A divided territory

Minnesota’s earliest lawmakers were so at odds, they ended up submitting two state constitutions

Minnesota has two nearly identical state constitutions, due to conflicts between Democrats and Republicans, who refused to sign the same document. Photos courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota has two nearly identical state constitutions, due to conflicts between Democrats and Republicans, who refused to sign the same document. Photos courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

On Aug. 29, 1857, members of Minnesota’s Republican and Democratic parties, refusing to sign their names next to one another on the new state constitution, instead signed their own copies.

As a result, today Minnesota has two state constitutions, identical in words and meaning, if not in handwriting and signatures.

In the 1850s, the people of the Minnesota Territory framed and adopted a constitution, a necessary step in being granted statehood by the federal government, a process that took about 18 months.

While the journey to statehood moved relatively quickly, it was anything but civil.

Early government

The Minnesota Territory was established in 1849, and during that time the governor, secretary and judges were appointed by the President and were members of the Whig and Democrat parties. They governed largely from the older established towns of Stillwater, St. Anthony and St. Paul.

The legislature, by contrast, was elected by the people, and large-scale immigration in the 1850s brought many new arrivals from anti-slavery northern states, who settled south and east of the Minnesota River around St. Peter and New Ulm.

These farmers firmly supported the values of the nascent Republican party.

The Republicans were largely anti-slavery, while the Democrats were not. Some Democrats who opposed slavery left the party to join the Republicans. The Whigs were largely split over the issue, which is one reason why the party fell apart leading up to the Civil War.

Other important issues in the 1850s included forming the future state’s boundaries, securing valuable federal land grants to construct railroads and determining where to locate the state capital.

Discussions in the legislature became quite heated and even involved subterfuge: During one debate about the location of the capital, Rep. Joe Rolette, a Democrat, disappeared from the legislature with a bill in hand that would have moved the capital from St. Paul to St. Peter. He made a point of not returning with the document until it was too late to pass any more bills.

Rep. Joe Rolette, a fur trader and politician during Minnesota’s highly partisan territorial era of the 1850s, purposely disappeared from the legislature with a bill to move the capital from St. Paul to St. Peter, thus preventing a vote before the session ended.

Partisan bickering

With the rapid growth of Republican voters moving into the state, Democratic territorial leaders decided to move quickly to establish statehood.

In December 1856, Democrat Henry M. Rice, a delegate to the U.S. Congress, drafted a bill that enabled Minnesota to adopt a constitution, organize a government and become a state in the Union.

The bill, however, provided boundaries for Minnesota that favored the interests of St. Paul, St. Anthony and Stillwater.

From that point on, political events — including the work of drafting a new Minnesota Constitution — developed almost entirely along party lines.

As July 13, 1857, drew near — the day for the opening of the constitutional convention — tensions mounted.

Democrats were accused of tampering with the clock in the chamber of the House of Representatives to keep Republicans from participating in the opening day of the convention. Meanwhile, Republican delegates — who had gathered before the convention was set to start — rebuffed Democrats who, upon their arrival, tried to take control.

Modeled after other states

From that point on, the two factions worked independently to craft a state constitution.

Working for six weeks in separate rooms of the territorial capitol, the lawmakers largely took inspiration from other state constitutions, especially those from New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Concerns continued to grow over the separate working groups. Many worried about violent reactions if two constitutions were submitted to Minnesota voters.

In addition, Congress might refuse or delay admission of the new state to the Union if the two sides couldn’t agree. In early August, both sides appointed five members to a conference committee that would meet in secret to work out a compromise.

By Aug. 24, the committee members had deadlocked, mainly over the question of whether to open suffrage to non-whites. The tension reached a breaking point when, on Aug. 25, former territorial Gov. Willis A. Gorman attacked Republican Thomas Wilson with his cane. Wilson rose to use his own cane on Gorman, and the two were separated. Both were asked to leave, and a compromise constitution was soon completed.

Divided until the end

Despite the agreements reached, some members of each party refused to recognize the validity of the other and wouldn’t sign the same document. As a concession, two groups of copyists worked late on Friday, Aug. 28 to create two copies of the compromise constitution for each party to sign. The versions differ somewhat in punctuation, spelling and in other minor respects, but are otherwise the same.

Later that fall, on Oct. 13, voters ratified the constitutions. The following spring, on May 11, 1858, Congress admitted Minnesota as the 32nd state of the Union.

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.