The American boundary with Canada was settled shortly before Minnesota was organized as a territory — and indirectly hastened Minnesota’s entry into the Union. James K. Polk, who became President in 1845, came into office promising to establish a border between the western U. S. and western Canada far to the north of the boundary in the east (symbolized by the campaign slogan “Fifty Four Forty or Fight,” referring to a demand that the dividing line between the United States and Canada be at 54° 40′). But he wanted to take over California even more, and the Mexicans, who had already lost Texas, were too proud to sell California. Polk had to fight a war to capture it. Rather than fight two wars at once, Polk made a deal with the British to extend the boundary with Canada along the established 49° line.
Polk used all sorts of tricks to win the Mexican War, including unleashing the deposed Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to stage a coup in Mexico. Santa Anna was supposed to sell them California. He didn’t; he knew he had to keep up the fight to stay in power. The main American force in the north was led by General Zachary Taylor. Santa Anna tried to attack him, and was defeated. After Winfield Scott (of Lundy’s Lane fame) captured Mexico City, Mexico (which soon got rid of Santa Anna again) had to negotiate, and Polk gained what he wanted. The American people had a new hero, “Old Rough and Ready,” General Taylor (Whelan, pp. 41-68). The Mexican War produced a lot of very forgettable songs, but at least one became famous among sailors, and may have been known to Dean.
When Zachary Taylor gained the day,
Heave away, Santy Anno [the sailor’s name for Santa Anna]
He made old Santy run away, All on the plains of Mexico. (Or: Away in Californ-i-o)
So heave her up, and away we’ll go,
Heave away, Santy Anno,
Heave her up and away we’ll go
All on the plains of Mexico.
The Whig party, desperate for a winner, proceeded to draft Taylor as its presidential candidate for the 1848 election. This would prove important for Minnesota, because Taylor won (the last Whig to be elected President). If Minnesota became a territory while Taylor was President, then the Whigs would name the territorial officials. President Polk, who hoped to create a Democratic state, therefore hastily signed the law making Minnesota a territory on March 3, 1849, the day before Taylor’s inauguration (Blegen, pp.162-163).
Polk’s attempt to create a Democratic enclave seemed logical — after all, Wisconsin and Iowa and Illinois were reliably Democratic. Except that everything shifted during the short time that Minnesota was a territory. Minnesota was not to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate until 1932. Between 1849 and 1858, the country’s entire political climate changed — it was probably the wildest political ride in American history.
It all started not long after Minnesota became a territory. It was a period when almost everyone seemed to have an urge to head west. New lands were settled with almost breathtaking speed. Minnesota’s population is said to have grown 2760% in this time (Randall/Donald, pp. 4-5).
It helped that it was easier to get to Minnesota than ever before. At first the normal route was up the Mississippi by boat, the same way that Zebulon Pike had used. That was still popular — riverboats would justifiably come to be a part of Minnesota folklore — but as Wisconsin was settled, more roads were opened and people could come to Minnesota by wagon. And there was a new route to the state via the Great Lakes, too. In 1855, the Sault-Ste. Marie Canal (informally known as “the Soo”) opened, meaning that cargo ships could now move from Lake Superior to Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Erie, giving Minnesota products access to cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and they could go on through the Welland Canal (opened 1833) to Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence. Indeed, goods could even be trans-shipped via the Erie Canal to reach New York and the East Coast. This was to prove very important during the Civil War, when Minnesota iron became a key part of the Union war effort. The first ore ship to take the Sault-Ste. Marie Canal from Lake Superior to the lower Lakes was the Columbia, out of Marquette, Michigan. The first ship to sail up the Soo into Lake Superior was the Illinois, commanded by Jack Wilson (Ratigan, p. 43; esp. Havinghurst, p. 204). Wilson would later command the Lady Elgin, which sank in 1860 in one of the greatest disasters of the Great Lakes.
Grain ships had by then been sailing to England for a decade, but the first really big haul was taken by the Dean Richmond, which went from Chicago to Liverpool in 1856 (Nevins1852, pp. 229-231). When Minnesota was ready, so were the customers. For the first time, residents of Minnesota could farm for profit rather than for subsistence.
The westward push wasn’t confined to Minnesota. California had its own population explosion due to the Gold Rush, and it created a crisis in 1849 when it petitioned to be admitted to the Union.
Oh, them was the days of the good old times, hooday, hoodah,
Back in the days of Forty-Nine, hoodah, hoodah,
Then blow, boys, blow, for California go!
There’s plenty of gold, so I’ve been told,
On the banks of the Sacramento!
(The Banks of Sacramento. Hugill, pp. 98-99)
The understanding, till then, had been that new states north of 36° 30′ would be free states, with those south of the “Missouri Compromise Line” being slave states.
California changed that (it was south of the Missouri Compromise boundary but wanted to be a free state), and would produce an imbalance between free and slave states in Congress. If enough free states came into being, they could amend the constitution to eliminate slavery. Threats of disunion caused a political crisis. Finally, a compromise was created, the Compromise of 1850. Among its provisions, it let California into the Union as a free state, and it resulted in the passage of a strong Fugitive Slave Law, making it possible for slave owners to pursue their slaves even in free states. Like any good compromise, no one really liked it, but a majority could live with it.
The Compromise, however, needed a strong President to maintain it, and the White House was very weak in this period. President Taylor died in office in 1850. Millard Fillmore (who would later visit Minnesota during the Grand Excursion of 1854) was weakened by being un-elected. Franklin Pierce, who took office in 1853, was handsome, genial, and useless. James Buchanan, who took over in 1857, was so feeble that, on the rare occasions when he ventured to disagree with a member of his pro-southern Cabinet, people joked that the President was opposed to the administration.
During the term of President Pierce, bills were signed creating Kansas and Nebraska territories. This completely set aside the old Missouri Compromise — and started a struggle in Kansas, which eventually led to bloodshed, over whether Kansas should be a slave or a free state.
And, soon after Buchanan was elected, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision.
The Dred Scott case was probably the first time Minnesota had influenced national politics in a large way. Dred Scott was a slave who travelled with his master through various free states and territories. Among the places he stopped was Fort Snelling; you can see his reconstructed dwelling place there today.
Dred Scott was a black slave, born in Virginia around 1795. He came to be the property of Doctor John Emerson, who was employed as an army surgeon. Dred remained with Emerson while the surgeon served at Fort Snelling in the 1830s (where slavery was barred under the Missouri Compromise, though in fact many officers there had slaves) and in Illinois (a free state, and one where slavery had been banned under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787). Scott would marry his wife while at Fort Snelling, but then went back to Missouri — a slave state — with Emerson. After Emerson died, Scott was persuaded to try to win his freedom in the courts on the argument that he had been in free territory and should have been freed as a result.
The case bounced around the courts for ten years before arriving at the Supreme Court in 1856. The court held off announcing a decision until 1857 — and then announced one of the broadest, and one of the stupidest, court decisions of all time. They could have ruled on narrow grounds (that Scott had no basis to sue because he wasn’t a citizen, or that he had forfeited that right when he left free territory). Instead, chief justice Roger B. Taney in effect wiped away every concession and compromise ever made with anti-slavery feeling: He concluded that not only did Dred Scott have no right to sue, but that not even free Blacks were citizens. Plus slaves were property, and property had to be protected, so slaves were slaves everywhere. Plus, just in case there were any doubts, the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance were unconstitutional; the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the territories. (McPherson, pp. 170-176).
It’s ironic to note that Taney had freed his own slaves. Because, in practical terms, he had made it impossible for any black man to have any rights in the United States. Scott, for instance, could have been deprived of his wife if he or she were sold off to another owner. This was the main theme, for instance, of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), as Tom is sold away from his wife Chloe. It gave us some of the most beautiful laments in English:
Oh, my master’s going to sell me, Shallo, shallo brown,
Going to sell me to a Yankee, Shallo, shallo brown.
Going to see me for a dollar, Shallo, shallo brown.
For that great big Yankee dollar, Shallo, shallo brown.
Juliana, I truly love you, Shallo, shallo brown,
But I’m bound away to leave you, Shallo, shallo brown.
The practice of selling slaves south was also the central theme of Benjamin Russell Hanby’s song “Darling Nelly Gray,” a popular song of 1856 that went on to become a well-known folk song.
In the years after the Dred Scott decision, the contest over slavery, already furious, suddenly had become an unbridgeable partisan divide. The Whig party had already died over it; still strong in 1852, they didn’t even nominate a candidate in 1856 (a few die-hards accepted the “Know- Nothing” candidate). The new party was the Republicans, who were formed only in 1854 but were already strong by 1856.
This new partisan alignment would affect Minnesota deeply as the territory tried to become a state. Congress passed an enabling act in early 1857 granting Minnesota statehood. But the constitutional convention was so bitterly divided that members of the two parties could not even meet together to draft a constitution; they ended up with two drafts, which were imperfectly reconciled, and the members of the two parties signed separate copies (Lass, pp. 100-102.). The botch didn’t help Minnesota’s standing in Congress (Senator John Sherman called the constitutional convention “two mobs”; Blegen, p. 229), but the state was permitted to join the Union on May 11, 1858. Henry Sibley became the first Governor, and went on to win the first state guberna- torial election in 1859; the Congress elected that year was Republican, and the two Congressmen elected were also Republicans (after a mix-up in which the state thought it would win three Congressmen). So much for Polk’s plans for a Democratic state.
The tensions came about because a whole generation of great leaders, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, had died in the early 1850s. With them gone, there was no question about who was the most important politician in the nation. It was Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois. Douglas had already done much to shape the history of Minnesota — he had helped arrange the founding of Superior, Wisconsin in hopes of there being a northern Transcontinental Railroad extending to the Great Lakes (Nevins1852, p. 86), and he had helped with the maneuvers that separated Minnesota Territory from the state of Wisconsin (Lass, pp. 78-84). But while Douglas was a very strong, forceful man, he was not always a wise man.
Even as Minnesota was working on its constitution, Senator Douglas was coming up for re-election in Illinois. The Republican party, which had lost the 1856 presidential election but still managed to establish itself as the primary alternative to the Democrats, offered as his opponent a little- known former congressman by the name of Abraham Lincoln. The Dred Scott decision lingered in the air. Lincoln was making a name for himself with speeches in which he declared “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and that a government could not remain “permanently half slave and half free.” Lincoln and Douglas agreed to a series of debates
which became famous. And Lincoln went for the jugular, asking Douglas how a people could exclude slavery from its territory. Douglas’s official policy was “popular sovereignty” — that people should be allowed to decide for themselves. But, Lincoln pointed out, the Dred Scott decision denied them that right; slavery was there — even in free states! — and they were stuck with it. What choice did the people have? Douglas came up with an answer: Although constitutionally slavery was protected everywhere, in practice it could not survive unless the citizens passed slave codes to enforce it. This came to be known as the Freeport Doctrine. It gained Douglas another term as senator. It cost him the presidency. (McPherson, pp. 182-189).
There were other reasons why Democrats were unpopular in 1860. The Panic of 1857 caused massive financial turmoil and dislocated many people, and it had happened during a Democratic administration.
But the real problem with Douglas was that the South would not accept the Freeport Doctrine. Douglas had been a staunch friend of the South for decades, but now he was unacceptable to the slaveholding class. The Democrats held their presidential nominating convention at Charleston in 1860, with Douglas the obvious leading candidate. But the Southerners were ready. About a sixth of the delegates bolted the conference — but the body decided that the nominee must get two-thirds of the votes of all the delegates, including the bolters. It was impossible. Douglas had a clear majority of those remaining (indeed, he had almost half the total delegate including the bolters) — but he could not be nominated.
In the end, the Democrats abandoned their convention, mounted another one, and failed again to nominate Douglas. But they had no compromise alternative. In the end, they split, nominating two candidates: Douglas and John Breckinridge, the current vice president (Catton- ComingFury, pp. 24-40, etc.). In addition, a group of moderates, mostly old Whigs, tried to form a Constitutional Union party, and nominated John Bell. When Minnesota first voted for a President, in 1860, there were four major candidates: Douglas, Breckinridge, Bell — and Abraham Lincoln, who was nominated by the Republicans on the basis of his brilliant speechmaking.
One of the side effects of this confusion was a proliferation of songs about the campaign. Some were actual campaign songs — the Republican “Wide Awakes” used music
to bring out the crowds and inspire them. Every party had its songs — “Breck and Lane, Breck and Lane, Tried and true are the twain,” sang the southern Democrats. The Constitutional Unionists had a song with the absurd refrain, “U li, a li, a la e, Vote for Bell of Tennessee.” (There had been worse. Martin Van Buren’s vice president Richard Mentor Johnson was called “Rumpsey Dumpsey” Johnson because his song had run “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh” — Morison, p. 454. [That was, incidentally, one of the strangest election faceoffs of all time. Johnson didn’t personally kill Tecumseh, but his troops did, at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 — and Johnson’s commander at the Thames was William Henry Harrison, who ran against Van Buren and lost in 1836, then won their rematch in 1840.)
The Republicans also had songs describing the wild political situation of the time. To the tune of “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” they gave forth with
Sing a song of Charleston! Bottle full of Rye!
All the Douglas delegates Knocked into pi! (sic.)
For when the vote was opened, the South began to sing,
“You little Squatter Sovereign Shan’t be our King!”
Hi diddle diddle, the Dred Scott riddle!
The delegates scatter like loons!
he little Dug swears to see the sport,
And the Southerners count their spoons.
(For texts of all these songs, see Lawrence, pp. 342-343.)
The election of 1860 was like no other in American history — almost like two elections: Lincoln versus Douglas in the north, Bell versus Breckinridge in the south. Bell won 13% of the vote, and three border states. Breckinridge won 18%, and took all the deep southern states. Douglas won 29% of the votes, but captured only the electoral votes of Missouri and some of those of New Jersey. And Lincoln made the most amazing showing of any president ever. He wasn’t even on the ballot in ten states in the South. But he won a plurality: 40% of the vote, and the electoral votes of every state north of the Ohio River. That was enough to make him president. And that was enough to make the South secede from the Union.