It was the duty of Minnesota Republicans to work for [the amendment] and talk for it, and urge your neighbors to vote for it.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1868
In January 1866 the state party renewed its commitment to black suffrage. Republican legislator Stephen Hewson proposed a strategy to coordinate the amendment campaign statewide with local campaigns led by party leaders. The party’s enthusiasm was, however, tempered. In his inaugural address, Governor-elect William Marshall declared that while he supported black suffrage, and public support had increased, he would let the legislature determine whether the time was right for a new campaign. Outgoing governor Stephen Miller, who had been Marshall’s commander during the Dakota War, was less supportive, urging the legislature to instead submit a proposal for a qualified suffrage amendment enfranchising all males able to read and write, who held property valued at last at $300, or who had received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. However, the House Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, 24 to 8. According to one reporter, the 1865 defeat had dampened Republican resolve, and support for any form of universal suffrage might mean political suicide: “Some few of the men voted against the bill on the professed ground that the question of Negro suffrage, having been so recently decided against, it was not expedient to bring it up in any shape as present.”
Others, whose support had always been reluctant, got colder feet as they watched the events in Washington unfold. President Johnson, having troubles with the Radical Republicans, was forming the Conservative Party, a coalition of Northern Democrats and conservative Republicans who strongly opposed black suffrage; the new party attracted such notable Minnesota politicians as Daniel Norton and William Colvill. Some Republicans had even accepted the endorsement of the Democratic Party in 1866. The Republicans seemed on the verge of breaking apart, and their support for black suffrage seemed at its lowest. The national elections buoyed them, for despite the president’s strong campaign against the Radicals, voters nationwide overwhelmingly returned Republican majorities to Congress in a clear repudiation of Johnson’s policies. Minnesota Republicans themselves experienced an important victory when they decisively won two congressional districts against candidates supporting President Johnson. These victories prompted many moderate Republicans in Congress to return to the fold, supporting efforts to revive the momentum for black suffrage. In January 1867 Congress enfranchised blacks residing in the District of Columbia as well as all federal territories and insisted that black suffrage be a requirement of statehood for Nebraska. In March Congress required black suffrage as a condition for readmission of former Confederate states.
With renewed vigor, Governor Marshall called for the legislature to submit a suffrage bill to the people. Representative B. F. Perry sponsored and guided the bill through the House and Senate, where it met virtually no resistance. It was not until October that the Democrats began their attack. As in the 1865 campaign, they appealed to the same racial prejudices of foreign-born Minnesotans and laborers, claiming they would lose their jobs and opportunities if blacks got the vote, and shocked supporters with stories of rape and miscegenation, arguing that America belonged to the white man. In terms of stating whose nation this was, before the Civil War, Republicans had delivered the same message. But four years of war and an assassinated president had shifted the racial and political landscape for most Republicans.
Throughout the remainder of the campaign season, Republicans used a creative ploy to obscure the true intent of the provision that appeared on the ballot, identifying the question as not expressly about black suffrage but referring to the referendum cryptically as “Amendment to section one (1), article seven (7) of the Constitution,” evidently to avoid repelling unknowing, antisuffrage Republicans. The St. Paul Daily Pioneer described the provision’s language as a “Republican sugar coat of a bill so that voters may not know its character” and an “elegant euphemism.” In the November election, the referendum once again failed, though the margin was smaller than in 1865. Nonetheless, opinion makers felt that its defeat was in large part due to this bit of obfuscation as well as poor organization. Instead of the question being placed on the ballot, county committees (mainly because they received no directions from the central committee to do otherwise) placed the question on a separate ballot where it was overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood by voters who otherwise voted the Republican ticket. As a result, as the St. Paul Daily Press reported, “Thousands voted for the general and local tickets without thinking anything about the amendment, and so cast no vote on that question, or were confused by the multitude of amendments and cast no votes on them.” It was a painful lesson to have lost by votes they could have won.
On January 10, 1868, Governor Marshall called for a third campaign for black suffrage in his annual message to the House and Senate. Appealing to the highest principles of the Republican Party that he had cofounded in 1855, he said that Minnesota was ready to move forward on this issue. Referring to the election returns of 1865 and 1867, he insisted that public opposition had declined. The black man had served his country well and, Marshall maintained, tapping into a theme that had inspired the American Revolution, was being taxed without representation; moreover, Republicans, he said, had a duty to protect the rights of oppressed people. His comments were warmly received. Three weeks later state senator Hanford L. Gordon sponsored the bill to place it on the November ballot, recommending that it should not be identified in arcane parliamentary language as it was in 1867, and that it be placed on the general Republican ticket rather than on a separate ballot. With a large Republican turnout expected for the presidential election, in which the greatly admired General Grant would be their candidate, Gordon and his colleagues believed the provision would draw enough new votes to guarantee the amendment’s success.
And this time, taking to the field and exhorting all Republicans who would appear on the ballot to inextricably link their bids for office to black suffrage, Morton Wilkinson, now running for a seat in Congress and showing needed leadership from the front line, insisted that the duty of Minnesota Republicans was “to work for [black suffrage] and talk for it, and urge your neighbors to vote for it.” In other words, he told candidates to say, a vote for me is a vote for black suffrage. Other prominent Republican candidates began to do the same. Christopher C. Andrews, running for another congressional seat, said, “I would rather be defeated a dozen times over than have the suffrage amendment lost.” Their strategy succeeded. The amendment passed with a wide margin. In November more than 90 percent of the votes cast for the Republicans supported the suffrage amendment, and Morton Wilkinson, who got credit for the victory, was returning to Congress.
In the eleven years since Wilkinson settled in Mankato, he had witnessed its change from a distant outpost of white civilization on the edge of Indian country, through the ordeal of the Civil War, the trauma of a threatened attack by the Dakota, and the macabre resolution of mass execution and removal of two Indian tribes; thousands of acres of fertile farmland had opened up for homesteading, a plague of speculation and opportunism occurred, and finally the region saw a major influx of settlers. The people who flooded into the region were humble stock, from all parts of the North and Northern and Western Europe, who transformed the complexion of the region from red to white.
These were his people, and in terms of his future, it was they who would be his constituents, not the men who dominated the legislature, most of whom by now were subject to Ramsey’s influence. Though law dictated that senators be elected by that body, a congressman was elected by popular vote from Wilkinson’s district, and for this reason the former senator shifted his congressional sights. The change that had occurred in and around Blue Earth County was not just in terms of demographics, which outstripped Democratic influence in the region: it was for him a matter of political opportunity. With virtually no threat of black homesteading, both new and older voters could afford to be high-minded.
Boosters for settlement in Minnesota were already looking for native- and European-born settlers streaming into the state to farm. In the Congress of 1864, Ignatius Donnelly rose to speak, in effect, to the world: “With nearly a billion acres of unsettled lands on one side of the Atlantic and with many millions of poor and oppressed people on the other, let us organize the exodus which must come and build if necessary a bridge of gold across the chasm that divides them that the chosen races of mankind may occupy the chosen lands of the world.” As such, the state had invested resources into creating an agency whose focus was on native- and foreign-born immigration.
To draw attention to the state, the Board of Immigration sent out pamphlets in Norwegian, Swedish, German, and Welsh, as well as English, to be dispatched by agents who fanned out throughout states in the east and northeast as well as Europe. The board cooperated with railroads to get cheap fares for immigrants and their families and built immigrant-receiving settlement houses for their temporary accommodation. Swedish-born immigrant Hans Mattson, appointed as the board’s secretary, went to Sweden in 1868 to recruit immigrants, describing his adopted home as a land of milk and honey. While in Sweden he organized two shiploads of emigrants to accompany him to Minnesota. In 1871 Mattson, now an emigrant agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, returned to his native country to search for prospective settlers and returned to his new homeland in 1873 with another contingent. Agents representing the state were also sent to Milwaukee and Chicago to give aid to immigrants, and one was delegated to give them protection and advice when they reached St. Paul.
The state also consigned Paul Hjelm-Hansen, a Norwegian journalist, to write a series of articles that appeared in Norway and Norwegian American communities touting the beauty of Minnesota. Elsewhere other writers told of exaggerated accounts of Minnesota’s fresh air and healthy climate. Eduard Pelz and Albert Wolf, German immigrants who worked as agents of the St. Paul and Pacific and later the Northern Pacific Railroad, wrote pamphlets and articles about the “humanistic and public-minded effort to concentrate German emigration to Minnesota.” These and other ethnic Minnesotans all whetted the appetites of their countrymen who in turn established ethnic communities that dotted the state. As Theodore Blegen wrote, “The Yankee, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Irish, Czech, Welsh, and other settlements and ‘colonies’ that took root in the 1850s expanded in numbers and deepened in their special character in the decades after the Civil War. . . . More revealing of the complexion of the people [of Minnesota] is the fact that by 1880 seventy-one per cent of the total ‘represented European blood of the first and second generations.’ ”
No similar outreach effort to African Americans was made. Their opportunity for landownership lay instead within another homestead policy geared to inducing freedmen to remain in the South, a policy conventionally termed “forty acres and a mule,” but in practice one born of the reluctance of Republicans to move, as Eric Foner writes, “very far toward the goal of land for the freedmen,” a policy that essentially and intentionally denied blacks the full opportunity to land otherwise made available to white homesteaders. In Minnesota, by 1870 759 African Americans were counted as residents. Anoka, Blue Earth, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, Rice, Pine, and Winona Counties each had at least fifteen blacks, though most were laborers. John Alfred Boone and John Green, who were veterans of Company K of the Sixty-Seventh Regiment and served under Montgomery, may have been part of the group on whose behalf the captain wrote; the two men did move to Le Sueur County in 1865, but both worked as laborers. This was the role their patrons could only seem to imagine for black people, as reflected in an 1863 article heralding the arrival of contraband from the South: “The people of the State are prepared to welcome a large accession of Negroes to our laboring population.”
Forty years later 8.7 percent of the African American population in Minnesota lived in rural areas, but only twenty-nine farms out of 156,137 were operated by black families. “Of these,” recorded David Taylor, “sixteen [farms] were owned by the operator, twelve were farmed by tenants and one was managed.” As “colonies” of foreign settlers took root on Minnesota’s farmland, not even the intimation of similar settlements of black homesteaders occurred since the Tibbetts-Montgomery correspondence in 1865. In 1870, when the legislature established the Board of Immigration, a man named Dr. H. W. Ward proposed founding another black colony in the Lake Osakis area, whose residents had supported Lincoln and black suffrage, but after encountering “a number of difficulties,” Ward noted, he abandoned the scheme.
A few black men in rural Minnesota could and did escape the limitations of farm labor if they possessed the skills to barber and charm to attract white customers. Prince Honeycutt had served during the Civil War as camp boy for Captain James Compton. After the war, Compton brought Honeycutt home with him. In time the former slave became a barber and married a white woman, living out his life in Fergus Falls and speaking against the rise of antiblack activity that had appeared in the area,. Mark Cane was once sold as a slave for a thousand dollars to become an orderly in the Union army and later moved to New Ulm, Minnesota, where he became a barber and his wife was a hairdresser. The chance of a reasonably comfortable life existed not on the farmland but in towns; and few towns needed more than one barber. Thus, the “bridge of gold” for black Minnesotans, most of whom had come from a hopeless life in Southern agriculture, led, not to Minnesota’s farmland, but to the cities. For some who made that journey to reside in St. Paul’s Lowertown and serve the needs of white employers and clients, Wilkinson’s admonition to the newly minted black citizens, whether hypocritical or myopic, nevertheless must have sounded hollow: “Do not be content to be barbers and porters in hotels, but be men, hard-handed, laborious men.” Though the purpose of the grand event in January, where he would speak these words, was to joyously mark the ratification of black suffrage, it was also a moment when Republicans could celebrate themselves, their own good deeds and expectations of a truly grateful audience.
The year Mankato became an incorporated city, the J. J. Thornton investment firm that began in 1865 became the First National Bank of Mankato with John Willard as its president, and Wilkinson’s Blue Earth County experienced unprecedented growth and economic vitality. Though homesteaders could be found in virtually every corner of the old Winnebago Reservation, according to census data of 1870, none was African American. Even so, it is worth noting that more Blue Earth voters—all males—supported the black suffrage amendment than there were black men, women, and children residing in the entire state; and the margin of victory within the county was greater than it was the year before. The same was true in Nicollet County, where Brevet Major Thomas Montgomery, whose real estate business thrived, was pleased to be of use to a patron destined for Congress, reminding each new buyer that the lofty principle of voting for black suffrage and Republicanism was every bit as important as enlistment in the army of their adopted and welcoming country. But in contrast to the returns in Nicollet County, the amendment once again failed in neighboring Le Sueur County, by a nearly two-to-one margin, just as it had one year earlier. It was time to show thanks to the black man’s true friend.
In St. Paul, on the evening of November 13, a delegation of black men visited the International Hotel where congressman-elect for the first district Morton S. Wilkinson was staying. Thomas Jackson, one of the organizers of the evening, as well as the convention that would be held in January, stepped forward and delivered a statement of appreciation of Wilkinson’s labors:
We, the colored citizens of St. Paul, have called on you this evening to return you our hearty thanks for the part you have always taken in our behalf. You, as one of the great Republican leaders, have ever stood up manfully and battled for the great principle of giving to the black man his rights as citizen of this State, the franchise of the ballot box. Though quite unpopular, the issue was manfully sustained. You took the ground at the risk of defeat, and maintained it until at last your efforts have been crowned with success; and to you we return our hearty thanks. We have long watched the efforts of our friends. We know them, and shall ever remember them. And to you, as one of the leaders of this great principle, we pledge to the party our hearty and undivided support. The battle has been fought. The victory is won, and to the victors belong the spoils. We again thank you for your efforts in our behalf. 
When he finished, the congressman-elect responded. “It was not for you alone that I labored during long and weary years to produce this grand result. . . . The success has elevated the people of our State to a higher plane, and a loftier platform, than they ever occupied before.” Perhaps still thinking about Willard Saulsbury, he said, “I shall be proud to represent in Congress the people of a State which forms the vanguard of the army of liberty and republican progress—a State whose people have proven that they can conquer their prejudices and perform an act of justice; notwithstanding the teachings which for a hundred years have been warping the judgment of the American people in favor of tyranny, oppression and slavery.” In closing, and laying out fully his and the party’s expectation of their new brethren, he said,
I am sure that you will exercise the right which is now conferred upon you with that intelligence which will verify the wisdom of those who have labored so long and so faithfully to confer the right of suffrage upon the black man. Again, thanking you for this honor conferred on me, I bid you good night.