The following column was written by Russell Fridley, former director of the Minnesota Historical Society and current member of Minnesota’s Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. The commission, chaired by Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, formed to observe the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: FIRST PRESIDENT TO WIN IN MINNESOTA
Although Abraham Lincoln never visited Minnesota, he was the first president for whom Minnesotans could vote and he easily carried Minnesota in the elections of 1860 and 1864.
Contrary to his presidential campaign song “Old Abe Lincoln came out of the Wilderness, down in Illinois,” Lincoln was well established in public life in Illinois as a state legislator; one-term Whig congressman (1847-49) strongly opposed to the Mexican War; twice running for the United States senate, coming within four votes of winning in 1855; and losing in 1858 to Stephen A. Douglas (senators then were elected by state legislatures). By the late 1850s, despite his mixed record at the polls, he had emerged as one of the state’s most ambitious, respected and prominent politicians. Not well-known outside of Illinois, the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 propelled him onto the national scene.
Up to 1859 the Democratic party was dominant in Minnesota and Stephen A. Douglas was something of a hero here. As chairman of the senate committee on territories he played a major role in creating Minnesota Territory in 1849; and nine years later he pushed through the Senate a second bill admitting Minnesota as the 32nd state. The “Little Giant” had established a record of helping Minnesotans and many were grateful.
In the election of 1859 the Republicans broke the Democratic grip on Minnesota and swept into all of the major offices, including governor, United States senator and the two congressional seats. Shaping up was a vigorously contested election for president. Nothing increased public interest like a close race, pitting the well-liked Douglas against a yet to be chosen candidate, flying the banner of the surging new Republican party.
In campaigning for the presidential nomination in the Middle West in 1859 Minnesota was the only state Lincoln missed. Between August and December, he delivered two-dozen speeches in Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kansas. Invited “to visit (Minnesota) during the fall, and participate in the coming canvas” by Daniel Rohrer, the state Republican chairman, Lincoln replied that he “disliked to decline the invitation. But on full consideration, I feel constrained to decline; from the necessity, (made very stringent by having lost nearly the whole of last year), of my attending our fall courts. I regret this; but it is no less than a necessity with me.” A few weeks later, Lincoln told an Iowa correspondent who wanted him to visit there that “I am pressingly urged to go to Minnesota….” He further commented, “it is bad to be poor. I shall go to the wall for bread and meat, if I neglect my business this year as well as last.” Further discouraging a trip to Minnesota was the absent of transportation links by rail or any dependable system of roads. Lincoln’s only travel choices were by steamboat or a considerable distance by coach.
In the run up to the Republican national convention at the “Wigwam” in Chicago, Minnesota awarded all of its eight votes to Senator William H. Seward of New York on the first three ballots. On May 19, before news of Lincoln’s nomination by acclamation after the third ballot, had reached St. Paul, the Daily Minnesotan and Times had expressed the opinion that Lincoln’s chance for the nomination was very slim but that he stood a good chance for the vice presidential nomination. Three days later, the same paper trumpeted, “The Republicans of Minnesota looked to Wm. H. Seward, as the man who should bear the first Republican flag of victory into the White House at Washington,” but “’Honest Old Abe,’ the more than match for the author of the Nebraska bill, a pure man and a noble statesman, was chosen to lead the great Republican army of this union to complete and certain victory.” The Daily Pioneer and Democrat, unimpressed by Lincoln’s “come from behind” victory, commented “The (Republican) ticket, we regard, as a very weak one, especially in the great central states, where the Republicans most need strength. The candidates will create little enthusiasm in the north, and if the (Democratic) Baltimore convention acts judiciously, will not stand a ghost of a chance of an election.”
The Lincoln-Douglas debates the previous year in Illinois attracted considerable attention elsewhere, including Minnesota. Democratic newspapers, of course, favored Douglas and spoke dismissively of “Mr. Abraham Lincoln.” The St. Paul Daily Times, a Republican paper, on the other hand, declared, “It is quite evident in our own mind, that the masses are with Lincoln and that Douglas will be sent to the shades of private life.”
Whatever may have been the disappointment of Minnesota Republicans at Lincoln’s nomination, they enthusiastically supported the “western man” from Illinois. A highlight of their campaign was an address delivered from the steps of the state capitol in St. Paul by William H. Seward, urging Lincoln’s election. A proposal of a “Homestead Act” with “Free Land for Actual Settlers” and slavery were the major issues. Regarding slavery, the attitude of most Minnesota Republicans was identical with that of Lincoln. They were opposed to the further extension of slavery, but did not dream of interfering with it in the states where it already existed.
In the November election Abraham Lincoln carried Minnesota with 64 percent of the vote. It would take secession by 11 southern states, a bloody civil war involving 22,000 soldiers from the state (2,500 who would die), and the leadership of Lincoln to bring Minnesotans to approve the abolition of slavery. Twice chosen with the support of Minnesota, he was hailed as the man who saved the Union, freed the slaves, and embodied the judgment and courage of the people in the nation’s greatest crisis. The Lincoln presidency would prove of enormous benefit to present and future generations of Minnesotans. Not so for the native Dakota people who would suffer greatly from the state’s own “civil war.”
Dean Urdahl represents District 18B in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The district includes most of Meeker County and a portion of Wright County. This is Urdahl’s fourth term in the Legislature after being elected in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.