Abolitionism in Minnesota

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of Thinking Minnesota

The 1850s produced a string of flashpoints that pushed slavery to the forefront of politics even in Minnesota; and its journey to statehood would be intertwined with the issue.

At 5 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, June 22, 1861, 1,000 men of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment boarded the steamers Northern Belle and War Eagle, lying at the wharf of Fort Snelling. The troops were headed for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but their journey would take them on to places still obscure that June morning but soon to become famous: Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. Many of them remain there to this day.

Why did these Minnesotans travel to the other side of the country to take up arms against men who, just a few months earlier, had been their compatriots? The answer is slavery, and the implacable opposition to it of many Minnesotans.

The contradiction of slavery 

The Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet, as that was being written, 700,000 people were enslaved in North America. The Constitution, drafted in 1787 to help “secure the Blessings of Liberty,” required escaped slaves to be returned to their masters; it counted a slave as three-fifths of a person for apportioning representation in the House of Representatives; and it permitted the slave trade to continue for 20 years.

Such glaring contradictions between rhetoric and reality were the product of political compromise between northern states, where the abolitionist cause was gaining ground, and southern states, whose economies depended on slave labor. But, as the young country grew, these compromises were constantly undermined, requiring new ones to reestablish balance. Politics in the fledgling United States was increasingly dominated by the repeated need for new compromises and the increasing difficulty of reaching them.

Slavery and politics in Minnesota

Map of the states and territories of the United States as it was on August 7, 1789, when the Northwest Territory was organized

The lands that would become Minnesota had long-standing legal protections against slavery. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory, which included Minnesota east of the Mississippi River. Westward expansion necessitated fresh political compromise in 1820. Missouri, part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, joined the union as a slave state, balanced by Maine, a free state. This “Missouri Compromise” also barred slavery from the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, which included southern and eastern Minnesota. When Congress created the Minnesota Territory in 1849, it declared that its citizens would enjoy the same rights and privileges as citizens of Wisconsin, which had entered the union a free state in 1848.

As 1850 dawned, it seemed likely that Minnesota politics in the new decade would be dominated by the territory’s push for statehood. When Wisconsin became a state, its western border was fixed at the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, leaving several thousand settlers to the west in limbo. In August 1848, they sent Henry Hastings Sibley—“the most eminent and influential person in the region”—to Washington, D.C. to plead for a territorial government; the House voted to seat him as a representative from the Territory of Wisconsin. President Zachary Taylor recognized Minnesota Territory in March 1849 and named Alexander Ramsey governor.

In June, Colonel James M. Goodhue wrote in the Pioneer—the Minnesota first newspaper—“that there should be no parties in its politics, as the people had no vote in national matters and had no power to command anything, while on the contrary they had everything to ask of Congress.” Indeed, Ramsey—a Whig—worked well with Sibley, a self-described “Democrat of the Jeffersonian school.” Most of the 6,077 Minnesotans recorded by the 1850 Census would have described their politics in Sibley’s terms.

Alexander Ramsey

Such “Jeffersonian Democrats” dominated Minnesota politics in 1850. Nationally, the party increasingly focused on defending slavery, but this issue was distant from Minnesota. In 1850, only 39 blacks lived here. Fugitive slaves were rare. But there were rumbles. When Congress voted to seat Sibley, some who did so were opposed to slavery or its expansion and anticipated a new a free state. Among them was Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln. It was also said that, while in the House, Ramsey had written the “proviso” barring slavery from land acquired in the Mexican War. Still, there was little partisanship and Minnesota’s Democrats retained their self-image as the party of Jefferson, safeguarding a republic of rural, landowning citizens. They would not be able to do so for long.

The road to war

The creation of the Minnesota Territory was part of westward expansion that periodically upended established compromises and demanded new ones. The year 1848 brought victory over Mexico in the Mexican-American War and vast new western lands under U.S. control. Would these be slave states or free states? The 1850s produced a string of flashpoints that pushed slavery to the forefront of politics even in Minnesota, and its journey to statehood would be intertwined with the issue. Both nationally and locally, the possibility of reaching new compromises dwindled then died.

The Fugitive Slave Act

The first flashpoint came in 1850. California applied to join the union as a free state in 1849 and the slave states feared that their power would be diluted and slavery undermined. Eventually, California was admitted, but the compromise necessary included the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. This Act increased the power of slave holders to apprehend escaped slaves in free states or territories; gave federal marshals broad powers to arrest runaway slaves; allowed for the jailing and imprisonment of anyone interfering with a marshal; and authorized commissioners to deputize citizens as slave catchers with fines and imprisonment for those who refused. The slave states showed little regard for the rights of free states.

The Fugitive Slave Act sparked outrage across the north, but the absence of fugitive slaves muted its impact in Minnesota. Nevertheless, a leading local abolitionist, Stillwater’s Henry M. Nichols, complained that it made all northerners “turn man-hunters, & go off like hounds, baying on the track of the fugitive.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

Further expansion required a new compromise in 1854—bringing the next flashpoint. The territories of Kansas and Nebraska were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, but would they be slave or free soil? The Kansas-Nebraska Act attempted to answer the question using “popular sovereignty,” in which each territory would decide by referendum. And, to allow room for popular sovereignty to work, it effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition of slavery. This directly implicated Minnesota.

The Act “shocked the anti-slavery sentiment of the North and made a deep impression in Minnesota,” wrote one contemporary observer. “A gigantic fraud has been perpetrated” the St. Paul Daily Times thundered in May. “A solemn compact has been violated. Weep, angel of liberty, weep. Call out the people. Let the alarm bell be rung.” In a speech on July 4th, Nichols said: “This day we have occasion to rejoice with trembling, fair freedom has received a wound. And on this very hour, in many places in our land, the people are holding a funeral service, and tolling the bells as they go to the burial.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a wakeup call to Minnesota’s Democrats, destroying their Jeffersonian fantasy and exposing the Democratic Party as the party of slavery. “Many of the Democrats threw off allegiance to their party” a contemporary remembered, “while others resolved to fight the slavery propaganda inside of party lines.” These latter, including Sibley, were unsuccessful.

The Act’s passage showed the ineffectiveness of the Whig Party as an anti-slavery vehicle, and abolitionists moved to build a new party. On July 4th, “friends of freedom” met in St. Anthony led by John W. North and Charles Gordon Ames to establish one. Instead, they appointed a committee to arrange another meeting. Two days later, a similar meeting in Jackson, Michigan founded the Republican Party. A platform was adopted at a meeting in St. Anthony called by Ramsey and William R. Marshall in March 1855, which labeled the Kansas-Nebraska Act a “violation of the plighted fate of the South,” called the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, proclaimed “the supremacy of Freedom and free institutions over our whole country,” offered “Free land in limited quantities for actual settlers,” and demanded “enactment and enforcement of a Prohibitory Liquor Law.” The Republican party in Minnesota was born.

The Republicans and Democrats would compete in a rapidly changing Minnesota; indeed, the Republican party was a product of that change. The 1860 Census recorded a population of 172,023—an increase of 2,731 percent in 10 years. Most of these immigrants were Yankees bringing their twin political obsessions of abolition and prohibition, such as Nichols and Ames, or Orville Brown, whose denunciations of slavery in the Central Republican newspaper earned him the nickname the “Faribault Fire-eater.” These and the urban financiers and industrialists who began to build Minneapolis were the core of the Republican Party.

Jane Grey Swisshelm

The most prominent eastern abolitionist to arrive in Minnesota was Jane Grey Swisshelm, who came to St. Cloud in 1850. She began publishing the St. Cloud Visiter which argued that: “The Bible, and the Constitution of the United States are antislavery; and human chattledom is unconstitutional in any association professing to receive either as fundamental law.” St. Cloud’s leading Democrat, General Sylvanus B. Lowry, a Kentuckian who lived in a plantation style building with slaves he brought as “laborers,” opposed her in his paper, The Union. When this failed, Lowry led an attack on the Visiter’s offices in March 1858. They smashed the press and dumped the type in the Mississippi. Lowry left a note stating that “the citizens of St. Cloud have determined to abate the nuisance,” warning: “You will not repeat the offence in this town without paying a more serious penalty than you do now.” She shrugged the threat off, and with funding from local Republicans quickly recommenced publishing as the St. Cloud Democrat.

New England wasn’t the only source of new Minnesotans-30 percent of the immigrants were foreign born. Germans were the largest group followed by Irish, Norwegians, and Swedes. Republicans found support among the Scandinavians who shared their distaste for slavery and liquor. The Democrats attracted German and Irish immigrants, who were repelled by prohibition and those Republicans formerly belonging to the American Party, popularly called the “Know Nothing” Party, which attacked immigrants, particularly Catholics.

The Dred Scott Case

The final flashpoint was the Supreme Court’s notorious decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857. Scott was a slave whose “owner,” a military surgeon, had brought him, his wife, and children to live at Fort Snelling. The Fort was part of the Wisconsin Territory at the time, where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, so Scott argued that he was a free man. In March, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s court decided 7-2 against Scott, ruling that blacks had no rights that warranted “respect”; that slaves were property, not “persons” entitled to legal protection; and that it was unconstitutional to bar or limit slavery, even outside of the South.

Statehood and slavery 

In , as another step towards statehood and over opposition from southerners fearing another free state, Congress passed an enabling act allowing Minnesota to draft a state constitution. On June 1st, voters were to elect a convention to meet on July 13th to draft it.

The election took place against the backdrop of the Dred Scott decision and escalating violence between pro and anti-slavery forces in Kansas. In most states the constitutional convention was a non-partisan affair, but in Minnesota it was inextricably linked with slavery, the issue to the fore with candidates running on party lines. Republicans sought to block slavery’s expansion and secure votes for Minnesota’s blacks, Democrats fought to block both. The St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat described the fundamental issue facing the convention as “White Supremacy Against Negro Equality.” Democrats warned that Republican control would mean “scenes of violence and bloodshed, as they have in Kansas.” The results were 59 Republicans and 55 Democrats elected.

Upon meeting, the convention split along party lines. After the first day, each held its own convention and drafted its own constitution. A joint committee of five Republicans and five Democrats produced a compromise, with the Democrats conceding Minnesota as a “free” state, and the Republicans conceding on votes for blacks. A referendum ratified the constitution in October, the second section of the first Article reading: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the State otherwise there is the punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This vote also elected the state’s inaugural governor and campaigning was bitter. Democrats condemned the “unscrupulous attempt of the opposition” to control the constitutional convention; demanded withdrawal of the subject of slavery from Congress; and endorsed “popular sovereignty.” Republicans condemned the refusal to “recognize the will of the majority”; rejected “Squatter Sovereignty” as “exemplified in the Kansas-Nebraska Bill”; branded slavery a “moral and social evil”; and repudiated the Dred Scott verdict. Sibley defeated his friend Ramsey by just 240 votes out of 35,340 cast and Democrats also won control of the legislature.

But Minnesota’s constitution arrived in Washington, D.C. at the same time as Kansas’ pro-slavery constitution. Congressional Democrats fearing another free state, blocked Minnesota’s application, with one warning: “If you admit Minnesota and exclude Kansas, the spirit of our revolutionary forefathers is utterly extinct if the government can last for one short twelvemonth.” Ultimately, Kansans rejected their constitution and continued as a territory. Minnesota was admitted to the union as a state on May 11th, 1858.

But demographics were shifting against Minnesota’s Democrats. When Ramsey ran for governor in 1859, Republicans assiduously courted German immigrants. Their candidate for state treasurer, Charles Scheffer, was German born, and German speakers were brought in to address crowds. One speaker, Charles Schurz, said: “[T]here was no end of handshaking and of assurances that now they would vote Republican.” Helped by the promise of free land, Ramsey won handily and his coattails were long—the state legislature went Republican, two Republican Representatives were elected, and a Republican was appointed to the Senate. Writing at the turn of the century, a Republican, Charles D. Gilfillan, remembered: “The Republican party was thus entrenched in power in the State of Minnesota, and they have never since been dislodged, during a period of nearly 40 years.” Ramsey earned a reputation as “one of the most radical” Northern governors, one historian noting: “Minnesota had the most liberal law for the enfranchisement of immigrants.”

1860 and Civil War

Republican and abolitionist confidence was high in Minnesota entering the election year, 1860.

Democrats were divided between those, led by Sibley, who favored popular sovereignty and backed Stephen A. Douglas for president, and those, led by Henry M. Rice, who supported John C. Breckinridge and “federal protection of slavery in the territories.” Republicans were united behind their candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

Eliza Winston

That summer, a slave named Eliza Winston, brought from the South by her vacationing owner, made local abolitionists aware of her desire for freedom. They secured a writ of habeas corpus, freeing her on the grounds that she was “restrained of her liberty.” At the subsequent trial, her owner’s attorney cited the Dred Scott ruling, while the abolitionist’s cited Minnesota’s constitutional guarantee of freedom to all inhabitants. The judge granted the writ, freeing Eliza Winston. Pro-slavery vigilantes gathered at the house of the threatening to tar and feather him. They were dispersed by gun shots, and Winston was evacuated to Canada. To prevent a repeat, Democrats sponsored resolutions in both houses of the state legislature, permitting slaveholders to bring their slaves with them and hold them to service within Minnesota’s borders for five-month periods, but Republicans defeated these.

The Winston case heightened tensions in election year. Democrats blamed Republicans for her “abduction,” while Republicans branded Democrats “advocates of violence and the enemies of freedom and liberty,” according to one historian. Ignatius Donnelly, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, foresaw a day when “no human being shall wear the shackles of servitude.” The Democrats burned an effigy of Jane Grey Swisshelm, hanging round its neck a sign saying: “the mother of the Republican party.” In St. Paul, on September 18th, New York Governor William H. Seward said: “We look to you of the Northwest to finally decide whether this is to be a land of slavery or of freedom. The people of the Northwest are to be the arbiters of its destiny.” On November 6th, with 63 percent, Lincoln won Minnesota with his second largest share of the popular vote after Vermont. Mille Lacs and Kanabec counties gave him over 90 percent of their vote.

Secession followed quickly. The Republican platform was not abolition, but for halting the spread of slavery. To the South, it amounted to the same thing. A national convention of states was a final attempt at compromise, but matters were too far along. Worried that any compromise might give slavery a further lease of life, Minnesota’s Republicans refused to send delegates. On April 12th, 1861, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and two months later the men of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment were on their way to war.

Slavery is a big part of American history. But so are the efforts to end it. In Minnesota, these efforts were both political, exemplified by Alexander Ramsey and Jane Grey Swisshelm, and military, exemplified by the men of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Any attempt to make one of these the focus of American history to the exclusion of the other is misleading, and does a disservice to the men and women who fought to end “The Peculiar Institution” and deliver on the promises of the founding documents of the United States.