[Wilkinson’s] head is nearly bald, and what little hair there is on it is short. A line drawn from the chin, passing in front of the ears, would divide the head into two equal parts.
Rochester Record and Union, March 13, 1874
Although historians shed far less light on Wilkinson as a figure in Minnesota history than they do on Donnelly, among opinion makers during the five years of spirited campaigns in the first half of the 1870s, these two men were often mentioned in the same breath as either advocates of reform or traitors of the Republican cause. Since statehood they had played major roles in bringing Minnesota into full partnership within the Union. Both men were noted for their oratory, especially in the crusade to make all men, regardless of race and class, equal, and both were vilified as “bolters” by the very party that earlier had been their political home. Donnelly had followed Wilkinson to the rostrum at the Convention of Colored Citizens in 1869 to likewise extol the promise of black Americans, and it was in their attendance that black Minnesotans could joyfully see the embodiment of a political establishment committed to creating a society whose body politic at last included them. And they did so while mutually shifting their wholehearted energy to the struggle of farmers, as reflected in Donnelly’s diary entry: “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.” To these two men the country was now embroiled in a class conflict between capitalists and laborers, between men who enjoyed privilege and “hard-handed, laborious” men who were being exploited. The desperate plight of farmers was nothing short of a latter-day form of oppression.
To opinion makers of the day, both friend and foe, they were reflections of each other, “two who hunt,” as one editor wrote in 1876, political Siamese twins joined at the hip by black equality and farmer equity. And both felt, as was often the case, that with the end of slavery and the establishment of black political equality, they could shift their undivided attention to the politics of “agricultural interests.” And when the two joined with each other to do righteous battle, whether to pass a black suffrage referendum, unseat Senator Ramsey, unseat President Grant, or pass legislation to regulate railroads, as was the case now, onlookers could always expect sparks to fly. Indeed, it had been then as it would be now, a show to behold.
And yet, they were very different men. Visually they made for an odd couple. While at forty-three Donnelly still possessed the countenance of a curly-haired, roguish Gaelic cherub whose “fat sides quiver[ed] and look[ed] as mischievous as an exaggerated Santa Claus,” the taller, brooding, and balding Wilkinson, whose face was angular and severe, prompting one writer to refer to him as “the majestic and humorless senator from Blue Earth County,” looked every bit of his fifty-seven years. Both could stir men’s souls with powerful speeches, yet while the years of battle had seemed to keep Donnelly vibrant, for he would continue to fight in the political arena for years to come, Wilkinson seemed more content to let others carry the standard, relegating himself more to a supporting role as he would when Amos Coggswell introduced the major railroad bill of the session. Donnelly had the sparkle of political celebrity, the one you sought if looking for pizzazz as during the presidential campaign of Horace Greeley in 1872. Wilkinson, on the other hand, seemed barely able to repress his rage.
They did not always arrive at the same point at the same time. Donnelly was late to join the Liberal Republican presidential campaign and Wilkinson came to openly affiliate with the Grange and Democrats after Donnelly had done so. Wilkinson had long been wary of railroads and critical of the privileges Congress bestowed upon them, while Donnelly served as a lobbyist for railroads and for Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke. Donnelly, Philadelphia-born, labeled himself as a “farmer” while Wilkinson, who was born and had labored on a New York farm and was always an advocate for the Jeffersonian sanctity of farming, never looked back at that lifestyle when he left at eighteen. To Donnelly’s anticlerical stance (he was born a Catholic), Wilkinson, a Unitarian, then Baptist, then Methodist, favored the work of the Senate being blessed by a man of the cloth. And through their battles together, it was not at all clear whether they were personal friends. In the end, none of this mattered. What did was that they would be where farmers needed them to be: in the halls of state government where they could initiate the reform Congress was unable—no, unwilling—to undertake.
As Wilkinson gave full attention to the legislative battles to come, the old Dakota and Winnebago lands in the neighboring counties to the southwest of Blue Earth had already undergone a devastating locust infestation of biblical proportions. Counties staggered under the first major invasion of the Rocky Mountain locusts. By the spring of 1874, the insects would spread to the fertile acres of Blue Earth County to become the most recent assault by nature on the Minnesota farmer. Since 1869, when Wilkinson proclaimed to the black citizens of Minnesota in the most ennobling of terms the virtues and promise of farming, the lives of white farmers who had staked their claims had been anything but halcyon. In the best of circumstances, the first year was always at best a gamble; but farmers in the southwestern counties faced an extraordinarily severe number of calamities of nature.
Since 1871, farmers had reported a series of devastating prairie fires that destroyed hay, grain, stables, machinery, livestock, and homes, leaving rural people in desperate need. Hundreds of pleas for relief flooded into the office of Governor Horace Austin. Henry Castle, assigned by Austin to investigate the results of several fires, reported back that several families were in dire straits. One farmer, he reported, had lost all of his hay, his wagon, plow, and harrow. He was very poor “with a family of seven children, a cow, a yoke of oxen, and no money.” Hailstorms were also the cause of destitution, doing untold damage to crops. For example, in the Butternut Valley of Wilkinson’s own Blue Earth County, in July 1871, quite a number of farmers were reduced to pleading for charity. Similar consequences occurred throughout 1872.
Such natural calamities brought unusual hardship to farmers who had very little capital or ready cash, especially after they had spent most of their money to set up the farm and purchase seed for the first crop. If it was destroyed, as was typical for so many during this period, they were left penniless, needing therefore to turn either to charity or expensive credit. One farmer told Governor Austin that he had mortgaged 160 acres of land for two hundred dollars on which he was paying 20 percent interest. And since the counties most devastated were sparsely populated, the tax base was too meager to provide aid for their residents. Thus, people in the stricken areas needed help from the public coffers and private sources. After Governor Austin appealed to the public for help in 1871, donations began coming in from as far away as the East Coast. Still the suffering continued.
In April 1872, by way of Commissioner Browning Nichols, the governor received an appeal drafted by Abner Tibbetts, a protégé of Senator Wilkinson who had persuaded Lincoln to make him the land agent of St. Peter, and an ally of Donnelly during the senatorial vote of 1869. This time Tibbetts wrote on behalf of an impoverished, widowed mother of two small children. Nichols added, “We have a good many up here in our County that are ve[r]y destitute and really need help and if you have any more funds in your hands for that purpose there is some that I would be glad to see helped. If they could not get more than enough to buy two or three bushels of seed potatoes it would help them a great deal.” By the following year, their lot would worsen as the first major grasshopper invasion hit Minnesota.
On June 12, 1873, on a fresh breeze from the west, swarms of Rocky Mountain locusts came across the Dakota border into Minnesota and spread out over thirteen counties. They did not hit the state like a tidal wave that uniformly rolled over flat terrain; rather they flew in like clouds that drifted apart in places to alight on some fields but leaving others unmolested. Even whole towns escaped the blight. But where they landed, their impact was devastating. Succulent vegetation was consumed and the growing crops were greatly damaged, if not completed ruined. In January 1874, Henry Sibley who had been sent to examine the problem, visiting counties he had not seen since he led the Expeditionary Force against the Dakota eleven years earlier, informed governor-elect Cushman Davis that private charitable donations had all but ceased and state intervention was necessary. Davis, in turn, laid the letter before the Senate, which promptly acted on an appropriations bill. In that the locust had stayed within a small portion of the settled area of the state and were believed to have departed with the arrival of winter, the legislature set aside only five thousand dollars to supply food and clothing plus an additional twenty-five thousand dollars for seed grain to be distributed under the supervision of the governor.
With this business completed, the Senate turned its attention to railroad regulation. On January 6, Wilkinson gave notice that he would introduce a bill relating to common carriers, as well as a bill defining the liabilities of corporations engaged in the transportation of goods and other properties, and he submitted the main railroad bill, SF No. 6, to be introduced by his cosponsor, Amos Coggswell. Coggswell, of Steele County, a conservative Republican who had been a member of the party since statehood, served in the constitutional convention, lost a Senate bid to Wilkinson in 1859, and later as Speaker, argued against extending suffrage rights to black men. Now he was a committed antimonopolist. The power to determine and set the rates would reside with the legislature, within the hands of the people’s direct representatives and, by extension, the people. With the combined force of Donnelly and Wilkinson, as well as a respectable contingent of Grange-endorsed legislators in the Senate and the House, all seemed to understand what was expected of them and what was good politics. The concept would prove to be more elastic than anticipated, as party legislators, feigning the role of being responsive to the people, trimmed the sails of substantive reform.
In fact, the railroad issue grew out of the conflicting needs of a growing society. The land that was open to homesteading, land that made it possible for settlers with no means to make a future for themselves and their families, was located far onto the isolated frontier. Railroads, in some instances in partnership with immigration assistance organizations, helped populate the wilderness and provide farmers with a link to market. For many, it was a lifeline. With such importance and without regulation, railroads inevitably gained leverage over the terms by which business was to be conducted, meaning they set crushing rates. Furthermore, the federal government shared a profound interest in seeing railroads spread throughout the nation, both as a means of integrating the new postwar economy and knitting together a fractured nation. Thus, the nation benefited as railroads grew, and they grew because there was considerable profit to be made. There was no interest on the national level in restraining in any way such an important industry. By the 1870s that responsibility fell to the states.
Founded in 1867 in Washington, D.C., the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry began initially as an educational and social organization for farmers, but it was in Minnesota, the home of founder Oliver Kelly, that chapters first appeared. Inevitably, however, Grange meetings became political as members talked about the problems they faced. Soon Grange chapters spread to other midwestern states, and as their ranks grew, so too grew their sense of political potential. Agrarian grievances against Minnesota railroads, particularly the Winona and St. Peter line, stimulated the rapid formation of Grange lodges. The Minnesota State Grange was organized in 1869, and by the end of the year there were nearly fifty active local Granges in the state. The highest Minnesota Grange membership was reached in 1874, just a year after Congress chartered the National Grange.
After the organization of the Minnesota State Grange, reformers concentrated most of their efforts on railroad freight rates regulation. Inspired by Illinois laws, Minnesota Grangers pushed for similar measures. Governor Horace Austin, formerly a judge from St. Peter, was sympathetic to their demands and signed the first of Minnesota’s Granger laws in 1871. It established the office of railroad commissioner and specified rates that could only be adjusted by legislation. Nevertheless, the railroads ignored the new law and set their own rates. In response, supporters of the law filed a lawsuit against the Winona and St. Peter Railroad, and they also began to work for yet stronger legislation.
During their effort to regulate the rates of railroads, Grangers understood that they needed their own political arm. Neither major party was willing or capable of advancing Grange interests. Consequently, farmers and small businessmen united under the Grange banner. If they could not influence senators and congressmen with whom they lost touch once these men went to Washington, where lobbyists seemingly reigned, they could elect and monitor their neighbors who ran for state office. By the mid-1870s, Grangers, many of whom joined to fight the railroad monopoly, were forming viable campaigns for seats in the statehouse.
During the campaign of 1873, the railroad question was the most vital issue in most parts of the state. Dissatisfaction with the men who set the rates found expression through caucuses and conventions, in party platforms, and campaign speeches. In the legislature that met in January 1874, a large majority, regardless of party affiliation, had pledged to support railroad regulation. Of the 106 members of the House 64 were farmers, and there was also a significant number of farmers in the Senate. Most of these were men who considered themselves “express representatives of the Grange movement,” filled with the “moral courage to attack iniquity in its very citadel.” But their hopes ran head-on into the harsh reality of railroad politics.
In the House, at the opening of the session the more radical members tried to unite all those who were pledged to reform and thus capture the organization of the House. As an indication of how far bipartisanship had come in Minnesota politics, all antimonopolists, without regard to former party ties, were invited to meet in a caucus to nominate candidates for the elective House offices. Their candidate for Speaker, a member of the Grange, lost out by only three votes. Many took the defeat as a harbinger of future battles with a powerful lobby that would not give up control easily.
The Senate committee, on which Donnelly sat, like other major committees, was dominated by the Republican faithful. Indeed, observed the Mankato Union, “The organization being in the hands of Republicans, placed reformers either on committees of minor importance or on the tail end of those [in] which the public have the most interest.” Earlier in the session, Wilkinson attempted to change the rules concerning committee appointment to have the body, rather than the Senate president, assign senators, but so as to unofficially slip it away from debate, his resolution was “laid over to future consideration.”
Donnelly was left to make his case alone before an unsympathetic committee. Charged with the responsibility of framing the bill, he soon refused to meet with the committee, arguing that it was dominated by Republican establishmentarians determined to draft a law that served railroads rather than the people. Even a few members of the Republican Party took issue with the strong-arm tactics of their party bosses to maintain control of both chambers, but were eventually driven back “by whip and club” to “the party of monopoly.” Senator-elect Ignatius Donnelly immediately expressed lack of faith in the legislature and began preparations for a new campaign. He was appointed to serve on the Senate Railroad Committee, but refused to meet with the other members because he did not believe they would support reform. Many of the most radical members viewed anyone willing to dismantle the law of 1871 as suspect, including the governor, who had supported reform.
Governor Horace Austin, who had served as a judge in St. Peter, anticipated, despite his sympathies, the direction of the litigation that would grow out of this kind of legislation: that as long as the law imposed inflexible rates without regard for whether the trains carried freight or passengers, the companies would challenge the law as “too arbitrary and inelastic,” unreasonable. Anticipating that the cases would be upheld by the state supreme court—an elected body where Grange sentiment was strong—the companies would then appeal the rulings before the far more conservative U.S. Supreme Court, where the law was destined to be struck down as unconstitutional. Austin advised the attorney general to refrain from prosecution. Instead, he recommended that complaints against railroad companies should be heard and determined by a board consisting of the railroad commissioner and a number of efficient men appointed to serve with him. He approved adopting a plan, fashioned on the French model of strict government inspection and supervision of all roads, the regulation of their charges, and allowing no tariff advances without showing good cause. He also believed as he had before, that cheap transportation could only be secured by developing a viable alternative to shipping by railroad. To this end, he proposed that the waterways be improved and extended. Incoming Governor Cushman Davis, who was equally interested in reform, nonetheless agreed that the law should be modified and that a more reasonable standard be applied in setting rates.
But it was the annual report from Alonzo Edgerton, the railroad commissioner, that appeared to convince many members of the Anti-Monopoly Party that the law needed to be changed. In it Edgerton complained that his powers were too limited to remedy the railroad abuses. He called attention to the fact that he could not commence suits against railroad companies and had no power to prevent extortion, his duties being mainly limited by law to the collection of facts and statistics for the information of the legislature. Edgerton left it to the legislature to determine whether an extension of powers would be advisable. He admonished the railroads against complaining about the wrongs they have suffered, for the revolt against them would grow “greater and greater in magnitude.” To buttress his admonition, he reviewed the federal, state, and municipal aid to the railroads of the state, and contended that the people had not shown themselves unfriendly to the railroads as often charged. Rail companies had been liberally dealt with in terms of franchises, land grants, bonuses, and right-of-way donations; and all that the people asked for these “prodigal gifts,” Edgerton said, was “security from extortion and freedom from unjust discrimination.”
The great question before the legislature of 1874 was the solution of the perplexing railroad problem. Most agreed that something must be done, but there was a great variety of opinion in the legislature, and throughout the state, as to what that was. The old law, whatever its faults, at least drew a clear line between lawful and unlawful practices, a standard legislators had created. Would any revision that allowed for flexibility essentially erase that line? Would it be giving quarter to those who least deserved it? Most believed that the railroads could not be trusted to uphold the spirit of the law; but could the legislators—many of whom were not friends of the farmer, many who were used to the old way of doing things—find middle ground that was just? Could even the reform men come together?
At its annual meeting in December, the State Grange decided against maintaining a “lobbying committee at the capital during the legislative session.” However, defying the edict of George Parsons, leader of the State Grange who insisted that the Grange at all costs stay out of politics, legislators, likely at the prompting of Senators Donnelly and Wilkinson, met with members of the executive committee of the State Grange to appoint a committee to confer with officials as to what legislation was desired by the Grange and farmers of the state. Seats were provided for lobbyists in the Senate chamber with the understanding that they were to look after matters of interest to the farmers. But in the end, the committee’s only accomplishment was to alienate many of the Granges because it had been appointed against the express wishes of George Parsons. With a division within their own ranks, things did not augur well for the fortunes of reform.
On February 19, the Railroad Committee of the Senate (on which Donnelly served) introduced a comprehensive bill that included all of the provisions Wilkinson had previously introduced, but that had been set aside. On February 24, Donnelly’s SF No. 6 was indefinitely postponed in a vote of 26 to 12, with Donnelly and Wilkinson voting with the minority. Then the committee’s bill “to create a board of railroad commissioners and to provide for the management of all railroad corporations within the state” was passed, 29 to 7. Once again, Donnelly and Wilkinson voted in dissent. The Donnelly-Wilkinson caucus sought more restrictions for oversight to be determined by legislative action while the senate bill sought more flexibility for men selected by the governor to make those regulatory decisions. Vigorous negotiations ensued between the Senate and House, whose railroad bill was much more stringent, until they agreed on a bill that received wide support in both chambers. The House vote was 83 to 3 and the Senate was 34 to 2. Here, Wilkinson, voting in the majority, parted ways with Donnelly, who cast one of the dissenting votes. Once again, Wilkinson, just as in 1862 when he approved the needed confiscation bill even though it included a provision for colonization, a measure with which he strongly disagreed, voted for regulation, however flawed, because he understood that the law of 1871 would not be maintained. A flawed law, to him, was better than no law at all.
The conflict leading to this vote concerned which body—the legislature or a gubernatorial-appointed commission—should be empowered to set rates. Fundamentally, as Donnelly saw it, the very fact that commission members were appointed made them the beneficiaries of patronage in which loyalty to the party organization or the man making the appointment was foremost. The interest of the people seldom figured into the equation. This was, after all, no longer the Party of Lincoln, but the party of “Bluff Aleck” Ramsey. The law, in short, was tantamount to placing the wolf in charge of the henhouse. It did not matter to him that Ramsey’s influence had considerably waned, or that Horace Austin and governor-elect Cushman Davis were of a different stripe, both noted for being sympathetic to reform and, at least in theory, inclined to appoint honorable men. For Donnelly, the law granting governors broad and unprecedented authority, even to men of known character, nonetheless brought with it a corrupting influence, and the three new commissioners proved the point: Alonzo Edgerton, who had served as railroad commissioner since 1871, former governor William Marshall, a Ramsey man who only recently served as president of the St. Paul–Dubuque Railroad, and J. J. Randall of Winona, a former collector of internal revenue from the home and political base of Senator William Windom. Even though the new law required appointees to serve the two-year term with the consent of the senate, and it precluded an appointee from being a “stockholder, trustee, assignee, lessee, agent or employee of any railroad corporation,” nothing in the law precluded appointees from having served in those capacities.
Rejecting the entire idea of the rate-making commission, Donnelly placed his faith in legislative regulation. “The people elected a legislature to regulate the railroads,” he argued, and any action to the contrary would not work. “After a sixty-day session the Republican majority discard all the bills proposed by the Anti-Monopolists, and coolly tell the people, ‘You picked the wrong man; we know nothing about railroads, we are too ignorant and incapable to fix a schedule of charges.’ ” Ironically, Elias F. Drake, president of the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad and Republican leader of the Senate, who opposed all regulatory legislation as a matter of principle, was the only senator who joined Donnelly in dissent. Drake was at this moment his only ally, for most members of the Anti-Monopoly caucus favored a bill that authorized a commission like the one that existed in Illinois, a model that later would be upheld in the United States Supreme Court, hardly a body noted for its progressive views. Donnelly’s obstinacy alienated many of his cohorts, making it easy for them to vote against him. Wilkinson, however, had resigned himself to the facts of life of this legislative session and supported the bill, not because it gave all the relief desired but because there was no hope of getting anything better.
Most Republican opinion makers around the state seemed to agree with him. The St. Paul Press, a paper that had hardly been a friend to him, told of its enactment under the headlines, “The People’s Triumph, the New Railroad Law.” It claimed that the representation of the railroads in the legislature had been so small that they had nothing to say in its enactment. The Minneapolis Tribune did not consider the problem solved, but believed the law to be the best that could have been devised under the circumstances. The legislature had both “killed the iron horse to gratify the insane caprices and spleen of some fanatics and demagogues,” but “had at least put a snuffle on him and a curb but to hold his rebellious nose in subjection.” The Rochester Post gave credit for incorporating the wisest and most judicious thought, deduction, and decision, of the best brains and the clearest heads of that legislature, though the bill was far from perfect. Similarly, the Rochester Record and Union believed that while the new law was an obvious advancement from the law of 1871, it would prove “adequate to the consummation desired.” On the other hand, the Dispatch regarded the law as a triumph of the railroad companies and objected forcibly to the plenary powers, ministerial and judicial, executive and legislative, that had been granted to the commission, and considered its appointment by the governor as a dangerous grant of power. Though some were disappointed that the Grange was not represented on the board, the appointees seemed on the whole to have been quite acceptable to the people.
But it would be Donnelly’s prediction of failure that would bear out in history. Because of the financial setbacks in 1873, the debt of railroad companies soared as stock devaluation plummeted and the panic carried over into 1874. In consequence, the commission saw the railroads as a public interest. The avowed aim, the board announced, was not to reduce rates but to remedy abuses. They felt, in protecting the public good, that they had to deal gently with bankrupt companies, and this attitude was frequently interpreted as an indication that they were “in cahoots with the railroads.” Accordingly, they decided to raise rates. The commission cost the state ten thousand dollars a year. This was a material increase in state expenses, and it was feared that costly litigation would add to the burden. The Grangers did not work in harmony, and this internal discord had a deafening effect. Donnelly led the wave of criticism. When the legislature assembled in 1875 a new law was demanded. Wilkinson was ready for the fight, though unexpectedly he was about to be given accolades from the political establishment. With this, he had crossed over into a heady realm made transcendent by once-critical opinion makers who, seeing him as both a living “historic” figure and reasonable, now elevated him to the status of statesman.
At the close of the 1874 legislative session, Wilkinson, accompanied by Senators Graves and Talbot, was given the honor of informing the governor of the Senate’s intent to adjourn and invite him to customarily give the closing remarks. Governor Davis declined. The next day, March 13, the St. Paul correspondent of the Rochester Record and Union published a glowing sketch of Wilkinson as part of a series on the leading state senators currently serving in the legislature:
Morton S. Wilkinson, for being so long in public life, as U.S. Senator and Member of Congress, is well-known throughout the state, and throughout the United States, and the people everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude for the fearless manner in which he made battle for the cause of freedom during the dark hours of the rebellion. There is no man in the state who cannot respect Mr. Wilkinson for his unswerving integrity during his public life in Washington. His votes and speeches were all on the side of freedom and in the cause of the great masses. His political opponents knew it was not possible to attack his public life, and so took every opportunity to slander his private character. He possesses many characteristics of strength . . . [and] is a loud talker, and more earnest and much clearer than [most men]. He differs also from the latter in being very companionable, and has many warm friends on both sides of the house.
Mr. Wilkinson is about 54 years of age, tall and slim as a rail. His features are strongly marked, nose thin and long, hanging over the upper lip, deep lines running from his nose to the corners of his mouth. His face is smooth shaven, the mouth large, lips thin and compressed, and prominent chin. Prominent brows hang over keen eyes, which projection gives them the appearance of being deeply set in the head. Wilkinson has got a very peculiarly shaped head, and it is unclassifiable. This prominence of the observing faculties also makes the brow to appear to retreat. The head is nearly bald, and what little hair there is on it is short. A line drawn from the chin, passing in front of the ears, would divide the head into two equal parts.
He is a very energetic speaker, and when warmed up with his subject, becomes eloquent in his earnestness. As against the frauds of the railroad monopolies, he is an uncompromising exponent. In him the Grangers have a tower of strength for the battle of right against oppression in the next session of the legislature.