- Historic Sites
“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”
Author of a nightmare fantasy about what the twentieth century might be like, Ignatius Donnelly never saw his other radical ideas—even the good ones—come to pass
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Ramsey was undisputed leader of the Republican party in Minnesota. He had been Minnesota’s first territorial governor, and was the brother-in-law of John Nininger—chief backer of Donnelly’s unsuccessful metropolis. Thanks in part to Donnelly’s vigorous campaign speeches, the Ramsey-Donnelly ticket won a victory in 1859 and repeated the success in 1861. Donnelly served capably though sometimes flamboyantly as lieutenant governor, and for a time he and Ramsey got on well together—each grateful for what the other had contributed to his success. When the Civil War came, Lieutenant Governor Donnelly helped organize the First Minnesota Volunteers, vigorously opposed graft in the supply contracts for Minnesota troops, and did what he could—which was not enough—to secure appointment as colonel of the and Minnesota Regiment. During the Sioux uprising of 1862, however, he did ride at the head of troops (though not in command) to relieve Fort Ridgely and restore order in the Minnesota River valley—an exposure to danger that received wide notice. Two months later he was elected to his first term as Republican congressman from the state’s second district, at thirty-one the youngest man in the House of Representatives except for a friendly Ohio Civil War veteran named James A. Garfield.
In Washington, Donnelly tried to answer his constituents’ mail the same day if possible, nearly always within the week. The diaries cease their narrative and become mainly a file of names to remember, meetings to attend, errands to run. Like most Republican congressmen from the Northwest, he supported virtually every measure that would hasten western development, and he was strong for the abolition of slavery.
In 1864, he protested to Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, against a set of Indian agency appropriation estimates which the Secretary of the Interior had sent down for committee approval. The evidence today still indicates those estimates represented a $150,000 boondoggle, if not a swindle, and Donnelly’s letter said as much- with copies to the press. The estimates were lowered, Donnelly received official thanks, and letters of praise poured in from Minnesota. He began to say quietly to himself, “Senator Donnelly,” and it had a good sound. But Ramsey (now Senator Ramsey) and the Republican party regulars disliked the notoriety of the whole thing, and party support for Donnelly at election time was thereafter more sparing.
After the war ended, Donnelly was one of the first to declare that universal public education, not the iron heel, was the only reasonable foundation for rebuilding the South. With Congressman Garfield, he was largely responsible for the creation of a federal bureau of education. Donnelly also sponsored grants for a number of railroads, among them the Northern Pacific and the Lake Superior and Mississippi, both financed by the eastern banking house of Jay Cooke and Company. Rumors began to circulate that Ignatius Donnelly was not only an advocate of the railroads but their paid hand as well. He successfully refuted two specific charges, which came from questionable quarters.
The diaries and the letters in the Jay Cooke papers, however, seem to confirm at least some of the accusations. On the January 5 page of his 1869 diary Donnelly added up his worldly assets. The total was $49,ooo, mostly in Nininger land and farm equipment. Also noted were 10,000 shares of Lake Superior and Mississippi stock, valued at a dollar a share. On that date his term in Congress had three months left to run. Later, Donnelly wrote to Jay Cooke that he held $10,000 worth of stock in the railroad “presented to me without solicitation on my part, by the Company as some slight recognition of the very important and valuable services rendered by me to the Company.” The evidence suggests that in accepting this stock Donnelly used very poor judgment, to say the least.
On the other hand, this was the era of the Crédit Mobilier scandal and of the Tweed Ring in New York. In Minnesota a father and a son-in-law who succeeded him as state treasurer were using the state cash balances as a personal checking account—and had drawn oft about $180,000 before the legislature investigated and put a stop to it. These sorry happenings in no way excuse Donnelly’s judgment; they only emphasi/e that perfect ethics in government were even more elusive then than now. Donnelly himself would soon cry out against railroad lobbying practices with the zeal of a reformed alcoholic preaching temperance.
The spring of 1868 saw the end of Donnelly in Congress. One of Donnelly’s Minnesota railroad landgrant bills was blocked by Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois, a financial conservative with a Minneapolis brother who wanted Donnelly’s seat in the House (four Washburn brothers and a cousin eventually served in Congress). Donnelly wrote home to report that the blocking of the bill was not his fault, but Washburne’s. The letter was published. Washburne then wrote the same constituent, claiming that Congressman Donnelly’s record was a poor one, “covered with venality, with corruption, and with crime.” This, too, was published.