The government of the U.S. does not interfere.
Adelbert Ames, Republican governor of Mississippi, 1875
A month after the legislative session ended, on April 11, 1875, Wilkinson learned along with thousands of other readers when they picked up their Sunday paper that the Democratic Pioneer and the Republican Press, had consolidated into one newspaper—the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Though it was run by the same men who had managed the two papers, the editorial voice of the new paper would, at least for the time being, take an independent path. Wilkinson, never a friend of the Press, was likely pleased with the outcome, understandably concluding that its apparent demise reflected that a nail had been driven into Ramsey’s political coffin. The new development, it was believed, would be beneficial to the state for it would give not only a thorough airing of the issues but also a fair hearing of the Liberal Republican-Democratic platform. On the shoulders of the two papers, it would truly become Minnesota’s newspaper of note. But though he also likely understood that the emergence of the Pioneer Press was not yet indicative of the political sentiment of the majority of Minnesota voters, it was a start. Of course, such machinations assumed that the “independent” label meant third party; but even if the paper thoughtfully assessed the positions of the major parties, the intelligent reader could not help but be well served. This would bear out by the end of the year on the matter of women’s suffrage, which Wilkinson, agreeing with Sarah Burger Stearns that the campaign should be low-key, had been working behind the scenes to support. In 1869, while the Pioneer’s support was tepid at best, the Press was contemptible in its campaign to defeat the amendment. In contrast, the Pioneer Press would spark the canvass for suffrage among the men of the Republican, Democratic, and Anti-Monopoly Parties. But even more important: the old Ramsey “ring” was dead. Wilkinson’s man, William Lochren, was not sitting in Ramsey’s Senate seat, but neither was “Bluff Aleck.” The one concern, however, was that Frederick Driscoll and Joseph Wheelock, the business manager and editor of the Press and Ramsey’s most senior advisers, were still in charge.
Since 1862 Wheelock and Driscoll ran the Press, aligning its influence and success with the rise of Ramsey’s political fortunes, and sharing in the bounty that followed from their close association with the governor’s rise to power. The die of hostility was cast when Senator Wilkinson directed the federal contract away from the Press and to the rival Pioneer and Democrat. Soon after Wilkinson’s defeat for reelection, Wheelock urged Ramsey to persuade senator-elect Norton to return the federal printing contract to the Press. In 1867 Driscoll was appointed chairman of the Republican Central Committee and held the position until 1870, skillfully conducting the campaigns that resulted in the second election of Governor Marshall and the first election of Governor Austin, and would be a member of the inner circle who guided the political fortunes of what some called the “Ramsey dynasty.” With Wheelock, Marshall, and R. N. McLaren, he managed the appointments of state officers and congressmen, and made several appointments to federal positions. In May 1870 President Grant appointed Wheelock to be postmaster of St. Paul on the recommendation of Senator Ramsey, and in turn, Wheelock made Driscoll assistant postmaster, “thus accomplishing the doubly desirable object of ensuring a competent business supervision of the post office and of securing a welcome recourse, for up-building the Republican party organ, perhaps seven thousand dollars a year from their united salaries.” Most recently, they worked furiously behind the scenes to get Ramsey reelected, but failing to do so, “the St. Paul Press lost faith in the virtue of the party, if not in the perpetuity of the Republic.”
It would seem that the end of the dynasty would mark the end of their influence. One of the earliest official acts of senator-elect McMillan was to demand the removal of Wheelock as postmaster and replace him with the senator’s son-in-law, Dr. David Day. Grant agreed; and with Wheelock’s departure went Driscoll as well. Shortly thereafter, however, came the “startling announcement” that the Pioneer and the Press had been consolidated under the management of Wheelock and Driscoll and that the Pioneer Press was to be conducted as an independent journal, “a thing then unprecedented in Minnesota politics.”
Business concerns, at least for the Pioneer, seemed to be the key reason that prompted the merger. Since the Democrats lost political control over Minnesota, the Pioneer lost its prominence, being surpassed in business and circulation by the Press. Between 1870 and 1875, the paper had as many owners. Recognizing that the paper might not survive, David Blakeley, the last editor, apparently initiated the consolidation. The process went smoothly. “There was no political obstacle to the union of the two papers. The proprietors of the two concerns had for years been personal friends.” Blakeley, Wheelock, and Driscoll worked out the business details and the consolidation went off quietly without a hitch. The Pioneer Press made its first appearance on Sunday morning, April 11, 1875, “greatly to the surprise of the readers of both papers. Not a whisper of the contemplated change had got abroad, and the actual appearance of the Pioneer Press was the first announcement which reached the public.” Within days the machinery and all the Pioneer’s printing supplies were moved into the more spacious Press building. The Pioneer Press Company reported capital of two hundred thousand dollars, two-thirds of which represented the valuation of the Press in the new concern, while one-third represented the valuation of the Pioneer. Wheelock and Blakeley provided the editorial direction of the paper, and Driscoll was still the business manager.
Wilkinson had to wonder whether in fact the wings of the old Press leadership had been clipped by the reversal of their political fortune. And what would it mean for these two old partisans to run an “independent” journal? Would the paper truly be independent? Could these men ably don the cloak of opposing principles?
Since statehood, the history of journalism in Minnesota included a few instances in which an editor’s politics were not reflected in the editorial voice of the paper. In 1865 Colonel John X. Davidson and H. P. Hall owned the Democratic-leaning, conservative Pioneer. Davidson held cultural gatherings at his home for the black community of St. Paul and Hall would soon become editor of the Dispatch, Donnelly’s organ and the most progressive of Minnesota’s major newspapers at the time. Between 1872 and 1874, William S. King of Minneapolis owned the Pioneer. He started the State Atlas in St. Anthony, which advocated for free soil and the abolition of slavery and was put out of business in 1860 when a proslavery mob destroyed his press; and he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1875 to 1877. In 1874 King sold the Pioneer to Blakeley, who had been editor of the Chicago Post and, from 1867 to 1868, secretary of state of Minnesota. Each was more than a loyal Republican: they were Lincoln men who supported the Union, abolition, and enfranchisement. Yet, each owned the petulant voice of the Democratic Party. It was business.
For dyed-in-the-wool Ramsey men, the reason to print anything other than the established Republican line was the prospect of more subscribers. It was good for business to increase subscriptions, which could happen if Democrats and third-party men found stories that spoke to them. Blakely would see to that. As months passed, the Pioneer Press printed stories that appealed to the larger market. In the days leading up to the election, the paper printed the Republican-Democratic ticket on its pages, urging men to vote accordingly, for “The vision of the people demands a new deal.” “Vote for the right men. Never mind their politics, their religion, their nationality, their former or latter professions, but only their present standing and efficiency as men.” On its front page, the paper reported approvingly of a speech Wilkinson delivered on religious tolerance. The Wheelock-Driscoll bias nonetheless remained where it related to Ignatius Donnelly, a man whom they had gleefully savaged since 1862, when he was the irksome lieutenant governor under Ramsey. Never mind that the senator from Dakota County’s politics were quite similar to Wilkinson’s—the Press had attacked both men with equal zeal during the campaigns of 1868, 1869, and throughout the 1870s—Donnelly had become, since 1873, the pariah. He had jumped from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, then to the Anti-Monopoly Party. On the hot button issue of railroad regulation, during the last legislative session, Donnelly had stayed true to stringent measures, while Wilkinson, to much fanfare, moderated his stance. Yet it was Donnelly who was demonized for vacillating. “It is not too much to say that if his judgment and reliability were equal to his brilliance, he would be invincible. But unfortunately, they are not.” It would appear that the charge of “inconsistency”—which, it could be said, also applied to the editors of the Pioneer Press—was nonetheless both convenient and selective; Donnelly’s stigma of “unreliability” went deeper, for he had called for a stronger regulatory, what railroads referred to as coercive, role for government over private enterprise. In this, Wilkinson it seemed was willing to go only so far, but not so much as to rattle the underpinnings of those businesses deemed to be financially vulnerable, on which his people—the farmers—relied. In this instance, Wilkinson wanted state government to cast a lighter touch.
* * * * *
With the enactment of the Civil Rights bill, the Republican-led Congress had steered the federal government into a new and uncomfortable era of national authority, one that seemed to breach the traditional federalist principles for measures that now seemed to be coercive; and it fractured its base. In this regard, Liberal Republicans and Democrats could join forces. A creeping sense that We have done our part, as it related to black equality, coupled with a return to free enterprise touched the hearts of established Republicans and attracted the party’s disparate members back into the fold. These factors set the stage for a total assault by Southern white supremacists, not just on black rights, but also on black lives, all in the face of misguided Northerners. To them, the villains were not the white mobs attacking blacks, nor even the occupation by federal troops, but Northern carpetbaggers, “that detestable and consciousless [sic] cabal of moral sappers and miners” who exploited a chaotic South, as well as Southern blacks who were easily duped. In Minnesota, the Pioneer Press condemned the “ill-advised, illegitimate, riot-breeding” effort to enlist “loyal whites who will agree to work with the colored republicans to go South to aid blacks. . . . The ignorance and inexperience of the plantation negroes are sufficiently pliant material for those carpet-bagging artisans in mud, without a resort to the skull and crossbones of the midnight convocation.”
Likewise, Northerners increasingly felt the same need for Grant to leave, as illustrated in a speech by Wilkinson. In contrast to when he had accused General Grant of not being aggressive enough against the rebels during the Civil War, now, in response to Grant’s action in Louisiana, Wilkinson accused him of going to the other extreme; and for this, he had to go. It was an out-and-out repudiation of the president. With Northern Democrats having recently won enough congressional seats to form a new majority in the lower chamber, Southerners could taste absolute vindication, for they were defeating in public opinion a man they could not defeat on the battlefield. President Grant knew that his days were numbered unless he changed the direction of his administration. Tragically this attempt would take the form of his inaction in protecting blacks in Mississippi. His handling of the events in Vicksburg during the elections the year before foretold the fatefulness of his decision.
That summer the white residents organized the White League, which also was known as the White Man’s League. At the municipal election, they patrolled the streets in armed bands seeking to intimidate enough black voters to oust the city’s Republican officeholders. Meanwhile, planters in the surrounding counties organized White League clubs whose intent was to “rid the region of all bad and leading negroes.” In December, inspired by Democratic victories in Northern elections (the party had done quite well reaching out to immigrants flooding into the region), armed league members demanded the resignation of black sheriff Peter Crosby and his board of supervisors. Crosby fled to Jackson, where he organized a posse of black men. They marched on Vicksburg, only to be dispersed by a white force rallied by city officials. In the days that followed, armed bands of white men roamed the countryside murdering an estimated three hundred black men. Finally spurred into action, in early January on the eve of the military’s far more controversial intervention in Louisiana, Grant ordered a company of federal troops to the city and restored Crosby to office.
Still the Northern Democratic electoral victories of 1874 inspired white Mississippians to conclude that the nation had repudiated Reconstruction policy. One man said, “In 1874, the tidal wave as it is called, of the North satisfied us that if we succeeded in winning the control of the government of Mississippi we will be permitted to enjoy it.” Though the state Democratic convention adopted a platform recognizing blacks’ civil and political rights, the 1875 campaign quickly degenerated into a violent crusade to destroy the Republican organization and prevent blacks from voting. Democratic rifle clubs paraded through the black belt in broad daylight, disrupting Republican meetings and assaulting local party leaders, blatantly thumbing their noses at federal authority, all as Northern Republicans denigrated Southern Republicans as corrupt and stood by watching as they were murdered.
Another “difficulty,” as the Pioneer Press called it, occurred at Clinton, Mississippi. “As usual the dead list is made up of black men.” Several black and white men were wounded and three black men were killed. “No positive information received with regard to the origin of the conflict. About fifty armed whites from [Vicksburg], and fifty from Edwards and Bolton, arrived at Clinton this evening to protect the town.”
This is what happened. Four days earlier, on September 1, a mob in Yazoo County chased away the white Republican sheriff and his black schoolteacher wife, then proceeded to murder several prominent blacks, including a state legislator. A few days later a gang attacked a Republican barbeque at Clinton. Men on both sides were killed, but the gang left and scoured the countryside, shooting down blacks “just the same as birds.” They claimed about thirty victims, including teachers, clergymen, and local Republican organizers. Even former Governor James Alcorn, after repudiating any association with being a “negro republican,” led an attack against the black sheriff in Coahoma County, in which six black men and three white men were killed.
As if to quell the concerns of its readers who might object to the assault on the civil and political liberties of Mississippi blacks, in reporting on a Negro convention in Virginia, the Pioneer Press seemed to mock the concept of freedmen even being able to govern. Using the vernacular, the editor wrote, “ ‘Sho’ we’ve done heard enough of this talk about ‘parlamentry’ rules. We come here to do ‘sumthin or ruther’ for the good of the Black race, and here you’ve been spendin’ hours quarrelin’ about ‘parlamentry’ rules and ‘parlamentry’ laws and ‘parlamentry userges.’ No this is all stuff. There ain’t a man in this here house that knows anythin’ about such things and I can’t see no use in talkin’ about it.”
However, the frequency of “difficulties” roiling in Clinton soon eroded the resolve of the paper to present the “independent” spin as troubling accounts increasingly appeared on the front page of the Pioneer Press under more lurid banner headings: “The massacre at Grant Park repeated in Clinton / Black men hunted down by white leaguers and shot on sight / 40 to 100 of the hated race and many more wounded / The slaughter still going on, and the officers unable to quell it. Organized bands of whites murdering unarmed blacks at will / Governor [Adelbert] Ames calls on the chairman of the Democratic committee to stop the slaughter.” The next day, the banner read: “The Clinton slaughter / Practice Vicksburgers volunteer and do the butchery / Fifty blacks are reported killed by them on Sunday / The bloody work begins at Clinton and extends through the county / It is wholly unsought by the blacks who fought in self-defense.” And yet, the editors, in contradictory logic that omitted the lessons of the heroism of black troops during the war, wondered what manner of man—the Southern freedman—could so easily be killed:
The responsibility of the row in Mississippi between the whites and the Negroes [that] occurred the other day at Clinton, appears to be about equally distributed, but the mortality, as usual is nearly all on the side of the blacks. Either because they are unfamiliar with arms, or lacking in intelligence or pluck, they rarely come out of the scrimmage with whites except at a sad disadvantage in point of sacrifice.
Pleas for help flooded into the office of Massachusetts-born Republican governor Adelbert Ames, who was also the son-in-law of Massachusetts congressman Benjamin Butler. In early September, he asked Grant to send troops to the state. What the president said in response illustrated the North’s retreat from Reconstruction. In an unguarded moment, as he vacationed at his estate on the New Jersey shore, Grant said, “The whole public is tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South . . . and are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the Government.” Another message, however, became the official response: Mississippi must resolve its own problem. Speaking through his attorney general, Edwards Pierrepont, Grant urged Ames to exhaust all of his own resources. “I suggest that you take all lawful means and all needed measures to preserve by the force of your own state and . . . manhood to fight for their state’s rights and to destroy the bloody ruffians who murder the innocent and unoffending freedmen.”
The Pioneer Press, despite what it knew and had told its readers about the events in and around Vicksburg, nevertheless approved Grant’s decision as “gratifying proof that the Administration had at last planted itself on solid constitutional grounds, on the question of military arms of the federal government to suppress local disturbances in the South.” Morton Wilkinson profoundly agreed. For him, it was the unscrupulous northern opportunist who hurriedly packed his things into his carpet bag and rushed to the South to exploit and inflame a chaotic situation by fooling an ignorant black electorate to put him in office: let democracy reign! Down the great river, the men of Vicksburg, who remembered that “General” Grant had taken their city by siege which effectively broke the back of the Old Confederacy, twelve years before, were now experiencing far more than agreement with the decision: they were now getting their revenge.
On election eve, armed white riders drove freedmen from their homes and warned they would be killed if they appeared to cast ballots. “It was the most violent time that ever we have seen,” said one black official. In Aberdeen, whites with rifles and a six-pounder cannon “came armed to the polls and drove colored men away.” Elsewhere, Democrats destroyed the ballot boxes or replaced ballots with their own. “The reports that came to me almost hourly are truly sickening,” Ames reported to his wife, who had elected to stay in their Massachusetts home, adding, “The government of the U.S. does not interfere.” “Grant,” wrote Eric Foner, “who had sent troops to prop up the unstable and corrupt Republican regime in Louisiana, turned a deaf ear to pleas from the far stronger and more upright government of Mississippi.” Essentially, Northern liberals had been released from all responsibility for Southern blacks—politically and otherwise.
After leaving his post as governor in 1876, Ames settled in Northfield, Minnesota, where he joined his father and brother in their flour-milling business. During his residence there, in September 1876, Jesse James and his gang of former Confederate guerrillas raided the town’s bank, largely because of the investments deposited there by Ames and his “notorious” father-in-law, Benjamin Butler. An indication of his own notoriety to the former rebels appears in one account of when Ames and the outlaws met on the bridge entering Northfield. They alarmed him when they referred to him as “Governor” and said that he, according to outlaw brothers Cole and Bob Younger, had been their target.
* * * * *
In Minnesota, during the late 1870s, as the African American community turned inward to develop its own religious, educational, cultural, and social institutions, except for the efforts of a few prominent white men and women, and a few moments of public display, it seemed to all that the state’s black citizens had disappeared from view. Policy makers had more pressing matters. During the session, the legislature set aside $75,000 for the purchase of seed grain for those who suffered during the infestation, releasing only $25,000 for immediate relief. Farmers qualified for immediate relief if they could pledge that they were wholly without means to purchase food and clothing. The law required the governor to appoint three commissioners to ensure that the funds were spent as they were intended. In March, once the commissioners were named, the legislature released $50,000 of the seed grain fund to be immediately dispersed, along with an additional $10,000 for direct relief. One official sought clarification from the governor, because the standard seemed to demand from applicants that they “cannot have anything at all” in order to qualify. He found out that that was exactly what it meant. If a farmer owned a horse or cow he failed to meet the requirements.
Some farmers refused to take the pledge because of the stigma that came with being labeled a “pauper.” Accepting public assistance robbed them of their dignity, forcing them to become precisely what they least wanted to be—dependent on the public dime. An official reported that the Scandinavians in his county would kill their last cow and eat it before they took the oath. Other farmers declined to damage themselves more by getting rid of their last cow or team in order to qualify, for what was sure to be a paltry sum anyway. In Renville County, which was allotted four thousand dollars, farmers who did qualify and desperately needed food and clothing, eventually received one dollar. The standard for eligibility became an empty gesture of governmental magnanimity and a punishment for those who gave in to bad fortune.
Davis reported that it had been unnecessary to allocate all of the $75,000 that was set aside for seed. “It was found,” he said, “that the object of the statute could be effectually accomplished with $50,000,” and therefore, the seed commissioners only received that amount, “owing to the empty condition of the state treasury.” The promised negotiation for additional funds did not happen. The St. Paul Daily Pioneer (just weeks before its merger with the Press) reported the applications for seed “would exhaust an appropriation of half a million dollars” and that the sum available would not satisfy “more than a meager fraction of the demand.” According to Annette Atkins, “Whatever the Governor’s arguments to the contrary, most victims agreed that even the whole of the appropriation ‘fell far short of being sufficient to seed the ground.’ ” State relief thoroughly failed to meet the needs of farmers, and the seed that was allocated only provided the barest minimum.
Yet, after two years during which the condition of the farmers had not improved, even as they repeatedly called for public assistance, policy makers, as reflected in the executive office and the legislature of 1875, felt little need to enable “freeloaders.” Minnesota’s political and social culture adjudged the victims of the infestation, as well as subsequently, Southern blacks, as those who should be blamed for being poor, disenfranchised, and victimized. The newly organized St. Paul Pioneer Press would take this editorial stance.
In the summer of 1875, when the grasshoppers did relatively minimal damage, many farmers saved part of their crops. Thus, the need for widespread help abated somewhat and no organized relief effort took place. In the fall, Davis appointed a three-man commission to investigate the habits and characteristics of the grasshoppers. The commissioners personally visited the ravaged counties, sent circulars and pamphlets to local officials, and studied the related entomological reports. Their goal was to give farmers information they could use in protecting themselves against the ravages of the pests. Eventually, the commission published a fifty-page pamphlet summarizing the basic information, including the arrival and departure dates of the grasshoppers, egg laying and hatching patterns, list of vulnerable crops, and known methods of destruction.
In the fall, Davis announced that he would not run for reelection. John S. Pillsbury, a former member of Davis’s state relief committee, was elected the eighth governor of Minnesota. A successful businessman from Minneapolis whose life depicted the self-help virtues of Horatio Alger, and one of two state senators who, at the close of the last term, voted against the Louisiana Resolution, his principles set the tone for how his government defined the meaning of relief.
Many Minnesotans felt that Pillsbury was the right man at the right time. The state suffered from the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent depression: the property tax system staggered from high delinquency and the 1874 tax decrease further reduced the state’s working capital. Minnesotans were tired of this, and ready for a “modern,” more efficient Minnesota, a more bureaucratized and more economically accountable government. A majority of men who voted in 1875 found in Pillsbury the executive they sought: one who shared their frustrations, their hopes, and their interests, and who promised a “businessman’s administration of state government.”
To restore general prosperity, Pillsbury called for “the practice of a close, methodical, and persistent economy, alike in all public and all private affairs. In my judgment,” he said, “the conditions requisite for the promotion of public welfare are precisely those essential to success in private affairs.” In the interests of general frugality and efficiency he called for a shorter legislative session, a smaller and less expensive legislature to meet biennially rather than annually—both to cut costs and to avoid “much needless and confused legislation inevitable from the too frequent amendment of untried laws.” He called for the consolidation of state offices, a reduction of the cost for public printing that would reduce “the tabulated and minute details which swell the bulk . . . of most the reports.” (D. D. Merrill, one of the state’s largest printers, would not have been approved.) The governor also called for discharging the financial examiner and a balanced budget.
But two additional items served as the pillars for true advancement—immigration and a full presentation at the upcoming Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. “It is difficult, in my judgment, to exaggerate the importance to Minnesota of a full presentation at the Centennial Exposition, to commence in May next, of her varied and ample products. . . . Is it not fitting that Minnesota should pay a tribute to the agency to which she owes her existence, and add to the display of a nation of which she is so prosperous a member? She should esteem it a privilege to bear part and lot in such an exposition.” Coupled with participating in the exposition was a plan to initiate immigration. “While I deem a credible display of our products at the Centennial Exposition the best possible effort toward that object, I suggest that in connection therewith, a revision of the State Immigration pamphlet, so as to embrace the latest statistics pertaining to population, crops, schools, lands, railroads and company, with adequate means for its wide distribution, would provide an effective aid toward the desired purpose. . . . It should be your aim, by a counteraction of these adverse influences, to secure to Minnesota the immigration to which she is justly entitled, both by great advantages and superior prosperity.”
By “adverse influences,” Pillsbury was talking about the geographic location of the state, which was not situated in “more central and southerly latitudes” in the natural path of westward movement as was Kansas, which showed “an actual gain of population greater than that of our state.” “Adverse influences,” in Pillsbury’s view, were not the grasshoppers that had infested Minnesota cropland every year since 1873. In fact, in his twenty-five-page address, in which he covered a variety of issues confronting the state—Indian troubles, tree culture, and railroad bonds, to name a few—he omitted any reference to the stricken farmers and government relief efforts. This omission might simply have reflected a chief executive and businessman seeking to promote his prescription for a better future, which governors traditionally take the occasion to do, or he sensed (or wanted to believe) that because of the reduced impact of the infestation in 1875, the plague was coming to an end. Just as likely, however, it characterized his nineteenth-century notion of a modern and businesslike approach to relief and assistance.
He would develop the theme in a later speech, in which he called the relief program “very questionable policy” and warned farmers against relying on such ill-advised public action in the future. Such relief measures served as “indemnity for past losses,” making up for lost revenue rather than providing food, clothing, and other necessities. Moreover, these practices ran the risk of “weakening the habit of self-reliance” among recipients. If people came to depend on relief they would begin to expect it and become a hazard to the welfare of the state and of the individuals themselves. For the good of the state the poor should not expect relief as a right. To protect the poor from their own weak natures, insisted the governor, the state should discourage dependence. Seven years earlier, he had delivered essentially the same message to the assembly of the newly enfranchised colored citizens of Minnesota.
Both were messages the St. Paul Pioneer Press roundly applauded, reporting that they demonstrated “the characteristic good sense and the sound partial judgment of a man exhibited to his first ethical deliverance.” It was high praise for John Pillsbury and, by extension, for the voters of the state who made him their eighth governor. He was the paper’s man. On a key issue, the paper editorialized that “the better class of people” throughout Minnesota objected to government assistance because it had a very “demoralizing effect” on the state. Theirs was a vote to amend the state constitution that would permit this legislature to extend limited voting rights to women. Wilkinson and Donnelly, however, as “carryovers” from the previous session—no other “grange” senators were reelected—would serve in the upcoming session.
On the whole, it was a legislature the paper deemed praiseworthy—“a more intelligent and good looking assemblage of gentlemen; six or eight of the number . . . who show the fruits of half a hundred winters or hard times, perhaps in a sprinkling of gray in hair or whiskers”—and a legislature that was expected to support the governor’s agenda, the will of the people. “Chambers, galleries and lobbies were packed as gavels descended at noon on January 4, 1876, to open the session.” Betty Kane reported, “ ‘The general murmur, which here often attains deafening volume,’ as a bemused Swedish visitor put it, was undoubtedly at high decibel.” And on the opening day the spectators were presented with the first sign of fireworks over whether there should be a chaplain. “Wilkinson, the majestic and humorless senator from Blue Earth,” argued against the “peppery” German farmer from Carver County, A. C. Lienau, that one needed to be appointed: “We would do well,” insisted Wilkinson, “to appoint a preacher to do a little praying over the senate.” A chaplain was selected.
It was a legislature that could follow Pillsbury’s lead in taking Minnesota into the future. But of the forty-one senators and one hundred and six representatives who participated in the eighteenth annual legislative session, of the men who participated in debate and speeches, the paper seemed most impressed, and at times amused, with the senator from Blue Earth, Morton S. Wilkinson; and it was a sentiment that seemed to be shared by most of the men who served alongside him, as illustrated in a display of photographs of the senators and representatives. House members were displayed in a vaguely circular fashion around the likeness of the governor and lieutenant governor. Members of the Senate were arranged differently, however, in the shape of a shield, and at its peak was a likeness of Senator Wilkinson, who was, as the once-critical Press described him, “a noble contrast to small hucksters,” who had “plant[ed] himself on the high judicial ground of justice and public policy.” He was still a Liberal Republican–Democrat, about to become a Democrat, but in 1876, the difference between the two parties was minimal. Clearly his years of public service enhanced his profile, having been Minnesota’s first Republican senator and a member of the United States House of Representatives. Four others had served in the House, but until 1895, when Knute Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate, Wilkinson, in the session of 1876, singularly held that honor.
He was still concerned about the interests of the small farmer and skeptical of privilege, though on most issues he was also one with whom a man could reason. It was a legislature that had fewer voices speaking in behalf of relief because many believed that the plague was coming to an end. Wilkinson served on several committees, but never as chair, nor was he president, nor did he provide any parliamentary leadership. But he had a lot to say on several topics, and he could be quite colorful when he did, which is why he seemed to be—temperament and all—the paper’s favorite subject. On one occasion, after a three-hour debate over the state appropriation for a display to be erected at the Philadelphia Centennial, Wilkinson, mindful of the grasshopper sufferers in Blue Earth County, “severely” argued against the proposed bill for $5,000. Losing that battle, he called for an adjournment to avoid further votes from being taken that would enact the appropriation into law. Supporters of the bill protested, yelling, “Oh, no, withdraw your motion, and let’s dispose of it now.” To them, Wilkinson responded quite stringently (again as the paper reported), “If you do, you’d go home to a late supper, for I propose to make a long speech on this question.”
Wilkinson showed flashes of anger on other topics as the session progressed. He hated the reapportionment bill that seemed to give more power to cities, argued to repeal the inebriate asylum in a step to frustrate the temperance lobby, a crusade he once led during the early days of the territory, and he rejected the House’s women’s suffrage bill that exempted foreign-born, unnaturalized women (the bill would be fixed in time for adjournment); but he viewed the swamp and school land bill “to be the most important matter that had been brought to the legislature this session.” Nothing more of significance would be done for farm victims of the plague.
At the end of the session, few were satisfied. Senior senators were reported to have said “that the winding up of the session of the legislature was the most unpleasant, monotonous, and unsatisfactory that they had ever seen,” a view the Pioneer Press reporter shared. One historian referred to the session as “a case study in lively futility.” Little of significance was achieved, though legislators, under the watchful eyes of most of the state’s political, business, and civic leaders, including Sarah Stearns and Mahala Pillsbury, a leader in the charity movement and wife of the governor, did approve a statutory amendment “to enable women to vote at elections for school officers and in matters pertaining solely to the management of the schools.”
Within two months, the grasshopper eggs would once again hatch, and the adults would wreak more damage than the previous two years; but by that time, Wilkinson, no longer a senator, no longer in a position to do anything to help his neighbors, could only watch. And the “negro” problems in Louisiana and Mississippi would just have to be settled by the people there, once they were able to reclaim control from the corrupt carpetbaggers. It was now a different time in history, and one in which his role, in his fifty-sixth year, would need to be reassessed.
Two weeks later, the Mankato Union and the Pioneer Press printed a news item about the dedication of a monument to Abraham Lincoln that had just been unveiled in Washington. In both papers, the notice was perfunctory and appeared without commentary: if anything, as Wilkinson might have concluded, the monument was but a thread woven within the bloody shirt, a desperate though transparently cynical grab for votes in a year when the Republicans might very well lose the White House. In fact, history does not record whether he read the notice or what he felt if he did. But one can imagine, given his view of the world, the vicissitudes of all he had experienced and in some cases caused, that for a battered society that left its most humble, but noble men to suffer alone because their leaders had done their part, there was very little to celebrate. In one week, on April 22, the Pioneer Press, which had already edged closer to the Republican camp, would merge with the Minneapolis Tribune, to virtually hold a monopoly on the journalistic voice of Minnesota. Wilkinson’s Minnesota had moved into the era in which the merciless doctrine of self-reliance would have no rival.