I believe the United States will come out of this war redeemed and purified.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1865
On January 10, 1865, Morton S. Wilkinson, “the best Senator of the West,” as the Mankato Union called him, had lost his bid for reelection and the defeat was painful. He loved the Senate. He loved grappling with the momentous issues of the day, indeed, of the century. By January 1865, the war was drawing to an end. Lee’s armies were crumbling before the merciless onslaught of Grant’s forces. And, most important of all, Abraham Lincoln had been reelected as president. As a United States senator, Wilkinson could join in the greatest work facing any American, participating in the grand design of founding a new nation this time free from the taint of slavery, united under God, indivisible, with justice and liberty truly for all. But he had lost the election and the way he lost was especially painful. Democrat David Norton had won and the opinion makers of both parties crowed at the result. As the Democratic St. Paul Pioneer wrote, “[Norton’s victory was] an event which indicates that we are approaching the end of the dynasty of such venal demagogues as Wilkinson and Ramsey.”
Yet, this was hardly the case. The truth of Wilkinson’s defeat was far worse, one that he did not contemplate could happen. Going into the contest he had had solid backing starting, no less, with the Great Emancipator himself, to whom Wilkinson had been zealously loyal. Contemporary H. P. Hall described him thus: “His admiration and support of Lincoln was unstinted, and he was one of the few senators with whom Lincoln was wont to consult before adopting some radically aggressive policy.” Indeed, the president was quite vocal in endorsing Wilkinson for reelection through an open letter to the voters, so there was every reason to conclude that he was the leading candidate. Thus, as he entered into the contest Wilkinson had every reason to believe that the preelection posturing of so-called rivals would end once the tally showed Wilkinson’s “inevitable” victory. The supporters of Republican William Windom would of course, as most of them did, join his ranks, and, as allies, would soundly defeat the true rival.
But this did not happen. “A portion of the opposition to Mr. Wilkinson for reasons sufficient to themselves,” reported the Winona Republican, “saw proper to unite in an agreement to defeat his nomination at all hazards.” The nomination had, in effect, been stolen from him, and not by Democrats, but as Wilkinson later said, “by chicanery and trickery of a few politicians who, unable to secure the nomination of their candidate, made a combination with their bitter enemy.” It was nothing less than betrayal by his own kind, fellow Minnesota Republicans, Congressman William Windom, in particular, who had two years earlier pledged that he would never run against Wilkinson only to change his mind by declaring that he should be elected. Worse, he encouraged his men to assail Wilkinson’s character and resort to the basest of maneuvers to frustrate the senator’s bid, “to indulge,” as the Mankato Union reported, “in a style of abuse and calumny against Senator Wilkinson which was entirely uncalled for, and did not prove of any material benefit to himself. His adherents made gross personal attacks on Mr. Wilkinson’s private character, because they could find no tainted spot on his public record.”
The Mankato Union further asserted that the Windom men “brought everything to bear upon [Wilkinson’s] supporters to induce them to desert the Senator, and endeavored to get one of his friends drunk to prevent his attending the caucus. Was there ever treachery so base, friendship so rewarded, or gratitude so blinded by selfishness as has been shown by this ‘dead cock in this pit.’” Even a party stalwart and Windom supporter who joined Wilkinson’s column reportedly expressed “his deep regret at the action of Windom after the contest,” remarking, “Windom is the worse beaten man of the whole crowd. He will never rise again.”
Until 1913 and the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, legislators, rather than the general electorate, elected men to represent their respective states to serve in the United States Senate. Procedural rules allowed for the contest to go as long as was needed to present a clear-cut winner, regardless of the number of ballots taken. In 1869, only one ballot would be cast in a close contest between Wilkinson and Alexander Ramsey. But in 1865, it took thirty-two. In a crowd of five candidates, between the second and thirtieth ballot Wilkinson led in votes, but in the end, he failed to win the nomination by only two votes. Reviewing the tally, it appeared that Republican Henry Swift and Democrat Edmund Rice were every bit as culpable in denying Wilkinson the requisite number for victory; but William Windom, because of his tactics, was deemed to be the villain of the contest and not David Norton, who ultimately won, considered by many, including even the incumbent himself, to be “the best man of the opponents of Senator Wilkinson.” Norton’s qualities were not a main reason for Wilkinson’s defeat, however. Rather, it was Ramsey.
The history between Ramsey and Wilkinson had been tense since 1849, when the Pennsylvanian first arrived in the territory of Minnesota as its first governor. Already a seasoned Whig politician from Pennsylvania, Ramsey understood that the effectiveness of the party to hold power rested fully on its organization, which, in turn, depended on individual loyalty. And key to this was patronage, the ability of party leaders to secure the allegiance of men by offering jobs and other favors. Ramsey knew this brand of politics very well. He had caught the eye of party leaders as an effective builder of a Whig organization in a crucial district in Pennsylvania during the election of 1848; and in selecting Ramsey to be territorial governor, Zachary Taylor, the nation’s first Whig president, hoped that the young Pennsylvanian would do the same within Minnesota, which was then dominated by Democrats. In setting up his new government, surely Ramsey would include the only Whig who was an elected official, a delegate at the Stillwater convention of 1848 at which Minnesota reputedly was established, and a legislator in the first territorial legislature. Instead, Ramsey chose to snub Wilkinson. In those days, it was more expedient to court the most prominent and collaborative Democrat and territorial delegate to Congress—Henry Hastings Sibley—rather than a fellow Whig who brought virtually no political capital.
Throughout the 1850s, their relationship was pragmatic though uneasy. But in 1859, the tension between the two men once again appeared when, as Wilkinson was about to clinch the votes for the U.S. Senate, Ramsey tried to spoil the bid by persuading liberal John North to run for the office. Nonetheless, the senator-elect and the governor-elect worked together, though their cordiality merely glossed over the tension that by then was literally as old as Minnesota itself.
With the election of Lincoln, suddenly the new party had a real bonus for political success: the power to appoint; and for a while, the Republicans enjoyed a period of party harmony. But it was short lived, with the defeat of a real political foe. Fissures began to form, or in some instances, reemerge, especially when President Lincoln adopted a policy for determining the distribution of patronage by consulting with the congressional delegation rather than the governors. Suddenly, Wilkinson and Congressman Cyrus Aldrich no longer felt compelled “to consult and satisfy” Ramsey with regards to appointments; they could have their own men appointed against Ramsey’s wishes. For Wilkinson, the new arrangement afforded him the leverage to return a snub with a snub.
In the summer of 1861, claiming that Ramsey’s organ, the St. Paul Press, was hostile to the congressional delegation, Wilkinson and Aldrich transferred the federal public printing contract to the Pioneer and Democrat, a Democratic paper that for the privilege had agreed to endorse the Republican Party and its principles. “This it did with relation to national policy—a course which was neither unusual nor particularly inconsistent for a paper that, like the Pioneer and Democrat, had traditionally supported the free-soil wing of the Democratic Party.”
This same newspaper, Wilkinson’s choice, initiated the darkest political deed of the period when it insinuated in an article titled “Who Is Responsible?” that Ramsey was responsible for the Dakota War. While the Dakota War raged in the Minnesota River valley the paper argued that the cause was the governor’s failure to protect the settlers on the frontier. And in making its case the paper exposed an even more tender spot by reviving the long-standing blight on the governor’s record: the Dakota payment investigation of 1853 by the U.S. Senate, which examined allegations that Ramsey cheated the Indians; the investigation itself proved to be nothing more than a whitewash. “And now, when his acts have been culminated in a Sioux War; now when the chickens from eggs of his own hatching have come home to roost, he meanly attempts to cast the blame upon others.” The Press responded by reminding readers that the Senate had absolved Ramsey of the allegations and that Aldrich, “an ex-Land Officer in the State of Illinois” and rival for the Senate in 1863, had been convicted of defrauding the government. For weeks, the two papers exchanged epithets against each other’s patron. Elections had a way of gouging the wounds of the past, and none were more open than those coming from the recently ended war with the Dakota people. In January 1863, after a very difficult campaign to garner votes from legislators, Ramsey barely won the Senate seat, defeating Aldrich, one of his chief rivals. Two years later, he pulled the necessary strings to defeat his other rival—Wilkinson. Further, because of the new office, Ramsey could now enhance his own political power and neutralize Wilkinson’s influence at the same time.
Wilkinson’s style in conducting business also contributed to his vulnerability. A contemporary observed that no one questioned his party loyalty or zeal. But in the end, he had violated a cardinal political rule—developing and maintaining relationships, especially during a period when patronage was a political given. Being fiscally conservative and therefore critical of a bloated governmental administration, the thin-framed senator from Minnesota recoiled from creating unnecessary positions in the transparent guise of solving a bureaucratic problem. Thus, though he filled existing positions within Indian Affairs with his allies, he shied from making new jobs for men seeking his patronage. Thus, as Thomas Hughes wrote in 1909, “Senator Wilkinson in his distribution of government patronage had made many enemies in his own party. Not one in ten of the various applicants for office could receive appointments and the nine unsuccessful ones felt ugly towards him.” Publisher and contemporary H. P. Hall made a similar observation:
In those days the senate was not as liberal in furnishing clerks and private secretaries for the senators as at present, and Mr. Wilkinson lacked the element of a successful politician as a correspondent with his constituency. Letter writing to him was drudgery, and, while he would attend to important letters, hundreds of trivial ones, such as every senator and congressman receive, went unanswered. Thus, between failure to devote his entire time to writing letters, to the neglect of his real senatorial duties, and his disappointing fifty men for every appointment he made, Wilkinson went down in defeat, notwithstanding he had the direct request from Abraham Lincoln for his re-election.
But, as Hughes further noted, one more trait sealed his fate. “In spite of his great ability and integrity, [Wilkinson] had one very vulnerable point. He was addicted to intemperate habits, which drove from him the support of many of the best people of his party. The result was that he failed of re-election, and a man of very mediocre ability succeeded him.”
By 1865 Wilkinson’s side had lost. With Ramsey’s ascendency to power, winning statewide office did not seem likely. He missed the Senate. During the nation’s greatest crisis, he had participated in the most important issues of the day, and wanted to resume that work. In time, he began to nurture thoughts of a future campaign to return to Washington. Yet despite the widespread support he enjoyed, the growth of Ramsey’s power now made it less likely that Wilkinson could win over the majority of the people’s representatives in the legislature.
For now, he needed to heal from his defeat. Fresh from the loss, Wilkinson had to speak at a charity function created to provide support to Minnesota soldiers. Organizers of the Sanitary Fair, held in St. Paul, highlighted such notables as Governor Stephen Miller and General Cadwallader Washburn as well as the senator, just the kind of affair where politicians tested their powers of oratory. After the Reverend J. D. Pope, pastor of one of the city’s most prominent churches, the First Baptist Church, gave a blessing to the occasion, the normally fiery Wilkinson spoke, his tone this time, as one reporter noted, was markedly subdued, mourning it seemed, the death of forever lost opportunity. The pain of defeat mingled with uncertainty and worry, for he was not a wealthy man. In his years in the Senate he had handled hundreds of thousands of dollars and had seen, even helped, men grow rich. He must now have regretted not taking full opportunity to make his family more comfortable and provide for his infirm son. He had not measurably improved his financial status since his election, when he received the generosity of a friend who bought him a suit of clothes to wear in Washington.
But that could have changed if acquiring wealth had been his central focus. In keeping with the courtesy of assigning such tasks to the legislator representing the area, as well as placating the temperamental senator from Minnesota, the government appointed Morton Wilkinson to make the arrangements for distributing Winnebago land. Wilkinson nominated the appraisers, and Secretary of the Interior John Usher “continued his happy relationship with the senator by summarily approving those nominations.” Among the firms authorized to finance the land sales was Thompson Brothers of St. Paul, Clark Thompson’s old firm. Wilkinson supervised everything, including advertising, and Lincoln placed his official approval on the whole transaction. On August 23, 1864, Lincoln signed the order for sale of fifty-four thousand acres of Winnebago land.
Wilkinson was now in a position to attract favors from would-be entrepreneurs and newfound friends of opportunity. The large stone Italianate house in the prestigious Lincoln Park district of Mankato that he would call his residence was a gift. But everything Wilkinson had done since he arrived in Minnesota in 1847, and afterward, conveyed that he was not primarily motivated by personal enrichment. Rather, he preferred public service, or what he called “public service” as reflected in his appropriation bills in Indian affairs and his vituperative campaign against the Dakota. He seemed to prefer bestowing favors on associates than appropriating such favors for himself. But now, in unexpectedly losing his Senate seat, Morton Wilkinson had been cast into the wilderness.
During the first of the remaining weeks in the Senate he seemed disengaged, and he remained silent until the end of February, seeming to vote arbitrarily and on matters that were inconsistent with his senatorial legacy, like the issue of black relocation during the debate over the Freedman’s Bureau bill. But he became more engaged by the close of February, when, within a week of the end of his senatorial career, he introduced a bill to grant public land for the “use and benefit of the Southern Minnesota Railway Company” and spoke in favor of a Ramsey-sponsored bill to secure additional lands for railroad construction, a bill that appealed to businessmen and farmers alike. “Our Senator,” reported an approving Washington correspondent for the Mankato Union, “has made of himself a record of which many men might be proud. His bold and unflinching advocacy of radical measures and firm cordial support of the administration, have made him a popular favorite, not only with the people of Minnesota, but those of other States.” On the day before the Senate adjourned, Wilkinson introduced an amendment that would authorize the payment of damages to white settlers who had lost land in Blue Earth County when the former Winnebago reservation was first established, damages that now could be used for venture capital. One such recipient was John Willard, who purchased parcels on Winnebago land that he in turn would begin to sell for a profit.
Only after attending Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, the day after the adjournment of the Senate, did the senator finally shift his focus to the next chapter of his life. He felt a new opportunity awaited him when he heard of the effort to force William P. Dole to step down from his post as commissioner of Indian affairs. Wilkinson believed he had served ably on the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs, acted honorably during the crisis of the Dakota War, and led his neighbors to accept the far more “humane” policy of removal over extermination; and now he was responsible for the sale of Indian lands. Who, better than Wilkinson, had more experience to work in Indian affairs, and he told Lincoln so. Filling the post answered so many needs—status and employment, and a position in which he could expand his political base, not to mention his financial opportunity. The so-called Indian system that for so many had been a veritable cash cow now seemed to offer him his best avenue for opportunity. In fact, few offices would prove better than the one currently held by Commissioner Dole. To keep up the pressure, Wilkinson marshaled his friends in the congressional delegation to lobby the president for the appointment. But Lincoln, who thought well of Dole and was reluctant to replace him, seemed disinclined to act in the favor of his Minnesota friend.
One month later, he and the rest of a nation were faced with sudden tragedy. On April 14, his president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated. In a letter to his fourteen-year-old son, who remained ill in Mankato, Wilkinson wrote,
Yesterday I went to the funeral of President Lincoln. The service was held in the large reception room of the White House. . . . I wish you had been there with me, and then after the services in the house were over the coffin was put upon a hearse made for the purpose and drawn by six white horses to the capitol and the body was placed in the rotunda and there left as that people might see it. Everybody seems to be in deep sorrow and the poor people in particular, the colored, seem to mourn the most bitterly.
He had been a gadfly, a frequent visitor to the White House, who, despite his early complaints of the lame manner in which the war was being prosecuted, as well as the reversals of the orders to emancipate slaves by Lincoln’s generals, he remained nonetheless a loyal friend, boisterously rejecting overtures from Republican leaders who conspired to deny Lincoln the party endorsement for a second term in office. Stung by electoral defeat, grieving the loss of his president, and worried about his son’s health, Wilkinson entered the unfamiliar civilian life in Mankato and a new circle of “friends” who saw a way to benefit through an affiliation with a man of his stature.
By May land parcels on what had been the Dakota reservation were surveyed, plotted, and ready for bids. Together with the available Winnebago tracts, the prime land of southwestern Minnesota was fully available to that lucky number able to take advantage of the moment. In the same month, J. J. Thornton and Company of Mankato opened as an investment firm whose board of directors included businessman and attorney John Willard and Kate Hubbell, wife of James Hubbell, who with Willard would start a railroad line. Connecting Mankato eastward to Winona, the Southern Minnesota Railway Company was the same company for which Wilkinson, in one of his final acts as senator, had sponsored a bill to grant public land. Now out of office, Morton Wilkinson joined them as board director. “The senator,” observes Mary Wingerd, “was to benefit quite handsomely from the sale of Winnebago land. Given the oversight of reservation land sales he embarked on a ‘happy relationship’ with firms that handled the subsequent appraisals and financing.”
By 1868—in a matter of three years—J. J. Thornton and Company would become the First National Bank of Mankato with John Willard serving as its president. James Hubbell, another cofounder of the bank who in 1861 was a licensed trader to the Winnebago and large-scale farmer, built the Mankato Linseed Oil Works; and with Willard, became principal promoter and builder of the Wells Railway. In 1871 Hubbell was elected to the legislature and, after a desperate fight, pushed through both houses the Internal Improvements Land Act (in the common parlance of the day, the “Land Grab Act”), which, had it not been vetoed by Governor Horace Austin, would have ensured the building of the Wells road to St. Cloud, giving Mankato an inestimable advantage as a commercial center.
By then, however, in a move that probably forever cost him financial security, Wilkinson charted a different course by leaving the board and the prospect of wealth that would be available to him were he to stay. He left no record explaining this move. But considering the political stance that he would soon take—advocating farmer equity and checking the growing power of the business and political elites—it is likely that his departure was one of conscience. He knew the plans of the investment company to speculate in the Indian land that he would soon open up for acquisition, as well as provide seed capital for other ventures. That intention was why the firm was established and why Wilkinson had been invited to join the board; and he certainly could use the money. But Wilkinson had already concluded that as an able lawyer and one still widely regarded, he could make his way in a manner that aligned with his principles.
Years later, at the dedication of a granite monument to Wilkinson at Mankato’s Glenwood Cemetery, Daniel Buck, a Democrat and former justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, eulogized about the former senator, “Generous to a fault, he lacked thrift and died penniless in 1894. During his whole legislative career, there was no dark stain of corruption that rested upon his character. In this age of municipal and governmental corruption, no grander and nobler legacy can be left to the people than an official character and reputation unstained and unsullied by corruption. . . . Fault he may have had [appointing without personal benefit corrupt men into positions of responsibilities] but as an incorruptible office holder he was an honor to his home, his State, and his Country.”
By the fall of 1865, just as bids were being submitted, Wilkinson had relinquished his seat on the board of directors. Politics, something for which he had a passion, would be his venue. It was within that venue that full equality and opportunity could be attained and secured. Though no longer, for now at least, an actor on the federal level, Wilkinson would renew his commitment to completing the unfinished business of fully enfranchising the black man, even if just on the state level; and to his primary concern—the well-being of the farmer whose likeness was emblazoned on the state seal, the true Minnesotan.