So it must now still further pursue the object of its being, and labor to restrain and keep within due bounds these other great and growing moneyed monopolies and combinations of which threaten to sap the foundation of our free institutions while oppressing the poor about the land.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1870
The same embers left smoldering dangerously and untended in Memphis and in Montgomery’s Louisiana sparked to tragic results in other places throughout the South. Soon, it was painfully evident to black folks and their white friends that the time of their advancement was fleeting. Emancipation and political equality were insufficient in securing for black men a place in the new world order. Speaking on the need to continue Reconstruction policies in Georgia, where white terrorism chased black and white Republicans from duly elected posts, Massachusetts congressman Benjamin Butler declared, “I should be glad to have a law passed by which those colored men, who wrongfully, murderously, feloniously, and treacherously driven from their places, should be put back for two years, and the traitorous felons should not get any advantage by virtue of their own wrong. There are some of these loyal legislators who never will take their seats in the Legislature again. By violent deaths they have gone to a brighter and better world. I would give no aid and comfort to this little rebellion, this embryo rebellion in the State of Georgia. I will not be an accessory neither before nor after the fact of the rebellion by turning out these legislators.” The former Democrat and Union general who immortalized the term “contraband” to characterize slaves who fled to the Union ranks for sanctuary, and whose likeness flattered the base of chamber pots that proliferated around New Orleans when his troops occupied that city, was now arguably the most radical and disliked congressman then serving in office. As he spoke, the Honorable Morton S. Wilkinson of Minnesota sat there, wordless, unmoved, yet quietly fuming.
Despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, and a year after he had welcomed his state’s newest citizens into the fold, unchecked violence raged throughout the South coupled with ingenious methods to keep blacks from voting. Tennessee’s new constitution included a provision requiring payment of a poll tax to vote, and Maryland imposed a property requirement. Virginia gerrymandered districts to ensure Democratic control, reduced the number of polling places in black neighborhoods, empowered legislatures to appoint local governments, and barred all who failed to pay the poll tax. The future of the New South, they believed, depended on all Democrats being committed to ending the “negro vote,” committed to what they called Home Rule, committed to the honor of white supremacy.
Between 1868 and 1871, white Southern terrorism was unprecedented throughout the region. In 1869 Georgia Klansmen forced Abram Colby into the woods and beat him for three hours in front of his mother, wife, and daughter. In 1870 Jack Dupree of Mississippi, president of a Republican club, was murdered by having his throat slashed and being disemboweled all within sight of his wife, who had just delivered twins. That same year, in Chattanooga, Andrew Flowers was whipped after defeating a white candidate in a race for justice of the peace. White Republicans likewise suffered abuse with whippings, beatings, and murders. And in October, a group of armed men broke up a Republican meeting in Eutaw, Alabama, killing four blacks and wounding fifty-four. In the same month, after Republicans carried Laurens County, South Carolina, white gangs scoured the countryside, driving 150 black families from their homes and committing thirteen murders. One of the murdered men was the newly elected white probate judge. In March 1871, in Meridian, Mississippi, during a trial of three black men charged with delivering incendiary speeches, Klansmen began shooting, killing the Republican judge and two defendants. The next day, more rioting followed, resulting in thirty blacks being murdered in cold blood, including “all the leading colored men of the town with one or more exceptions.”
In fact, in Washington, a crucial war of principles that threatened nothing less than the underpinnings of reconstruction was being fought, not so much in the U.S. Senate, where Radical Republicans were still in control, as in the House, where ex-Confederates and critics of black equality had grown in influence. This, as fortune would have it, was where Wilkinson’s experience, energy, and intellect were most needed. Since 1866 acts of terror against blacks and sympathetic whites occurred rampantly throughout the South. As referenced earlier, in Memphis in 1866, white mobs joined white police officers as they indiscriminately attacked unsuspecting black men, women, and children, leaving over forty people dead and one white man injured. General Stoneham, assigned the task of maintaining order, said at the end of the first day of violence, the Negroes had nothing to do with it except “to be killed and abused.” Later, on July 30, in response to a crowd of blacks celebrating black suffrage, a riot erupted in New Orleans in which thirty-four blacks were killed and more than two hundred were injured. Four whites lost their lives and ten policemen were injured. “Violence,” writes historian Eric Foner, “an intrinsic part of the process of social change since 1865, now directly entered electoral politics.”
The Ku Klux Klan was founded as a social club in Tennessee in 1866, and chapters in nearly every Southern state launched a reign of terror against local black and white Republican leaders and supporters. In 1868 Georgia and Louisiana experienced incredible instances of violence. In the town of Camilla, Georgia, alone, four hundred armed white men led by the local sheriff opened fire on a black election parade and then scoured the countryside for those who had fled, eventually killing and wounding more than a score of blacks. In Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish, a mob destroyed a local Republican newspaper, beat and drove the black teacher and editor Emerson Bentley from the area, and then invaded plantations in the area, killing as many as two hundred blacks. Commanding General Lovell Rousseau, a friend and supporter of President Grant, refused to take action, urging blacks to stay away from the polls for self-protection. “The ascendance of the negro in this state,” he reportedly said, “is approaching its end.”
Terroristic activities in other states had similar effects, discouraging blacks from voting. Eleven Georgia counties with black majorities recorded no votes at all for the Republican ticket. In Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, white farmers who had supported the Republicans for economic reasons were returning to the Democratic Party. The Party of Lincoln had taken a beating. Foner writes, “If Grant’s election guaranteed that reconstruction would continue, it also confirmed a change in the Republican leadership that would preside over its future.” Months earlier, in August 1868, Thaddeus Stevens died, attracting a crowd of mourners in Washington that was second only to Lincoln’s. Insisting on being buried in an integrated cemetery, Stevens instructed that his epitaph read, “To illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life.” Now replacing him as party leaders were conservatives James Blaine, House Speaker, and Henry Dawes, who succeeded Stevens as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee and whose priorities were decidedly elsewhere. “To such men,” Foner writes, “Stevens’ death seemed ‘an emancipation of the Republican Party.’ The struggle over the negro, the party’s rising leaders believed, must give way to economic concerns.” Indeed, reflecting this shift, the first statute enacted after Grant’s inauguration was the Public Credit Act, which pledged to pay the national debt in gold. As one federal official stated, “I look to Grant’s administration as the beginning of a real and true conservative era.”
In 1868 Georgia, embroiled in even more political and economic conflict, was thus kept under military control when Congress realized that the legislature had replaced duly elected blacks with ex-Confederates, who in turn embarked on a comprehensive plan to defeat black enfranchisement by imposing a poll tax and more stringent residency and registration requirements. By 1870 the number of black voters had dropped sharply. In Atlanta, Republicans were eliminated from the city council when it shifted from ward to citywide elections. In Georgia, to demolish the enclave of black political power, the legislature ousted Tunis G. Campbell from his seat as justice of the peace in favor of a white Democrat and appointed a board of commissioners to replace the elected local government. Governor James M. Smith advised blacks to abandon politics and “get down to honest hard work.” On March 8 the debate over a bill that would release Georgia from military control and admit its Klan-supported representatives to Congress became one of the most heated debates in the House of Representatives during the Forty-First Congress. Benjamin Butler argued against the bill and in favor of continuing, as a reconstruction measure, military control in that state: “The next we heard from Georgia was that her people by armed bands controlled her elections, that murder was rife everywhere, that many of the members of her legislature, white and black, had been killed, that the Ku Klux was depleting the legislature by the knife and the pistol, that by force and fraud of loyal men of Georgia had been overcome at the polls.” He was alone in making the case. In the end, the House approved the measure, 115–71. Wilkinson, who did not participate in the debate, voted with the majority and for the Klansmen who were determined to end Reconstruction, for none of what had been reported now mattered to him. He had indeed become a changed man.
The year was 1870. D. D. Merrill had directed his effort to spread the work of missions throughout St. Paul, leaving Robert Hickman to continue deferring to an apathetic pastor of the flock he had assembled. Thomas Montgomery continued building his fortune in real estate in Minnesota’s southwestern counties as the few former troopers who had served under his command made their ways to Minnesota, where they worked as laborers on farms and in towns. And Sarah Stearns and suffragists began a new phase of agitation by shifting their lobbying efforts from the legislature to Congress. Of the four Lincoln Republicans profiled in this volume, Wilkinson was the only one left to deal with the Negro Problem. But after ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, a black suffrage amendment to the state constitution, and so-called reconstruction, which to him seemed interminable and counterproductive—it inflamed rather than pacified the Southerners—as far as the black man was concerned, Wilkinson, like the rest, was convinced that he had done his part. The so-called duty to do more was a diversion from the real work at hand. It was said that the honorable man entered public service with an agenda at hand, but was lucky if circumstance allowed him to address it. After one year in Congress, it seemed that Wilkinson would not be so lucky. And he thought the so-called racial problem was due to Republican corruption in Washington, and in St. Paul.
* * * * *
A little more than a year before, fresh off the victory of the black suffrage campaign and his election to the seat that he now occupied in the House of Representatives, Wilkinson implemented his plan to frustrate the political ambitions of, in his view, a most unworthy man. On January 14, 1869, in St. Paul, two weeks after the Convention of Colored Citizens, the state’s Republicans geared up for a caucus fight to determine whether incumbent Senator Alexander Ramsey, who had not attended the celebration, would be replaced. What had been a two-way race between Ramsey and Ignatius Donnelly—the fiery orator, former lieutenant governor under Ramsey, congressman, and now Ramsey foe—took a turn when Morton Smith Wilkinson suddenly entered the fray. In fact, as early as November the two men had discussed how they would proceed to unseat Ramsey. Donnelly, having lost standing among many Republicans for his attacks on party policies, saw that he did not have enough votes to win the caucus ballot. Feeling so strongly about seeing the defeat of Ramsey and the “Press ring” of which the senator was the boss, Donnelly instructed his supporters to back Wilkinson who seemed better positioned to attract the requisite number of votes to win the endorsement. But by December, the Ramsey forces knew of the plan. Press editor Frederick Driscoll informed his man Ramsey:
Wilk has played the dog and I trust he will keep in the field. Concentrate the opposition upon him so that we can clean him out. Convey to [William] Windom this fact and he will stir up his stumps to block him in several important quarters in the Southern [counties]. Windom would be of service here during holiday recess, not that his friendship with you is excessive, but his hatred for Wilk is so intense.
In the end, Wilkinson fell short because of “eleventh hour defections,” losing to Ramsey on the first ballot by six votes. The Ramsey faction had already made procedurally certain that there would not be a second ballot, in marked contrast with the thirty-seven ballots it took in 1859 for Wilkinson to win his Senate victory. With this, wrote H. P. Hall, “the light went out in the Wilkinson-Donnelly camp,” adding “there is no shadow of doubt that if there had been a second ballot there would have been no second term for Ramsey.”
This was more than an election for Ramsey. As Wilkinson saw it, it was a victory for a party that had become Ramsey’s plaything, a party that had lost its bearings to a man who had been slow to join when it was first being formed in Minnesota in 1855, when it had stood for limiting the spread of slavery, securing universal opportunity for all workingmen, and assuming the role of safeguard against corruption, privilege, and exploitation. Although Ramsey had been slow to support these themes, he could still dominate the party by exploiting the sentiment of having been Minnesota’s first territorial governor. Under his stewardship, Wilkinson felt, the party had drifted from this mission, and Ramsey’s reelection to the senate affirmed this notion.
Clearly, he wanted to deny Ramsey the senatorial seat. But considering his first year in the House, it is not clear that he now wanted to return to that chamber, for his view of Congress had already begun to sour, as he saw the party increasingly promote corporate interests over populist reform. He had seen enough in both chambers how, in the name of the nation’s interest, monopolies were rewarded with appropriations and federal contracts, usually at the expense of the ordinary man. When the Pacific Railroad bill came to the Senate that granted public land to railroads, permanently excluding it from homesteading, Senator Wilkinson voted “nay.” Even when his friend and fellow Radical, Benjamin Wade of Ohio, sponsored a bill for federal funding of the construction of railroad bridges over the Ohio River, Wilkinson again voted “nay,” arguing that corporate interests were not speaking for the common man, even inferring in the manner in which he tended to view issues in dualistic terms, that Wade’s integrity had been compromised. “The mass of the people, the lumbermen who are sawing out the lumber, who are cutting the logs, are not the men who are prowling about Congress for favors . . . but you will find monopolies—railroad men—plotting in advance to control the legislation of Congress, and the only class of men that you will hear of petitioning Congress on such subjects will be the very class of men who want the monopoly of the Ohio River.” Although what he said was true, it was also true that the lumbermen would have jobs and, contrary to Wilkinson’s argument, small businesses in the area very well could prosper. He came to question whether the interests of the common man could ever be addressed there and whether he, as a Republican, could receive party support.
Wilkinson’s experience in the House was no better as its leadership determined likewise to direct the chamber’s work to corporate interests. The only thing he and pro-development Speaker Henry Dawes shared in common was frustration with Benjamin Butler and his fixation on the racial problem in the South, in the guise of the so-called Georgia bill. But unlike Dawes, Wilkinson sympathized with the words from Democratic Congressman John Fox from New York: “Congress is a despotic majority, reckless of boundaries and rights, ruling with iron scepter and territorial domain. . . . This Georgia bill is the fruit of our planting. . . . It is fruit rotten ripe, judging by the criminations and recriminations heard to-day. The further we go into this reconstruction the deeper into the muck; the more we struggle to get out the deeper we get in.” To Fox, the great injustice was Congress imposing more force on the Southern states in the name of reconstruction and at the expense of state’s rights. But for Wilkinson, who agreed that the federal government, now outside the national emergency of civil war—no Confederate armies amassed to renew hostilities against the Union—had overreached, reconstruction only exacerbated Southern repression of its black citizens, serving as a ruse to ignite passions among Republican voters, distraction from the misdeeds of party leaders, and rallying cry to turn out the vote come election time. “The power thus usurped from the states [which the Georgia bill represented],” said New York Democrat Fernando Wood, “will control the whole government of the United States in the hands of a few men composing the majority and ruling power of the two Houses of Congress.”
In the closing days of the Forty-First Congress, Wilkinson seemed unaffected by the reports that continued to stream in of beatings, whippings, torture, and murder by the Klan in their violent efforts to discourage black enfranchisement. Two months after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Enforcement Act to ensure equal access to the polls and to deter those who sought to intimidate black voters. However, the unrestrained violence during the election of 1870 led Radicals to conclude that the act was insufficient in addressing the abuses. It seemed, he felt, that the race problem would be interminable, keeping the nation forever stuck in the past and preventing it from meeting the challenges it would face in the future. Farmers and workingmen and -women, without a federal government that placed their welfare foremost, could only expect a bleak and wretched future run by monopolies and their congressional lackeys. Wilkinson now had no faith that this quality of man would change anything in Washington as long as the people were kept in the dark about the activities of their elected officials. In midsummer of 1870, shortly after the second session of the Forty-First Congress adjourned, he saw an opportunity at home to redress the wrong.
Democrat Daniel Norton, who had replaced him in the Senate in 1865 as a result of an intraparty fight between the Wilkinson and Windom factions, died in Washington on July 13, 1870. Governor Austin appointed Windom to serve until January 1871, when the legislature convened and could elect a man to serve out the remaining six weeks of Norton’s term. Despite the control of Ramsey’s men of the caucus, it would be a contest, prompted by the irksome Congressman Wilkinson who wanted both to frustrate the Ramsey forces and draw attention to what he viewed as the true agenda of the Republican Party. By the fall of 1870, with Ramsey safely reseated in the Senate and Donnelly utterly discredited by his dalliance with the Democratic Party, Republican leadership appeared to anoint William Windom to continue in office. But it proved to be nettlesome. The then-serving congressman began a futile campaign against Windom for the caucus endorsement for United States senator.
At a campaign rally in Winona, sharing the platform with Ramsey, Windom, and Governor Horace Austin, Wilkinson staked out his position, arguing that the Republican Party was organized to combat and overthrow the unparalleled monopoly of human slavery. “So it must now still further pursue the object of its being, and labor to restrain and keep within due bounds these other great and growing moneyed monopolies and combinations which threaten to sap the foundation of our free institutions while oppressing the poor about the land.” This, he considered, was the mission of the Republican Party in the future, and to this object it was his purpose to devote his energies. The Winona Republican noted the frequent applause Wilkinson’s remarks elicited, showing that the sympathies of his audience were fully in accord with his own.
The contest quickly heated up as the two men and their surrogates in the press exchanged accusations against each other. “The Minneapolis Tribune,” reported the Republican, “having made the assertion that, ‘early in this campaign Mr. Wilkinson distinctly stated it to be his intention to coalesce with the Democratic Party to secure the defeat of Mr. Windom and his own success,’ the Mankato Union gives it a positive and authoritative denial. Mr. Wilkinson never made any such statement. Of course, he did not. The Tribune’s declarations concerning that gentleman are simply absurd, as every man who knows him very well understands.”
But it was not until the public hearing of the candidates in Minneapolis that the fighting hit a new low. During the question-and-answer period Wilkinson was asked whether he supported the success of the Republican Party. In response, he said, “If nothing unforeseen turned up he expected to vote for the ticket.” Then, when asked whether he would stump for Republican legislative candidates, he responded that he would if they “would elect him to the senate.” It was the characterization of Wilkinson’s equivocation—his “hesitancy”—that inflamed matters, precisely what the Windom/Ramsey faction wanted. In an article titled “The Mask Off At Last,” the pro-Windom Minneapolis Tribune unleashed its wrath. “Mr. Wilkinson’s . . . refusal to say, when interrogated, that he desired the success of the Republican tickets this fall, should warn the Republican committees all over the state, not to send him out to the people as a representative of the party. His unconcealable hostility to that party . . . demands that the Republican committee should, we suspect, put Republicans on their guard against so faithless a representative. . . . Doing what he can to Donnellyize himself, let him have the full benefit of it.”
The paper had accused him not only of being disloyal to the party but also of currying the favor of the Democrats just as the “ingrate” Ignatius Donnelly had done. “The Hon. M. S. Wilkinson [is] one of the partners of the political firm of Donnelly, Democracy, and Co.” Once again, it must have tickled the Democrats to see the Republicans attack their own, as they had the suffragists. In Wilkinson’s case, punishment was excommunication. His “crimes” had really been twofold. First, he stood firmly against the “villainous” high protective tariff that had recently been enacted and joined the Democrats who sought to appeal the measure. Second, but just as inflammatory, Wilkinson had launched an unrelenting attack alleging that Windom had corrupted himself by serving railroad interests. The Tribune evidently did not know about Wilkinson’s vote with congressional Democrats to admit white supremacists to represent Georgia: the editor, as well, had lost interest in the welfare of Southern blacks. “[Wilkinson] has waged a war on the Northern Pacific Railroad corruption fraud, and all the orators among whom that fraud is being distributed are barking along his track.” But extending its hand to the sitting congressman from Mankato, the Democrat-oriented Weekly Pioneer stated, “If the radical party can’t afford that class of man, the Democracy can afford to make them welcomed.”
The St. Paul Press and “even the lying little Dispatch,” which in the view of the Weekly Pioneer had become “prosperous and saucy on the share of the Northern Pacific corruption fraud,” joined in the call for Wilkinson’s excommunication. The Press derided Wilkinson for being “so thoroughly disgraceful, so shamelessly recreant” while the Weekly Dispatch intoned, “The Republican organization of the 1st District owes it to itself to put none but Republicans on guard in the canvass. We court the opposition of open foes but want no covert enemies.” The Tribune used a blasphemy in a renewed attack. “When Lucifer changed his base from heaven to hell, it was not understood that his standing in the former place did anything to qualify the infamy of his hell, but only developed the vulgar selfishness which induced him to prefer reining [sic] in hell to serving in heaven. This seems to be the political conditions of Mr. Wilkinson just now.”
The Winona Republican held a different view, expressing appreciation for Wilkinson’s value: “The lesson of the day is that both Mr. Wilkinson and those who seek to drive him out of the Republican Party will do well to be a little more considerate of the party’s interest, to just go slow.” The Democrats would have nothing of that. The Democratic-leaning Mankato Weekly Record, reflecting the sentiment of a number of party leaders, held out its arms to Wilkinson, who seemed to be coming over to their side. For weeks the mention of Wilkinson’s name in the newspapers affiliated with either party sparked heated emotions. Through it all the Democratic press increasingly advocated his case. “Mr. Wilkinson has taken another view, almost identical with that entertained by the Democracy, upon this subject, and denounces Windom’s doctrines with great force.”
Deny though he might the accusation that his discontent with the party prompted him to work with the Democrats, the fact was that Wilkinson had done precisely that. Back in Washington, early in December, a congressional delegation of House Republicans from the Northwest referred to as “revenue reformers,” met with President Grant to declare that they were as opposed to high tariffs “as they had been in the past to the Democracy,” vowing to replace Speaker Blaine and the House leadership with men more sympathetic with them. “In brief the object of their efforts is to destroy the power of the Pennsylvania and the New England manufacturing interests, to utterly annihilate the huge tariff men and to assert the right of the overwhelming majority of the people of the Northwest to seek cheap markets wherever they may be found.”
Wilkinson argued that the tariff was so unpopular in Minnesota that Republicans had lost seats to Democrats in the most recent election. He insisted that it was not that the people desired absolute free trade—such a policy would be ruinous—but that a reduction of the tariff was what all the people demanded. He and his fellow reformers said that they hesitated to use the phrase “breaking up the party” but were nevertheless prepared to accept any result that might be forced upon their present position. They were committed to changing the leadership of the House even if they had to unite with Democrats to carry the point, to which the Republican replied, “We don’t believe the gentlemen will rush headlong to destruction.”
The convoluted process for selecting the next U.S. senator began on January 17. The legislature would hold four separate ballots—two in the Senate and two in the House, with each chamber holding one election for the nomination for a full Senate term starting on the fourth of March, and another for the six-week interim term that would end on the fourth of March. In the senate, despite Wilkinson’s campaign, “the [Republican] caucus,” noted chronicler H. P. Hall, “was less animated than usual.” This would naturally be so considering the Republicans held an overwhelming majority, who, in turn, were largely Ramsey men. Of the thirty-nine Republicans present that day, Windom received thirty-four votes; and he won in the house with a commanding thirty votes. The Weekly Pioneer wryly reported, “The long agony of the senatorial contest that has been disturbing the Republican happy family of the State for exciting months past is over at last. The Republican caucus has unanimously chosen Mr. Windom as their candidate.”
It seemed now that the Ramsey caucus wished to sue for intraparty peace. They could afford to do so. They had won what they sought: their man Windom in the U.S. Senate. But within the context that Wilkinson had helped to create, a party committed to serving the interests of the privileged and doing so at the expense of democracy by wielding its overwhelming might, leaders made the tactical albeit transparent gesture to minimize the perception of a blatant power grab by electing an uncontroversial candidate—Ozora Stearns, “a worthy public man and a prominent Republican” from a southern county within Wilkinson’s regional political base. Stearns was a former colonel in the Thirty-Ninth Colored Infantry, former county attorney, mayor of Rochester, and register in bankruptcy for the Southern District of Minnesota, an appointed post. Hall wrote, “The selection of Stearns, for so short of a period, was simply for the purpose of passing the honors about and preventing any formal opposition to Mr. Windom.” Indeed, honors would be passed out when, after his term, Stearns moved his family in 1872 to Duluth, where a judgeship would be available. That year he would be elected to the bench where he would securely remain for the next twenty years. It also must have helped the party to do something for the husband of the leader of Minnesota’s suffrage movement, which was becoming largely made up of women married to some of the most prominent men in the state, many of whom had continued to support the Republican Party, even one year after Governor Austin’s unfortunate veto of the women’s suffrage bill.
But the other reason “preventing any formal opposition” was less evident. Wilkinson, perhaps the most vocal opponent in the campaign, was never a threatening contender. In fact, his name did not appear on the ballot nor apparently was he in attendance during the polling of legislators; and when the tally was made, he won a single write-in vote. There was no formal opposition within the legislature, and Wilkinson’s intent was neither to win the election nor seek favor from the party. Thus, attempting to placate Wilkinson would have been a wasted effort. After watching the campaign and reading the returns, the Winona Republican elliptically interpreted his effort as “an ineffectual attempt . . . made by some outside Republicans to organize a ‘bolt.’ ” But the paper had missed the point. Populist discontent that had taken root in rural Minnesota over high railroad rates during the late 1860s had broken through to the surface by 1870, and Wilkinson was its voice. This was the “formal opposition” the Republicans hoped to prevent. It was the arrogance of power that fooled party leaders into thinking that Stearns’s appointment could dampen the resentment of mounting railroad and elevator rates. To Wilkinson, it was all too clear, for he had cast off party unity and consequently had been all but cast out of the party that served as pawns of railroad interests and eastern merchants who benefited from high tariffs.
Party leaders had learned the sleight of hand of distracting the voters—thousands of whom had served valiantly during the war and now labored on their small farms to eke out livings—by casting Republican favorites in the likeness of St. George slaying the dragon of Southern white supremacy, a cynical ploy that doomed the soul of Republicanism that Wilkinson had helped establish fifteen years ago. His newfound friends at the Pioneer could see it clearly when it reported, “Ku Kluxism in the South no longer assists Republicans of the North to carry elections. It is effectively ‘played-out.’ ” Other Northern Democrat newspapers reportedly termed Klan violence as mere “sensations gotten up for political effect.”
His old ally Ignatius Donnelly, by now another political pariah who had lost his bid for reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1868, the same year Wilkinson was elected, perhaps best reflected Wilkinson’s sentiment in an address on the House floor on January 16, 1867, in which he advocated sectional reconciliation despite reports of Klan violence. “All evils will correct themselves. Temporary disorders will subside, the path will be wide open before every man and every step and every hour will take him farther away from error and darkness.” Either the change of political and economic circumstances required a change in the party, or the party had to die. No less than Senator Carl Schurz, Lincoln’s confidant, one of the founders of the Republican Party and passionate member of the Radical caucus, shared the same sentiment in a speech he titled “The Death of Republicanism, Foretold,” which was reported by the Weekly Pioneer.
Though Donnelly did not deny violence occurred, he was not going to be distracted from what he viewed as the larger issue: the struggle worth waging was no longer about race but class. Like Wilkinson, he determined that it was now time to end corruption in the federal government. It was time for the poor man to get relief from the high tariffs that reflected the interests of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York monopolies. It was time to end military reconstruction that nurtured a growing bureaucracy, exacerbated tensions in Southern communities, and enriched businesses that supplied the occupying force. It was time to bring the troops home. It was time for reconstruction to bury the bloody shirt forever.
* * * * *
When Congress convened for the third session, it took steps to deal with the problem of Klan violence. Butler insisted that more forceful legislation was necessary: to pass the “Force Act,” as it would be called, which ensured the right to vote in congressional elections by reinforcing the military presence, as well as to investigate the violence in the South. On February 13, 1871, House Bill No. 3011, or “Butler’s bill” as it was called, was introduced. Over the objections of the Democrats the bill was promptly referred to Butler’s Committee on Reconstruction. One week later, Butler was prepared to formally introduce the bill to the floor.
Butler labored under the urgency to push for action before the end of the session, anticipating that the Forty-Second Congress would be more conservative. In the days left, Butler would have to act quickly, but House rules dictated that appropriation issues took precedence for the remainder of the session. Appropriations Committee chair Henry Dawes had already rejected Butler’s request for a waiver of the rule. Only the House now, by a two-thirds vote, could suspend the rule. On February 28, with only three days left in the lame-duck session, Butler made a final effort to get the bill before the House. During the reading of the bill, Democrats employed a number of delaying tactics, interrupting the requisite reading of the bill with motions to suspend rules to consider unrelated matters like the import duty on coal. The Democrats’ motions passed.
To avoid further Democratic delays, Butler finally initiated the motion to suspend rules so that he could bring his bill to the floor. To meet the required two-thirds majority of 131 the Republicans had to vote as a bloc. Speaker Blaine and Appropriations chair Dawes voted in support of Butler’s motion. Three Republicans joined the Democrats, however—Morton Wilkinson, who said nothing during the debate, was one of them. Butler’s motion to suspend the rules failed by three votes. The bill “to protect loyal and peaceable citizens of the United States in the full enjoyment of their rights, persons, liberty, and property . . .” died. In defeat Butler reportedly slammed down his desk lid, threw the bill under his table and stalked out of the chamber, blaming for the loss the Speaker and his ally from Maine, Representative John Peters, who did not vote on the matter. But absent from his ire was Wilkinson. There would be no cross words directed at him, for weeks earlier Butler had learned that the sullen Minnesotan, the man whom the black people of his state would not have now recognized, had just lost his son to scarlet fever. Morton Junior, his only son, was dead at nineteen years of age.
During a term marked by racial violence in the South, Wilkinson’s voice was silent and his tenure as it drew to a close remained undistinguished. He had participated in no debates. His votes were largely inconsequential, except for the vote on the Butler bill, which for the moment threatened passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act. The two bills he authored, his only legislative imprints, were far from monumental. His tenure in the House was but a shadow of what he had been as senator; his silence in the face of violent white supremacy diminished the stature of a great man who once stood before the assembly of black citizens of Minnesota and thundered, “Teach your sons this broad domain is for you, as well as for the white man,” or seven years earlier when, as a United States senator from Minnesota, he spoke passionately about the duty of the government to protect its people:
In my judgment it is the bounden duty of this Government to provide for the protection of every citizen of the United States anywhere and everywhere within the constitutional limits of the United States; and if the people of the State of South Carolina rise up in rebellion against the constituted authorities of the Government, and if the people of that state refuse absolutely to protect the rights and the interests of the people of the several states of the Union whenever they happen to go into and tarry in that state, it is the bounden and solemn duty of the Federal Government to see that those people are compelled to do it; and if they refuse it is the duty of this Government to provide that the interests and the rights and the liberties of every American citizen who happens to tread his foot within the limits of South Carolina, shall be protected.
For Wilkinson now, it seemed that the rights of white citizens within rebellious states had more value than the rights of black citizens in still unreconstructed states. The more recent words that he spoke at the Convention of Colored Citizens—“We have done our part!”—were indeed more of a benediction to his commitment to black people. The rest was left to them alone to achieve. “If you will be respected by good men,” he said on January 1, 1869, “you must hew out your own fortunes. . . . You must carve your way through the solid rock, as the Caucasian has done, and rise to be dominant among the nations of the earth. It is work that will do it. . . . It was for such men that the homestead [act] was passed.” Klan violence against black and white Republicans was no longer more nefarious than monopolies that strangled the economic opportunities of farmers and laborers. Racism was transitory and it would correct itself in time. Class struggle was now Wilkinson’s great crusade. Barely over two years after the Convention of Colored Citizens in St. Paul, he undauntedly tainted his name as one of three Republicans who voted against his party, his caucus, its leadership, the Southern relatives of the African Americans who had assembled before him in Ingersoll Hall, and an issue he once championed. From here on, his people would be the common man and woman fighting against monopolies that Congress was in the business of propping up. He had given up on Congress and, to a large extent, the Republican Party, and he was ready to go home.