The Racism in Minnesota’s First Constitution

Since it’s Caucus Day, it seems appropriate to offer a quick Minnesota history lesson.

The Battle of Nashville painting.
The Battle of Nashville painting.

If you attended Minnesota public schools, there are probably a few lessons you remember about early Minnesota history. Perhaps you remember (with pride) that Minnesota was a “free state” prior to the Civil War. Perhaps you remember Minnesota was the first state to commit troops to fight in the Civil War, save the Union, and free black slaves. (Again, our pride in this fact shows up in that four of the six major paintings in the Minnesota Governor’s Conference Room honor Civil War battle scenes, such as the Battle of Nashville.)

However, if you are like me, you probably don’t remember learning about the  language of “whiteness” in the first Minnesota Constitution (1857). Our founding document did not allow free blacks here to vote, nor did it allow Native Americans to vote, unless they could prove — in court — that they were “civilized.”

(Thanks to Okogyeamon and ASDIC for pointing out this original Constitutional language.)

The key passage in the 1857 Constitution is in Article VII: Elective Franchise:

Section 1: Every male person of the age of twenty-one years or upwards belonging to either of the following classes, who shall have resided in the United States one year, and in this State for four months next preceding any election, shall be entitled to vote at such election, in the election district of which he shall at the time have been for ten days a resident, for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be, elective by the people.

  1. White citizens of the United States.
  2. White persons of foreign birth, who shall have declared their intentions to become citizens, conformably to the laws of the United States upon the subject of naturalization.
  3. Persons of mixed white and Indian blood, who have adopted the customs and habits of civilization.
  4. Persons of Indian blood residing in this State who have adopted the language, customs and habits of civilization, after an examination before any District Court of the State, in such manner as may be provided by law, and shall have been pronounced by said Court capable of enjoying the rights of citizenship within the State.

At our state’s beginning, the language and privilege of “white” and whiteness was established in law.

May everyone be motivated today to go out and exercise your franchise to vote.

The Past is Present: As a Post Script, the story of Minnesota’s first Constitution includes a tale of incredibly dysfunctional bickering between the state’s Democrats and Republicans. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the state’s Constitutional Convention was held between July 13 and August 29, 1857.

Intense rivalry between the convention’s Democratic and Republican factions prevented the entire body of delegates from convening in one place and drafting a single constitution. Eventually, a conference committee of five members from each faction met to propose language that was designed to be acceptable to both bodies.

As it turned out, the two sides were so pig-headed that they even refused to sign the same document. Their solution? Each party drafted their own (supposedly identical) versions of the constitution and signed them separately. You can see the punch line coming. There turned out to be “over 300 punctuation, grammatical, and wording differences,” but nothing substantive.

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