“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”


At 3:30 P.M. on May 2, 1868, Donnelly rose on the floor of the House and on a question of personal privilege refuted the Washburne charges for three quarters of an hour. If he had left it there, his future might have been quite different. But he was having a good time, his colleagues were delighted, and the gallery was beginning to fill with senators who had just adjourned for the day from President Johnson’s impeachment trial. Donnelly took on the entire Washburn clan: “He says I am ‘an office-beggar’ … Why sir, the gentleman’s family are chronic ‘office-beggars’ … every young male of that gentleman’s family is born into the world with ‘M.C.’ franked across his broadest part.” During the laughter that followed, he glanced quickly at the gallery, then placed his right hand, Napoleon-style, inside his vest front. “The great calamity,” he went on with a smile, “seems to be that God, in his infinite wisdom, did not make any of them broad enough for the letters ‘U.S.S.’”

He was permitted to continue past the customary hour, alternating ridicule and invective. He concluded: ”… if there be one character which, while blotched and spotted all over, yet rants and raves like a prostitute; if there be here one bold, bad, empty, bellowing demagogue, it is the gentleman from Illinois.” Afterward, Donnelly went out to make sure the newspapers had gotten it all correctly.

The reaction came soon. The St. Paul Press, spokesman for the Republican organization in Minnesota, said: “The scurrility, indecency and profanity of this speech has been the means of disgracing this Congressional district throughout the nation.” Some downstate editors disagreed. Said the Waseca Nes: “Mr. Donnelly was never more popular in this state than at present. The deserved drubbing which he lately gave E. B. Washburne will not decrease his great popularity.” Donnelly’s mail that week included a letter from a citizens’ group in Carver, Minnesota, thanking him for obtaining postal deliveries there three times a week instead of twice, and a flood of congratulatory letters on the Washburne speech.

Donnelly’s sister Nellie wrote from Philadelphia that she and their mother were terribly “anxious and restless” since hearing of the debate and hoped he would soon write to say that everything was all right. Brother John wrote also from Philadelphia saying that “after expending a goodly sum of money” the family had prevailed upon the Mercury to print a more favorable editorial than its initial one. There was a cheerful scribble from Nininger: ten-year-old Iggy hoped that his father would “come and see me soon.”

“J’he Republicans failed to renominate Donnelly for Congress that fall, but he decided to run anyway as an Independent candidate—singing his off-key German lieder in New UIm, telling Irish dialect jokes in St. Paul, and repeating in self-justification all of the charges against Washburne. Donnelly split the Republican majority vote in November, finished ahead of the regular Republican candidate—and both of them lost to the Democrat. Donnelly never again held federal office.

No luck in real estate. Disaster in politics. Little luck or skill in farming. And now, no money—for by the time Jay Cooke’s banking house failed in 1873, Donnelly’s dubiously acquired railroad stocks were worthless. He would try writing and lecturing.

On the evidence of his diaries, the decision is not surprising. During the Washington years he had spent long hours in the Library of Congress, jotting into the back of his diary reading-notes on the level of cotton exports from England to China, the size of Bronze Age sheep in Denmark (“remarkably small”), tribal differences in northern Ireland, and the style and characterization in Cooper’s The Pioneers . His Nininger library, already one of the largest in the Northwest, contained everything from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War to DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater .

Some of this miscellany had already found its way into Donnelly’s flowery congressional speeches; much more remained stored up, awaiting publication in one form or another. In 1881 he wrote the first of two books which were to place him alongside Jules Verne as one of the founders of modern popular science. This was Atlantis: The Antediluvian World , in which he set out to prove that Plato’s fable of the ancient island kingdom was true. Drawing on a vast hoard of historical and scientific tidbits, he put together a scholarly-sounding thesis: that sometime about 10,000 B.C. the great parent civilization of Atlantis—of which the Azores are the only remnant—sank into the sea amid a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. Why else, he asked, is there such frequent mention of a great deluge in European, Near Eastern, and American Indian legend? Couldn’t this also explain the story of Noah?

The book has sold fifty thousand copies so far and is still in print. It angered the experts, but they remained relatively quiet. The historians knew that the historical facts were only partly in place, but they could not vouch for the impressive geological arguments. The geologists knew that Donnelly’s earth sciences contained a large measure of supposition, but the comparative mythology sounded so thorough that there just might be something to it. The specialists never got together to compare notes, and the public thought it was wonderful that at last someone had found a simple explanation for the apparent conflict between the new sciences and traditional religious beliefs.