Editor’s note: Minnesota Lawyer is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful personalities, constitutional crises, curious facial hair and more.
Poised to join the Union, the territory of Minnesota held a one-of-a-kind election in 1857 to select the delegates who would draft the state constitution. The Constitutional Convention election would set off one of the most fiercely partisan political battles in Minnesota’s history.
After the votes were counted, both parties claimed triumph. The Republicans had a firm case for having won 59 of the Constitutional Convention’s 102 seats. But they were suspicious the Democrats would try to defraud them of their majority, so they acted unprecedentedly and unilaterally, using alleged voter fraud as justification for refusing to certify the seats of four Democratic delegates elected in Hennepin County. In return, the Democrats passed resolutions boasting of their party’s popular vote victory and vilifying the Republicans as an illegal “band of usurpers and revolutionists,” according to the prominent St. Paul journalist H.P. Hall’s 1904 account.
When it came time for the convention to meet at the Capitol in St. Paul, many delegates were armed in preparation for violence, and each party used dubious procedural machinations in an attempt to pre-empt the other. The Republicans hoped to gain advantage by arriving in the House chamber the night before the convention. The Democrats responded by tampering with the chamber’s clock and, the next morning, arriving en masse and moving to adjourn immediately before peacefully exiting the room.
The result was a full-blown legitimacy crisis. The Democrats and Republicans hunkered down in separate chambers of the Capitol, with each chamber electing its own president and declaring itself as Minnesota’s only constitutional convention. In the state’s defining moment, the two parties proved incapable of respecting the will of the voters. “It was a question of the sharpest faction, instead of the rightful faction, which was due to win,” Hall wrote.
For six weeks the rival conventions held court in the small, unfinished Capitol building, Republicans denouncing Democrats and Democrats, Republicans. “It was said that the louder speakers in each convention could be heard in the other,” William Anderson wrote in Minnesota History Magazine. But for all the vitriol, there was little interparty conflict on substantive structural issues. The task of drafting a document of supreme law was mostly an exercise in copy-and-pasting from the existing constitutions already completed in more than 30 states, and Anderson wrote that the twin conventions spent little time discussing the bill of rights, taxation or the general organization of government.
The public found the cacophony in the Capitol ludicrous, and some worried it would cause Congress to delay statehood. Folding under pressure, the two conventions eventually agreed to participate in a conference committee consisting of five men from each party. The gesture toward compromise would not relieve tensions all at once.
After meeting for a week, the joint committee was at loggerheads over the question of voting rights, which Democrats did not want to grant to blacks, and delegates’ tempers were high. On Aug. 24, the Republican committee member Thomas Wilson announced that he “had no confidence personally or politically” in former territorial Gov. Willis Gorman. Wilson’s mildly stated provocation was received harshly by the Democrat, and he turned savage. “Mr. Gorman raised and struck Mr. Wilson with the small end of his gold-headed cane, which he then held in his hand, and broke it, and then followed with blows of his fist,” the Pioneer and Democrat reported. Wilson’s injuries were not severe enough to prevent him from retrieving a large lead-headed cane of his own and using it to menace Gorman, at which point the former governor left the room.
A compromise constitution was approved four days later. The Republicans had agreed to restrict suffrage to whites in exchange for a mechanism to easily amend the constitution (and, hopefully, reverse the clause later). Other deals had been struck between the parties over legislative apportionment and judicial districts.
Despite the rough consensus, partisan hatred in St. Paul could not be healed. Some delegates refused to recognize the validity of their political rivals, and so two handwritten versions of the negotiated constitution were commissioned. The pair of manuscripts had more than 300 minor differences of punctuation, spelling, grammar and wording, but the copyists’ efforts were apparently good enough for government work. Republicans and Democrats signed the separate documents, and Minnesota entered the Union as the only state with two original constitutions.