The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Morton Wilkinson’s recent halfhearted foray into Minnesota politics, intended more to annoy the Ramsey supporters, was but a slight diversion from a more pressing matter: it was 1872 and the nation was poised to go to the polls to reelect or reject Ulysses S. Grant for president. The issues were clear. The wealth of the nation was accumulating in the pockets of a privileged few; and Reconstruction policies had clearly failed, as indicated by pervasive racial violence that raged in virtually every corner of the Old Confederacy, exacerbated by an infestation of speculators and carpetbaggers and the futile occupation by federal troops, subsidized by lucrative federal contracts, manned by farm boys in uniform deployed into harm’s way. People had fought the war to make opportunity a national right, and now, instead, before their very eyes, with monopoly bosses replacing slaveholders, the fruit of that promise withered on the vine. And it was all happening on Grant’s watch.
It was time for a change and the discontented Wilkinson was in good company. National leaders, many of whom were closely associated with Radical politics and President Lincoln, men like Carl Schurz, Charles Francis Adams, Lyman Trumbull, and Charles Sumner, came together under the banner of Liberal Republican. The group also attracted moderates and conservatives, as well as many Democrats who saw it as beneficial to join the coalition whose central focus was ousting Grant and ending Reconstruction. Beyond this, the interests were divergent, which in the absence of a strong national organization, made party cohesiveness far more tentative than for the two most dominant parties. As it was, the broad tent drew together a disparate assembly generally broken down into three groups: reformers, anti-Grant politicians, and a coalition of four influential newspaper editors known as the Quadrilateral, who later vied for control of the Republican Convention. With slavery abolished, civil rights amendments ratified, and the Confederacy defeated, the Liberal Republicans felt that the goals of Reconstruction had been achieved. Thus, they felt that in the seven years since the war had ended, the tenets of Republicanism mandated that federal troops be withdrawn from the South, where they were allegedly propping up corrupt “carpetbagger” regimes, which had exacerbated Southern frustration and created fertile ground for violence. The life-and-death struggle of Southern blacks had been reduced to an unfortunate abstraction. The Liberal Republicans called for general amnesty by restoring to ex-Confederates the right to vote and hold office, enacting civil service reform, and holding that the rise of the Ku Klux Klan was due to Grant’s commitment to maintaining a policy of white Southern disenfranchisement. In all states but Louisiana and Texas, they coalesced with the Democratic Party in order to run against Grant in 1872.
In May 1872 the Liberals met in Cincinnati to present their program to the nation and to nominate their own candidate for president. Without a formal nationwide organization the delegate selection process was haphazard, which probably distorted their own sense of electoral support among the voters. Some were self-appointed, but generally the size of each delegation reflected twice a state’s electoral vote, leaving them with an exaggerated sense of the size of their national constituency. In Minnesota Wilkinson led the delegation that included Dr. W. W. Mayo, Judge Aaron Goodrich, the Hon. James Hubbell, Dispatch publisher Harlan P. Hall, and Samuel Mayall, who as a Democrat had run against Windom for the Senate. In terms of candidate selection, the delegation, quite like the convention itself, was far from harmonious. Goodrich, for example, supported Judge David Davis of Illinois. Mayall supported Charles Francis Adams. Wilkinson supported his old friend Senator Lyman Trumbull. The endorsement process went through six ballots, at which point Wilkinson joined with other politicians to switch their votes to support Greeley, and the rest followed. Thus, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley became their candidate for president. Many of the reform-minded delegates, disgusted with his selection, left the convention.
In Minnesota the Liberal Republicans mounted a swirl of activity to drum up enthusiasm for a national candidate. Wilkinson was given the honor of calling a rally to order in Mankato and spoke in several other venues. But the challenge of mounting support for a candidate who criticized a party that was the most dominant party in the state, personified the voice of the eastern establishment, and embraced high tariffs, was quite daunting. The very fact that Greeley held strong antislavery views but remained a Civil War pacifist made him unpopular with a large number of Republicans and Democrats alike. The campaign needed more oratory power.
Mayo, Hall, and Wilkinson met with the meteoric Ignatius Donnelly, who had been reluctant to get involved. Still smarting from being outmaneuvered during his reelection bid to the House by Ramsey in 1868, and failing to see Ramsey unseated from the Senate in 1869, Donnelly now even more than Wilkinson, the most polarizing politician in Minnesota, had decided to retire from politics, to devote himself to farming and lecturing. Yet he would not be Ignatius Donnelly who considered himself neither a Republican nor Democrat, but a reformer, if a part of him was not open to another fight, another campaign. But he was torn: he disagreed so vehemently with Greeley on the tariff that he could not honestly support him. “I have no love for Grant and less for Greeley,” he recorded in his diary, “and I am in a perturbed state.” His dilemma was Wilkinson’s.
In the end, the voters faced no similar fate. The Liberals’ efforts were quixotic, due in part to the lackluster nature of their campaign. “The Minnesota Republicans never worried seriously about the Liberal Republican–Democratic coalition. They ignored the reform issue, concentrated on rebuilding Grant’s image of military glory, and talked about slavery.” In a state where Scandinavians were one of the largest ethnic groups, the Liberals failed to match the Republican communication machine, which included native-language newspapers and speakers who cemented party loyalty and minimized the reform issues of the rival party. Adding to the Liberals’ aggravation was Greeley’s passive style of campaigning, which frustrated his supporters who urged him to be more aggressive. To these urgings, the candidate replied, “Let us have patience, God reigns and whatever is best will be.” Nationally, Grant was reelected resoundingly. In Minnesota he won with more than 20,000 votes. In Blue Earth County, Wilkinson’s home base, Grant won by nearly three hundred votes, 1,906 to 1,617.
Grant had won in the state largely by rekindling the same sense of patriotism that inspired thousands of Minnesotans to be the first Northerners to respond to the call to arms in 1861, a call that Wilkinson and Ramsey were instrumental in initiating. Eleven years later Wilkinson misgauged the resilience of that passion, losing sight of how his fellow Minnesotans were not willing to watch the reemergence of the Confederacy with memories of so many loved ones lost on Southern battlefields still fresh in their minds, and Grant had been Lincoln’s man. It annoyed Wilkinson that Minnesotans who labored under such pressing contemporary matters as the economic threat of monopolies, governmental corruption, and protectionism, willingly set these concerns aside when it was time to cast their ballots because they were distracted by Republican candidates waving the bloody shirt, using an ennobling past to effectively place blinders on men that blotted out the realities of the present, prompting them to vote against their own interests. It paradoxically was the party’s legacy, perhaps its greatest reform—the crusade for black freedom and political equality, two issues that had defined his political identity seven years before—that now distracted humble Republicans from voting for reform. One of the few men in America who could have reduced the effect of the ploy was Frederick Douglass himself, but he was conspicuously absent. As the reputed leader of black America, to the considerable irritation of leading progressive Liberals like Senator Charles Sumner as well as presidential candidate Greeley, both friends and passionate advocates for the abolition movement, Douglass was not only absent from the convention but also had actively campaigned on behalf of Grant. To a friend he wrote, “My line of argument will be that Grant’s position is pure and simple—while that of Greeley’s is mixed and ambiguous. . . . Our country wants certainty and wants the confidence and repose which only certainty can give.”
To Sumner, Douglass’s position seemed incredible, to say the least. They had seen over the past few years how the Republican Party, after leading the effort to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, had come to disregard the interests of black Americans. Black disenchantment could be felt across the country, and was pricked further when the president, in 1871, publicly slighted Douglass during the “Santo Domingo episode,” an ill-fated venture initiated by Grant to annex the Dominican Republic for the purpose of establishing a place to colonize increasingly oppressed Southern blacks. Many knew that subordinates and supporters of annexation saw it mainly as a way to open the door to lucrative real-estate transactions. Senator Sumner, a friend and former colleague from Wilkinson’s Senate days, regarded the affair—similar in intent to Lincoln’s colonization plan that Senator Wilkinson had killed with his bill to suspend funding—as nothing less than moral bankruptcy, insisting that the United States, instead of exporting its racial problem to a Caribbean island, should be fighting to guarantee the rights of black Americans within the Southern states where they lived. Douglass took a hit for supporting the venture, a position that cast him in the unseemly light of an opportunist. As his biographer William S. McFeely has written, “It would have been entirely consistent for Douglass to feel precisely the same way [as Sumner], but the attraction of a presidential appointment, even to a secondary post as secretary to the commission, was so alluring that he simply looked past Sumner’s objections, choosing to see the presidential assignment as an honor.”
When the commissioners returned, Grant invited them to the White House, conspicuously omitting Douglass from the guest list. McFeely reports, “A good many black leaders were insulted, and the next year, Horace Greeley, on the campaign trail as the presidential candidate for the Liberal Republican and Democratic parties, chastised Grant, the hero of black Americans, for his hypocrisy.” Douglass’s friends knew that being excluded was the sort of insult that cut him to the quick (as had the steward who had refused to serve him in the main dining room of the ship returning from Santo Domingo), but he persisted in taking pains in public to say that he took no offense. Such a public gesture would surely be rewarded with an important appointment, provided he campaigned to reelect the president.
“Douglass’s stalwart loyalty to the Republican party separated him from many of the reformers . . . with whom he had worked in the antislavery cause,” and now many, like Charles Sumner, were Liberal Republicans. Douglass had to work hard to counteract abolitionist Horace Greeley’s efforts to bring in black voters. “By winning the war that ended slavery, Grant had become a hero to black Americans second only to Lincoln, but Greeley’s antislavery credentials were in good order. Grant’s attorney general, Amos Akerman, who had fought the Ku Klux Klan firmly and with some success in 1871, had been driven from the cabinet by the combined pressure of railroad interests and white supremacists, and his departure encouraged talk of bolting Grant’s party.” There were many reasons for black voters to support the Liberal-Democratic coalition. Douglass’s greatest challenge was to remind his kinsmen to look beyond his party’s many faults by insisting, “loyalty to the party of Lincoln and Grant was . . . the only course for black Americans.”
It would be wrong to disregard Douglass’s sincerity, casting him into an image of a mere sycophant, for his suspicions regarding the Democrats, and of the willingness—naive in some instances—of the Liberals to align with them, were well founded. He could not have been clearer than he was in a speech he delivered in November 1870 in Rochester, New York, when he angrily declared, “Talk of dead issues! The Republican Party will have living issues with the Democratic Party until the last rebel is dead and buried—until the last nail in the last coffin of the last rebel is driven.” But there were many blacks to be persuaded. A group announced a plan to organize black workers into a national union and, in doing so, exert pressure on the government by threatening to withhold votes from the Republicans. “Douglass challenged this strategy,” McFeely wrote, “saying that it would only play into the hands of white-supremacist Democrats at the local level and of Liberal Republicans at the national level—both groups that for the most part were indifferent or even opposed to black interests.”
At its root, Douglass most objected to the Liberals’ sense that the battle had been won. He railed against their hostility toward Grant’s Southern policy and their desire for regional reconciliation. While black Americans and Southern whites who stood for racial equality were being attacked and murdered by supremacists, Douglass viewed Democratic apologists as apostates and enemies, and it was they with whom the Liberals wished to align themselves. “The chief topic” of Liberal Republicanism “is the clasping of hands across the bloody chasm, the great love feast of reconciliation cooked by Mr. Greeley, on which occasion our southern brethren are indirectly promised the first seats at the common table.” The welfare of freed people, the cause of black equality, the very meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction were at risk in Douglass’s conception of the Liberal Republican movement and resurgence of the Democrats. He said with a passion that could only come from the heart, “The slave demon still rides the southern gale and breathes out fire and wrath. . . . The smoldering embers of the Lost Cause show themselves in shouts for . . . Horace Greeley!”
As to the Liberals’ accusation of corruption, Douglass, in terms that he would soon regret, now simply discounted it as a ploy whose consequent effect was to distract the nation from the unjust actions of white racism. And if they could not address the problems of race relations in the South, there was no way they could confront the more subtle, more nuanced forms of racism experienced daily in the North. Both forms were wearisome, so that in the end neither was worthy of consideration. As Blight observed, “Many Republicans had grown weary of the frustrations inherent in dealing with the woes of the freed people, and as Americans often do when frustrated by a fundamental problem, had turned to the more genteel posture of horror over corruption in high places.” But for Wilkinson, persistent racism was not the fault of vengeful former Confederates, but of a government that created that behavior with ill-conceived policies. To Wilkinson, racism was the consequence of frustrated white masses. Remove inequities confronting white men and one removed the racist impulse.
* * * * *
With Grant and his Republican majority once again installed at the levers of government there was no longer the sense that reform could be advanced at the federal level. To be sure, some of the problems facing farmers were due to global economic factors that fell beyond the control of Congress; yet railroads, through the rates they set, created increasing burdens that exacerbated farmer discontent. Throughout the Midwest they began to organize against railroad interests. With no sense that Congress wanted to regulate rates, there was every reason to expect railroads to charge whatever the market could bear; and if competition along some lines required lower rates, profits could be boosted by setting higher tariffs on other routes. If Congress refused to regulate rates, then the states needed to act. Lawyers such as Wilkinson knew that the law had long held that private carriers had to serve all persons at reasonable rates and without undue favor and that their methods of business, as well as their rates, could be governed by the state’s police power and upheld by courts. In other words, if a statute was enacted expressly to advance the welfare of the citizens, the law stood.
In Minnesota, within the vacuum left by the discredited Liberal Republican Party, the only truly potent political force for change that existed was farmers, and as a force they might be persuaded to politicize the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange. As an organization that originally was intended to meet the social and educational needs of farmers, the Grange was now beginning to promote farmer-owned cooperatives. Soon granges got involved in state politics, which in turn secured the reform legislation they desired, just like the 1873 Illinois law; and it would be good law that even the conservative U.S. Supreme Court would have to affirm. The number of local granges jumped between the close of 1870 and May 1873 from fifty to more than two hundred, a growth that marked a growing membership who were increasingly thinking of public affairs and in particular matters closely related to their home interests. There was so much promise here. These were Wilkinson’s people.
“It is everywhere understood,” Wilkinson had argued on the floor of the House in 1870, “that the agricultural interests of the Western states are very much depressed; that the great staple production of these states, wheat, is selling at fifty cents per bushel, a price actually below the value of the labor necessary to produce it.” He argued that while the western farmer sees every other industry in the land prospering his own is languishing; while those engaged in other pursuits are growing richer at present prices, he is growing poorer. “That system of national legislation, which is intended to uphold the other industries of the people, does not seem to extend to its protection of the farmer. So far as the great interest of agriculture is concerned, it is left by the government to take care of itself.”
At the time he spoke Wilkinson viewed Congress as being strong enough to control the monopolies, but he felt that no individual state had the power to withstand the influence of determined monied interests. Now, three years later, after Congress had continued showing reluctance to push for reform, midwestern states appeared ready to collectively stand up to railroads. In Minnesota the legislature would be in the heart of the action as it exerted its authority under the state charter. Wilkinson set his sights on a run for a seat in the state Senate in November.
The fight against economic oppression, as Wilkinson saw it, did not reflect the interests of black Minnesotans, who increasingly appeared in the state’s cities to perform the most menial of jobs. Nothing he preached spoke to persuading prejudiced employers to create for blacks the opportunity for apprenticeships and employment as skilled labor, homesteading, public accommodations, let alone speaking out against the many slights and indignities black people daily faced even in Northern cities. To him, the Negro, once freed and enfranchised, effectively lost his right to complain about social and economic inequities.
In March 1873, the staunchly Ramsey-Republican St. Paul Press, claiming the high road on the newest issue of black equality by laying the groundwork for equal access to public accommodations, reported that Frederick Douglass was refused entrance “on account of his color” to a hotel in Trenton, New Jersey, an act that apparently “made an impression on the [state] legislature.” As a result, reported the newspaper, a bill had been introduced that “by several penalties, prohibited any discrimination between whites and blacks by common carriers, hotel keepers, theatre managers, and in schools . . . whose support is derived by public funds,” which if passed would be “an amazing step in advance for New Jersey to take.” The urgent tone of the article, suggesting that Republicans were in touch with matters of racial justice, indicated that Minnesota was likewise in need of a similar bill. The newspaper was referring to an incident that had occurred the month before.
In February, the St. Paul Library Association sponsored Frederick Douglass in its third lecture in the city. Titled “Reminiscences of the Antislavery Struggles,” his speech was “an eloquent recital of personal experience in abolition times, intermingled throughout with strong argumentative points and glowing tributes to the contributors in the abolishing of slavery.” As he spoke at the Opera House before an adoring audience, a crowd formed outside the hall and began jeering and catcalling to disrupt his presentation. Undeterred, he gave his lecture to thunderous applause.
When Douglass ended, Colonel Gilbert Dutcher, proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in St. Paul, invited the speaker to be his guest for the night, “as [Douglass] wished to take an early train to Chicago.” But when Douglass later tried to book a room at the hotel, “a stupid clerk” at the Metropolitan, following hotel policy, refused to receive Douglass. The Merchant Hotel likewise refused him service. To his credit, Dutcher, upon learning of the offense which had occurred in his absence from the hotel, extended his apologies “for the unauthorized insult offered [Douglass] by the clerk,” and gave a banquet in honor of his distinguished guest. The mere act of reporting the incident—the first time any such story had been published in a Minnesota newspaper, let alone one as prominent as the Press—reminded black readers who their friends really were. The full story, however, which mentioned the Republican-dominated legislature that decided against enacting an antidiscrimination law, cast a pall over the rectitude of Minnesota’s Republicans.
Even the relationship between black Minnesotans and railroads was categorically different from that of farmers, because since 1869 railroads had been offering reduced rates to black passengers attending social and civic functions in St. Paul and Minneapolis. A negative story appeared in the Democratic press that reported on the two-year-old Harry Robinson case in which the plaintiff alleged discrimination when he was denied seating in the ladies’ car, but it did little to alienate blacks against railroads. The opportunity to have blacks share farmers’ interests was lost when discrimination locked them out of the ability to own a homestead. In Minnesota by the 1870s, black people were primarily an urban and decidedly Republican people.
Wilkinson’s affiliation with the Democrats must have at first confused black Minnesotans and then alienated them. In the South, it was the Democrats who beat and murdered their relatives with impunity. Masked white men who terrorized them there looked alarmingly like the masked white men—also angry at the Republicans—who met secretly throughout Minnesota’s farmland. That the Grangers were not white supremacists gave little comfort to black men who escaped the Deep South with their lives to come to the Promised Land of the North Star State. And in St. Paul, the Democrats took every occasion to publicly mock black citizens even over the most fundamental right to assemble and worship, referring derisively to them as “Fifteenth Amendments.” To black people, Wilkinson’s Democratic ties made his politics seem Faustian. The Press, on the other hand, printed advertisements for black businesses and prominently reported the Old Settlers’ Association meeting in the Merchant Hotel to which Jim Thompson, “a colored man” and member, was in attendance, an event from which fellow Old Settlers Wilkinson and a number of prominent Democrats such as Henry Sibley and Henry Rice were absent. In time, black leaders would become critical of the party, which enjoyed black loyalty without black inclusion within their power structure. But in the mid-1870s, black Minnesotans focused on securing a community in this brave new world. For now, the fiery debate over tariffs and railroad rates remained largely of white concern. Discrimination, because it seldom appeared in the newspapers, hardly captured the attention of most white Minnesotans, which left most with the opinion that it was either insignificant or nonexistent, Though this was so in the cities, it was especially so in rural Minnesota, and, particularly, in Blue Earth County, where Wilkinson had seen to make the county white when he removed all the Indians in 1863.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that racism was of much concern to Wilkinson as he prepared to win the voters of Blue Earth County, more than a hundred miles away from the black voters of St. Paul. If, over the past couple of years he had followed the activities of black Minnesotans in Minneapolis and St. Paul, he would have concluded that while they continued to face the boorish behavior of ruffians, on the whole they were advancing quite well as valued citizens, doing what a civilized community did to promote civic-mindedness and uplift. Even Frederick Douglass, in his February speech before the Library Association, said the colored race had made significant progress since slavery. And more examples would follow.
Newspaper editors, with the best of intentions, may have elected to print primarily stories that showed the rapid progress of a people who were just eight years out of slavery, five years after becoming Minnesota citizens, and the embodiment of a political legacy based on the principle of freedom. In turn, blacks saw in these stories opportunities to reeducate the white community about the character of the African American and dispel the demeaning stereotype of the slovenly Rastus character. All high-minded people benefited. And while on his trips to St. Paul, the only blacks he encountered were likeliest to be porters, barbers, and cooks, the only kinds of jobs available to most blacks that offered contact with prominent white men, Wilkinson’s impression was probably framed by the newspapers that conveyed a rosy tint to the realities of most black Minnesotans. Discrimination was not newsworthy. Black community building was.
“Locked into a rigid socioeconomic class structure,” historian David Taylor has written, “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 socioeconomic mainstream. This, in the emerging American city of St. Paul, was the beginning of a modern ghetto, and most African Americans who attended the Convention of Colored Citizens lived in Lowertown. What Wilkinson now faced in Blue Earth County was a campaign for the bread-and-butter survival of the American farm, not one merely seeking redress for bruised sensibilities of colored men, and the campaign would be especially challenging to wage.
Coming from a district that was heavily Republican and had voted for Grant in the last election, he was faced with a dilemma: should he seek Republican endorsement, which might assure him election but compromise his political standing and integrity, or seek other endorsements from rival factions, which alone could ward off potential Blue Earth Republican voters who might not remain loyal to him if he were to wrap himself in the mantel of the Democracy. It had to appeal to Republicans that Wilkinson endorsed the Republican Party nominee Cushman K. Davis, a man who embraced reform—regulation of railroads, tariff, and so on. While some criticized Wilkinson for being too opportunistic, he assured his friends that he had no desire to affiliate with the Republican Party as long as there was no hope of purging the party of its corrupt practices. Rather, he insisted that he stood ready, whenever the element of opposition could be properly marshaled, to work for the reform the public desired. At this he declared himself to be, as Donnelly had done in 1872, neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but a reformer.
But the simple fact was a reformer seeking to be truly effective in changing policy needed blocs of voters that only an organization could provide. The Democrats were willing to claim Wilkinson as their candidate. Since the 1870 Republican caucus fight against Windom for the seat in the U.S. Senate, the Democrats openly welcomed him to their ranks, proclaiming, “If the radical party can’t afford that class of man, the Democracy can afford to make them welcomed.” Gaining their support without losing Grange and Republican voters would require delicate but doable maneuvering.
It did not take much effort to gain the support of the Democrats of Blue Earth. To inspire enthusiasm, the party wanted and needed to proudly announce this most noteworthy of acquisitions. Wilkinson, for his part, needed to be perceived free of co-optation if he was to be anointed the Democrats’ candidate without becoming a Democrat. Instead of simply traditional procedures of nominate-and-ballot, they settled on an unusual tactic: at the party convention, by acclamation the delegates were called to approve a resolution to nominate “the Hon. M.S. Wilkinson . . . to become an independent candidate for the position of State Senator.” “It is resolved, that this convention, approving the position taken by Mr. Wilkinson, hereby recommend him to the suffrages of the voters of Blue Earth County as a gentleman in every respect worthy of the position of State Senator, and whose election will insure for our county an able and efficient representative in the legislative halls of our State.”
It was a thin line separating “Democratic-endorsed independent candidate” from “Democratic candidate,” especially within the rough-and-tumble contest of electoral campaigns in which rivals had a profound interest in exaggerating facts and blurring lines of fine distinctions. The label “independent” was likeliest to stick if Wilkinson won additional endorsements. During the weeks preceding the county Democratic convention Wilkinson’s supporters organized the People’s Reform Convention, which was meant to attract citizens from all parts of the county, regardless of party affiliation—Liberals, Democrats, reformers, and Grangers who up to now had in accordance with their constitution, refrained from participating as a unified caucus in electoral politics. In October the convention endorsed Wilkinson, “whose large legislative experience and whose public record upon questions of vital interest to the toiling public, [were] in perfect accord with the movement of economy, anti-monopoly and reform.”
Later that month, Grangers acting outside their organization affiliation endorsed Wilkinson, breaking from a practice that was born in the intent to be a social and educational organization for farmers; but now they were ready to act on the belief that neither major party was trustworthy, a sentiment encouraged by Donnelly. Though technically the granges refrained from political activity, members were not forbidden to attend, as citizens, certain nonpartisan gatherings that took the name of “county councils.” In many instances these councils were composed almost exclusively of Grangers, who thus avoided the constitutional prohibition. In the spring of 1873 Donnelly lectured before many granges, mostly in the first and second congressional districts, on a variety of subjects, such as tariffs, paper money, and patent laws, not forgetting to touch upon railroad abuses. He praised them for the influence they had exerted on bringing railroads under control of the state, but more by suggesting (over the objection of Grange Grand Master George I. Parsons, a staunch Republican) that they were to become the great party of the people that would name the next president.
In September, the Grangers of Olmsted County, at their meeting in Rochester, had earlier rejected endorsing Republican candidate Cushman Davis even though he supported reform measures. But Wilkinson was free of the taint of that party’s affiliation as characterized by a Union article alleging that politicos acting on orders from the “St. Paul federal ring”—Ramsey and Windom—sought “to defeat Mr. Wilkinson at all hazards. . . . As [the henchmen] are holding federal offices, their heads are in danger unless they take prompt measures to obey success in his defeat is to be the only condition of holding onto public pap.” As if to underscore the point, “In Dakota County the office holders have received similar orders in regard to Mr. Donnelly, who is the People’s candidate for the Senate in that district.” The message was clear: “Wilkinson deserved the support from Anti-Monopolists, Reformers and Grangers,” for he would “advocate . . . an unpopular doctrine. He is far in the advance of the people.”
The November returns showed that Wilkinson, “with the aid of the Democrats and Patrons of Husbandry,” was elected by a majority of nearly nine hundred votes, a veritable landslide within his district of Blue Earth County, and in Mankato he carried every ward except the one where his Republican rival lived. Wilkinson had won as an independent, but his politics would be closely aligned with those of the newly formed Anti-Monopoly Party, “the Independent and People’s candidate.” The New Ulm Herald editorialized, “In Mr. Wilkinson the Grangers and Anti-Monopolists have a champion who can do much to redress their wrongs and effect reform to measure that lead to wring from the farmer his hard earnings. With Donnelly and Wilkinson arrayed on the side of Agricultural interests, we predict an exciting session of the next Senate. That there will be an opening of old sores there can be no doubt.”