For him, the page of black equality had already been turned. From that day forward, the only blacks he might speak to were the porters who carried his bags or the barbers who trimmed his hair. As the iconic likeness of Lincoln draped high above the stage, perfunctorily hung like a talismanic fixture of the civic religion that the Republican Party was becoming, Wilkinson had already become an apostate.
* * * * *
Writers talk of that moment during the process of reworking a manuscript when a new interpretation of an otherwise all-too-familiar passage in the text suddenly hits them like a rock through a windshield. This happened to me when I was working on another book. I was transcribing a quote—“We have done our part”—made by former U.S. senator Morton S. Wilkinson in a speech delivered before the Convention of Colored Citizens in 1869, when it dawned on me that he meant something altogether different than I once assumed. Instead of “We have done our part [but we will continue to stand ready to help whenever you need us],” he meant, “We have done our part [and now we leave you to prosper or perish on your own].” Indeed, the staging of the moment was filled with paradox. They convened in a city that had largely voted against black suffrage. They were there to celebrate a franchise that had largely been delivered by voters in Minnesota’s farmland who nevertheless had discouraged and would continue to discourage black homesteaders from settling among them, usually by subtlety and misdirection. And these farmland voters had just returned Wilkinson to Congress, where he had opposed both Lincoln’s colonization plan and a senate resolution to relocate freedmen to northern states. The small number of black Minnesotans during the second half of the nineteenth century had found a safe harbor in the North Star State, but they did not live as equals amid an accepting white population. There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle that I had not yet fitted together.
In hindsight, it seems strange, even embarrassing, that my previous assumption was so naive and wrong. The fact is, I was superimposing the traits of a twenty-first-century liberal on the liberal of the nineteenth century, assuming that those in the past shared the present sense of Minnesota exceptionalism, and I was wrong to do that. Minnesota Nice had not yet become the restrained manner in which whites talked to blacks when sentiment was shrouded within circumspect agreeability: Wilkinson, sometimes hyperbolic but always blunt, meant what he said.
His “part” meant giving black people freedom from slavery and black men the ballot and the legal right to acquire a farm; in terms of helping to defeat Lincoln’s policy on colonization, Wilkinson adamantly believed that America was the rightful home of African Americans. These provisions were all that were needed and it was indeed a significant list. What one did with these opportunities, the degree to which one was industrious and sober, made all the difference between one’s success and failure. In Wilkinson’s mind, racism was adversity to be overcome, no different from a crop failure or a business forced to close. One’s duty as a “hard-handed” Republican, a true American, was to persevere. Life was hard, and it was supposed to be, for it was only through adversity that one showed one’s character. The clearest indicator of a man’s success could be measured in how far he had risen from his previous state of wretchedness. If, despite all the opportunities he had been provided, a man remained poor, then he deserved his impecunious state and the opprobrium of society. Nothing more could—indeed, should—be done for him. And unto such a man—indeed, his entire race if with all of their opportunities the majority remained wretched—one could affix, without equivocation, the well-deserved label “inferior.”
Wilkinson’s rigid view of self-help, very much in keeping with Republican ideals that valued landownership, economic individualism, and hard work, was nevertheless a perspective that, at least, permitted discrimination to become accepted convention and, at worst, enabled violent white supremacy to act with impunity. If opportunity eluded the grasp of African Americans, it was their fault and no one else’s. If stewardship of their fate was neglected, the consequence of them being few in numbers made their welfare negligible.
It was a harsh assessment and one Wilkinson did not level against the farmer who, despite the opportunities granted by the Homestead Act and the whiteness of his skin, experienced debilitating hardship and failure caused by both nature and monopolies. In the face of their adversity and in their name, he saw injustice and could demand fair play. In their name, he distinguished between the economic laws of Social Darwinism and corrupt practices of privilege. Their failure to prosper was not their fault. To him the culprit was the Republican Party—a willing handmaiden to corporate greed, a far greater issue for him than its complaisance toward the emergence in the South of white supremacy. To him, as with other men who had called themselves Radicals, Reconstruction had become a ploy by the party to secure votes in order to continue enriching its friends. Less than a year after celebrating black suffrage in Minnesota, Wilkinson voted in Congress to defeat a bill that would allocate funds for martial law in Louisiana that had protected black and white Republicans from mob violence.
In the wake of the Civil War it had seemed that African Americans had at long last overcome; that after surviving centuries of enslavement, now through emancipation and enfranchisement, black men were not just free but equal to white men. The Confederacy, and therefore the government of the enslavers, had been defeated. The Union had prevailed. The political and civil rights of black men had been ratified. And even with a Democratic president, the Republicans, the nation’s most powerful political party, embarked on creating a new nation that befitted the vision of their beloved martyred president. Within the land of their birth, the land where since its founding social custom and law imprinted their skin into an immutable badge of inferiority, African Americans had, without leaving the country, finally, essentially, reached the Promised Land.
Then, almost as soon as it began, it all changed. White supremacy sprouted and spread throughout the South with a hitherto unseen bestial vengeance. Within this climate, the newfound rights were curtailed and eventually lost when Southern states amended their respective constitutions and by a federal judiciary that distorted the intent of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Freedmen’s Bureau, which was intended to redistribute land and educate the freedman to manage his affairs, buckled under an unreasonable multitude of duties, working with a meager annual budget and relying on overworked agents harassed and brutalized by white mobs. Within ten years after Appomattox, African Americans throughout the South were being forced back into a position of subjugation, except this time Jim Crow had replaced Simon Legree.
The quality of life for African Americans throughout the North was also different. Their political rights remained unfettered, and during the 1870s they were largely free from mob violence. However, small populations in the cities and towns had no political influence, organizational clout, or training to compete against white native- and foreign-born workers for a share of economic opportunities, and in most Northern cities black children were required to attend segregated and ill-equipped schools that limited the quality of their education. Those who worked on farms tended to do so as laborers, not owners. As Southern blacks made their way to Northern cities, these people from the countryside were transformed into an urban underclass. Simply put, for most, the right to vote did not result in farm ownership, jobs, adequate housing, and harassment-free education for their children.
It was becoming clear that African Americans were entering into a new era of unanticipated darkness. Notwithstanding that it all happened on the watch of the Party of Lincoln, the decline occurred in plain view of the white patrons of emancipation and black enfranchisement, many of whom had acquired positions of status, comfort, and privilege. In 1877, the year when Reconstruction ended and well into the decade when Southern white supremacy terrorized black citizens and rolled back their rights, Henry Ward Beecher wrote to fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips, “Ah, Phillips, we are getting old . . . for I feel that there is nothing left now to fight against—nothing that excites my antagonism as did those questions of our younger days. They are settled, and you and I are no account any longer.” And Minnesota’s fiery liberal congressman Ignatius Donnelly, and occasional ally of the taciturn Morton Wilkinson, echoed the sentiment, adding that a new great struggle now needed to be engaged. “The struggle between the North and South having ended the struggle between the East and West commences. It will not be a conflict of arms but of ideas a contest of interests—a struggle of intelligence—one side defending itself from the greed of the other.”
We have done our part.
In fact, Republican-led Minnesota fit into the broader regional and national story of black citizenship when it extended voting rights to black male residents and ended school segregation. Nonetheless blacks were denied opportunities to acquire skills and purchase farms, though not by legal decree. Rather, racial prejudice on the part of the seller or land agents proved to be as prohibitive as any Jim Crow law. Even “friends of the black man” (as illustrated by Thomas Montgomery, one of the subjects of this book) exploited their positions in acquiring land that trusting blacks thought was available to them; and Wilkinson simply bowed to political expediency. Like so many Lincoln Republicans, he believed that blacks had a right to homestead on America’s public lands; yet as a senator he spearheaded the removal of the Dakota and Winnebago, who had possessed the rich farmland of the state’s southwestern counties, opened it for homesteading, but deferred to the racial animus of whites who wanted to reserve it for white settlement. Indeed, as this book points out, after the Civil War, many whites, just as many Indians at the outset of the Dakota War, felt that blacks received resources that should have gone to them.
The “bridge of gold”—a phrase Donnelly coined to describe the path of opportunity for immigrant farmers to settle in agrarian Minnesota—for most newly arriving blacks led to urban areas and poverty. By 1870 the city had indeed become the new promised land for African Americans with, in fact, a new kind of challenge. “Locked into a rigid socioeconomic class structure,” historian David Taylor wrote, “black people were generally unable to procure employment above low wage levels.” In Lowertown, the section of St. Paul where they lived with other impoverished immigrants, blacks in the coming years would be left behind as their ethnic neighbors moved out into the city’s residential, political, and, for many, economical mainstream. Within this emerging American city a new housing and socioeconomic arrangement that later scholars would call the ghetto became their promised land.
By 1870 the white patrons—satisfied that their black brethren were free, if not equal—went their own way to pursue their own financial and political interests, never to return to the cause, allowing the momentum they had created on behalf of equality to slow to a crawl, leaving that work unfinished, even blaming the unfinished work on the failed effort of what many came to view as an “unfortunate and unindustrious” race. Some, like Thomas Montgomery and Daniel D. Merrill, lost interest and moved on to other work. Others, like Wilkinson and Sarah Burger Stearns, grew hostile to black equality for they felt it (in the guise of the “bloody shirt”) was used by cynical Republican bosses to maintain their hold on power at the expense of the interests of other constituencies. Still others simply did not have a vision for what should come after enfranchisement. In 1873 clerks in two St. Paul hotels denied rooms to Frederick Douglass on account of his race. The proprietors of both hotels were Republicans, one even a friend of Douglass. Humiliated by the incident, the Republican-dominated legislature considered whether to sponsor a resolution to ban discrimination in public accommodations. The intent to resolve to debate the issue was tabled.
A year after Congress had dropped a provision that would federally prohibit school segregation, Douglass’s oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1876, was a tour de force of both soaring praise, gratitude, and restraint: “I refer to the past not in malice, for this is no day for malice, but simply to place more distinctly in front the gratifying and glorious change which had come both to our white fellow-citizens and ourselves, and to congratulate all upon the contrast between now and then.” Within the year, as a bargain to keep a Republican in the White House, president-elect Ruther-ford B. Hayes, from whom Douglass would benefit through patronage and access, withdrew federal troops from the South, leaving the fate of millions of African Americans within that region in the hands of white supremacists.
Everyone, it seemed, who had served on the right side of history and now celebrated themselves in the visage of martyrs cast in bronze, nonetheless lived in parallel worlds. For white patrons: in this monument to Lincoln they could see their noble legacy of emancipation and, without full self-awareness, seemingly intransient paternalism toward the emancipated. For blacks: as if a reminder of a life of caution they had lived for the past decade and would continue to live even in the North, the shackles of the huddled freedman, though broken, remained fixed on his wrists even in freedom, for time immemorial. He was never to forget what Lincoln and, by extension, his Children had done for him. Yet, even in the uplifting course of ennobling deeds, it was their persistent though often tastefully discreet belief in the inferiority of the African American that actually slowed black advancement, the freed chattel forever huddled at the knee of his emancipator, free but forever not equal.
Douglass declared, “Truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man . . . preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” Even as such, in the days immediately preceding his assassination, the multidimensional Lincoln that few of his day fully understood—his “children” or “stepchildren”—was already moved, as Eric Foner notes, “to ask the entire nation to confront unblinkingly the legacy of the long history of slavery.” He had led a nation to abolish an institution that had been a fixture in the minds of his compatriots, but he did not live long enough to leave a road map or even a singular vision of how to secure the need for full opportunity for black Americans. That legacy would have to be left to his otherwise preoccupied “children.”
It would therefore be easy to condemn the Lincoln Republicans as a whole for the failure of shortsighted principle in racial justice: ratifying progressive laws (“all men are created equal . . .”) without modeling progressive behavior (. . . as long as the freedmen tactfully knew their place) was akin to dousing a flame but leaving embers unattended. In fairness, by thinking that they had done their part, they turned their attention to other pressing matters, often taking opposing sides on such issues as economic inequity, women’s suffrage, immigration, political corruption, sectional reconciliation, conquest of Indian lands, and entrepreneurial pursuits. In Minnesota the list of issues with which they contended would include the five-year ordeal of grasshopper infestation and railroad regulation. As significant as each of these was, I believe many of these issues to a greater or lesser degree were conjoined with a gnawing sense of “negro fatigue,” a profound desire to get on with life, and willful blindness to the resilient and corrosive nature of unattended racism. Government, they strongly felt, could not nor should not control the hearts of citizens. During the postwar era, Lincoln Republicans, far from being monolithic, would prove to be quite divergent and even willing to engage in political fratricide. Yet, by 1862, when Lincoln finally issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, thereby elevating the purpose of the war to a struggle to create a nation in which all men were free, they came together, for the timebeing, as one.
* * * * *
I was interested in looking at Minnesota’s Children of Lincoln, a group from a state that historians tended to overlook in American history and during the postwar era, in particular. It is understandable that they did so. Minnesota, with a short history, was, as defined by size of population, small compared to other midwestern states. Because of its remote location in the far northwestern corner of the contiguous states, but for now far from the wave of western migration, it seemed insignificant to nineteenth-century national political leaders. Lincoln never set foot in Minnesota. Likewise, latter-day scholars seemed to find no relevance to the Minnesota experience. Three seminal works on the Reconstruction era—Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (a graduate of my alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College in southwestern Minnesota), Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877, and Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877—mention the state only in passing. Nevertheless, Minnesota’s “obscurity,” and its leaders’ “insignificance,” never weakened the investment in the national debate that the “Children” themselves had, most having relocated from New York and New England, where reform was deeply rooted. Under their leadership, Minnesota was the first state in the Union to respond to the call to arms after Fort Sumter fell, and four years later, the first to extend the franchise to the black men of their state by popular vote, doing so even though the black population was minuscule and growing in proportion even smaller as native- and foreign-born settlers flooded into the region. I felt it was time for history to recognize their work.
To do this, I wanted to make this an intimate history of individuals rather than a conventional panoramic display of leaders and events so characteristic of the canon of Minnesota history. The works of William Watts Folwell and Theodore Blegen continue to hold a significant place in our understanding of state history. I felt it was time, however, to delve more deeply into that history. Thus, I chose to focus on four Minnesotans, warts and all, using four criteria: they played noteworthy roles in black freedom and equality; their work illuminated hitherto unexamined corners of Minnesota history; they left records detailing how they saw their duty to black Minnesotans; and yet their names were not prominent in the annals of Minnesota history.
Accordingly, because civil rights were as a whole a political and legal matter, I selected Morton S. Wilkinson, the first practicing attorney in preterritorial Minnesota, the first Republican to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, and, as highlighted at the beginning of the introduction, a champion of black suffrage. His association with black rights ended almost at the moment of its highest point as another crusade—farmer equity—consumed his focus and energy. Wilkinson viewed all federal intervention into state matters as actions of moral corruption.
Because of the fast-growing immigrant population who settled in rural Minnesota, I chose Thomas Montgomery, an Irish Protestant immigrant whose family settled in Le Sueur County and who served as an enlisted soldier in the Dakota War and an officer in a colored regiment during the Civil War. For him service in the colored regiment was a stepping-stone into the middle class. Once securely there, his interest in the welfare of the African American vanished.
In that race relations had a moral basis, I selected Daniel D. Merrill, a church and business leader in St. Paul who also served on the city board of education. What began as a mission to help black people launch their church ended when he was drawn to start other churches. Though the church edifice was constructed, the leadership of the congregation would not be the black man who led them to Minnesota, the choice of the members, but Merrill’s father-in-law, who had not been hired by any other church.
Last but not least, political equality was defined only in terms of black male suffrage nudging women’s suffrage to the sidelines. “This is the Negro Hour,” insisted abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips, rankling Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and straining up-to-then strong alliances. The trajectory of the work of Sarah Burger Stearns to establish women’s suffrage in Minnesota paralleled the tensions between advocates for black male suffrage and women’s suffrage that never fully healed, Stearns occasionally using racially charged stories to denigrate black men.
Through their lives, this book details the history of Minnesota between 1860 and 1876, roughly encompassing the Civil and Dakota wars and the era of Reconstruction. I have used extended quotes, perhaps more so than in traditional histories; but I feel in this telling of the history, they in fact help bring across the figures, their personalities, characters, and voices in a way that paraphrasing simply cannot do. Moreover, through the extended quotes (which nevertheless I believe I use with a light hand), my intent is to help these figures come to life for the modern reader. To this end I sought to achieve a balance between the vernacular of their time and ours today. The history will not be conventionally told in a strictly chronological manner. I present each profile separately; yet like scraps of cloth, when stitched together by the narrative of history, they form a large quilt. In this they are at once unique, yet a significant part of the whole.
All identified themselves as Lincoln Republicans, though Stearns and Wilkinson until 1863 were often frustrated with the president’s apparent ambivalence to ending slavery. Merrill, a New Englander by descent, lived in the same region of Michigan where native New Yorkers Wilkinson and later Stearns lived, a region noted in the 1850s for protecting fugitive slaves from their Southern masters. Stearns’s husband, Ozora, like Montgomery, served as an officer in a U.S. Colored Troops and, like Wilkinson, served as a U.S. senator. All but Merrill lived in southern Minnesota, and none was a farmer. Though Montgomery (similar to Wilkinson) grew up on his family’s farm prior to his enlistment, he never returned, rejecting that way of life for himself (as Wilkinson had done), choosing instead to relocate to neighboring St. Peter, where he sold land to farmers. Stearns was a journalist and Merrill was a prominent businessman. All four were Protestants. Only Montgomery was an immigrant, and the only one of the four to bear arms during both the Civil and Dakota Wars. None, it could be said, had a friend who was a black man or woman, not even Montgomery or Merrill, whose associations with the African American were unequal, with both men filling superior roles in their respective relationships. Thus, what they knew about black people was superficial. Though the paths of the four white patrons at times crossed, there is no indication that they had more than a passing awareness of each other. Still, their lives conveyed a deceptively complex history befitting a state that underwent its own postwar reconstruction.
In this sense, the book looks into corners of Minnesota history not otherwise known—Wilkinson’s often turbulent but ultimately loyal relationship with Lincoln that did not transfer to the keepers of the president’s legacy; Montgomery’s sense of opportunism in being an officer over colored troops while holding a casual admiration for the Southern way; Merrill’s apparent ease in blurring lines between the pragmatism of doing business and politics within Democrat-controlled St. Paul and principles of his ethical beliefs; Stearns’s struggle to advance women’s suffrage against a churlish Republican leadership who bestowed political favor on her husband while chastising her for wanting what black men had received.
As each character takes center stage, standing in the wings are black men and women for whom history has recorded very few if any lines. The black leaders who serenaded Wilkinson as he received them from the balcony of his St. Paul hotel that denied black patronage, a policy I examined in my previous book, Degrees of Freedom. The contraband Lizzie Estell who Montgomery felt was ungrateful when she wanted to return south after working on his Minnesota farm, because her children had been discovered and her husband, Will, Montgomery’s corporal, was dying of cholera. Robert Hickman, who as a slave could preach to his flock in slaveholding Missouri but was prohibited to do so on the free soil of Minnesota: Merrill would help him build his church but installed his father-in-law as its pastor, relegating Hickman to a peripheral role. Martha Hall, the long-term maid of Senator Alexander Ramsey, who due to her race, status, and duty to her employer, consigns women’s suffrage to a privilege to be enjoyed only by white women of means. The relationships between the African Americans and the central figures of this book characterize the full scope of white activism, its eventual limits and failures.
All of this looks like a study of duplicity. But, much to my surprise, I reached a different conclusion: the charge of “duplicity” can at times be an unjust reading of the complicated human impulses of not always agreeable people. In the end, it was my intent to resist the conceit of painting over their motives with a broad brush, but rather to try understanding the whole person engaged in their life and time. In their individual and collective stories, we have, I hope, a portrait of Minnesota as a microcosm of America, and perhaps even a glimpse into ourselves.