June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
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
Few people today remember the name of Ignatius Donnelly. Mention it, and often as not it will tall forth the wary half smile of someone who hopes he is not having his leg pulled. Yet in Donnelly’s time—the last half of the nineteenth century- his voice was one of the most forceful in the whole farm protest movement, which swept through the Midwest and large sections of the South.
Donnelly was short, stout, an energetic apple dumpling of a man—clean-shaven in an era of beards. He had many careers: Philadelphia lawyer, land speculator in Minnesota, congressman, farmer, newspaper editor, amateur archaeologist, and author. Above all, he was a tireless organizer, orator, and office-seeker with every major third-party movement that came and went from the 1870’s until the turn of the century. But he undertook projects in the grand manner so frequently, and bounced back from their failure so rapidly, that he was often a hard man to take seriously. When he did achieve recognition it invariably irritated those who had been laboring patiently in the same field before him. His success, they said, was that of a vaudeville magician—brief, flashy, without substance.
Unquestionably there was a measure of hokum in much that Donnelly did. Yet beneath the showmanship, in his later years, he was an earnest reformer with a well-tuned social conscience. He was principal author of the Populist Omaha platform of 1892, one of the clearest statements of party policy devised in the United States since the Civil War. Many of the reforms he and the Populists demanded have come to pass, while many of the opinions held by the dominant majority in their time have been justly forgotten.
Four long bookcases in the Minnesota Historical Society, of letters, ledgers, and pamphlets, contain an unusually full record of Donnelly’s life—complete even to the inclusion of the fortune (aids from public weighing scales where he stopped occasionally after a hearty meal. Most interesting, however, are the diaries—red leather, vest-pocket notebooks running almost without interruption from 18^5, when he was twenty-four years old, to 189/, three years before he died. They are written in green ink, bright purple, or brown; rarely did Donnelly resort to the more conventional blue or black. He was clearly optimistic about the place history would grant him, and his account of events—particularly when they seemed to be going well—is written as though intended to require little editing for publication. Occasionally he reread the work of past years and added a word here or cut a phrase there. But in general he seemed to think well enough of his own past not to attempt major changes or deletions.
Donnelly was born in Philadelphia, one of two sons and four daughters of a well read, well-respected Irish immigrant physician. His mother was a devout Catholic, as were his sisters, though neither Dr. Donnelly nor Ignatius was a communicant in the church. The son was educated in excellent Philadelphia public schools, then studied the law, grew tired of it, and in the spring of :8ß(i headed west for the Mississippi River to see for himself the new land opening up to the northwest. “You cannot imagine, my dear wifey, how perfectly overworked I was the day I left Philadelphia,” he wrote home to Kate, his bride of seven months. “After I got into the cars my nose commenced bleeding at a violent rate and I bloodied two pocket handkerchiefs to a state of saturation.”
Donnelly shakily began his 185(1 diary volume in Toledo, Ohio, (“unhealthy place”) with capsule reactions to the trip. “Chicago—it seems to be the most progressive place in the world … Iowa City—rough woods—had accommodations—conduct of stage drive ( sic )—insolent manners.” But by the time he boarded the Mississippi River steamer York State , the diary picked up an enthusiasm that never quite disappeared until the very last years of his life. He took notes carefully on river-bank contours and possible sites for town development while the stern-wheeler pushed north in the cool May sunshine past Winona and Wabasha to Hastings, some twenty miles southeast of St. Paul: Hastings, about a year and n half old, appeared the most thriving place I had yet met. Well situated with the Cannon River Country behind it. Said to be very rich … The price of lots fronting on the river 60 x 100 was moderately stated at $1500. One storekeeper whose place was pointed out has taken in we were informed as high as $1000 in gold in one day. Very thriving place. … Immediately after leaving Hastings the River bank on the southwest side is hidden by low ground overgrown with trees dense and thick. Other side recommences those same castellated bluffs, red and green and yellow, which we saw all along the AIississippi … Night came upon us just as our eyes lit upon the site of Niningcr City—its levee front—its landing-thc little millthe store house—etc. etc.
Here, on the frontier (the real frontier was a fair distance west of the Mississippi by then, but Minnesota would do nicely Tor a man fresh from Spruce Street, Philadelphia), Donnelly dreamed of a city to rival or perhaps even dwarf St. Paul, then a town of less than ten thousand. At Nininger, an hour’s walk from Hastings, he and a group of promoters bought tip more than Goo acres of farmland on the high southwest river bank. They laid out 6,800 lots and set to work selling them at six dollars apiece.
The moment seemed well timed. At the end of 1855 Minnesota (then three years away from statehood) claimed forty thousand souls. By the fall of 1857 that number more than tripled, and Donnelly vigorously went after his share of the influx. He edited the Emigrant Aid Journal , a glorified land promotion circular, of which the first issue appeared in December, 1856. It went cast, promising opportunity and wealth in Nininger. A German-language edition went to Pennsylvania and overseas. Donnelly organixed an Athenetim Company and planned a library to house its meetings. He started a musical society and saw to it that the Episcopal congregation was able to meet Sundays in the schoolhonsc. He sold stock in the new Nininger and St. Peter Railroad Company, and contributed $175 of his own money toward a river steamboat to be built in Cincinnati.
By early summer of 1857 there were over five hundred settlers in Niningcr—more came in with each steamer—several sawmills, two general stores, two dry goods stores, a druggist, and a hotel with a spacious lounge and eight kinds of imported wines in its cellar. (Donnelly neither smoked nor drank, hut the hotel did serve oysters, for which he always had a weakness.) Lots sold for over Sioo each, and the young promoter’s ledger reckoned his net worth at almost Sioo.ooo. Kate joined her husband in the new boom town and gave him the help and encouragement she was steadily to provide through their years together. Donnelly later wrote of her arrival: “We crossed the Mississippi into the beautiful land where we made our home. We were young, we were hopeful; we loved one another; we possessed the universe.” Kate was a remarkable woman. At twenty-two, she had been principal of the Ringgold public school in Philadelphia. But that year she sent her resignation to the board of directors, thanking them for their kindness and adding that she had “the oiler of a better situation”—the hand of lgnatius. She stood an even five feet tall, built much like her husband, and possessed an excellent singing voice. She was a practicing Catholic, sang often at St. Mary’s Church in St. Paul, but was not above singing also in the Baptist church when her services were needed to help it out of debt.
From the veranda of the big house he had built on the bluff Donnelly jokingly asked a neighbor what he should do with the rest of his life now that, at twenty-five, he was a rich man. The answer was not long in coming.
The Minnesota land boom created such demand for loan money that the local banks were taking three per cent a month interest on their ninety-day notes. At these rates, substantial amounts of eastern capital flowed into the state—to be loaned out to land developers and speculators. On August 24, the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company closed its doors—overextended, mismanaged, and insolvent. Holders of the company’s notes, caught with worthless collateral, frantically began calling in other loans to cover their shortage. Like a closely stacked row of dominoes, theloan calls and foreclosures tumbled westward. By October, Minnesota’s banks were drained dry.
Desperately short of money, Nininger issued local scrip—which was not honored. The inflow of new residents ceased. Construction stopped. By May of 1858 the Nininger and St. Peter Railroad scheme was dead, the steamboat payments defaulted on, and the Emigrant Aid Journal well past its last issue. Worst of all, the population moved stores, houses, and baggage three miles southeast to the longer-established Hastings, where the steamboats still stopped regularly. Donnelly’s large house remained alone at Nininger. With a large, unsalable acreage still on his hands, the answer for the future was pretty clear. He would engage in farming.
Ignatius Donnclly was not born to be a farmer. He sunburned quickly, particularly on his nose, and his small hands never became fully conditioned to field work. While he enjoyed the out-of-doors, neither temperament nor physique fitted him for long days behind a team of horses. As a would-be gentleman farmer, he wrote in his diary: Wheat , I love to look at the noble cereal—golden wheat—“round and plump as any grozet”—full of bread for man. It tells us of bright sunshine, cool nights, happy homes. … 2 oz. chloroform and 2 oz. Olive Oil equal parts—Liniment for neuralgia of limbs. When headache comes on take Belladonna 20 drops in ½ glass of water.
It is not surprising that he borrowed as soon as possible to pay someone else to do his field work and turned his major attention to politics. Donnelly had been a Democrat in Philadelphia until he broke with the party on the slavery issue. In Minnesota he twice campaigned hard for a seat as a Republican in the state legislature and lost both times. In 1859, at twentyeight years of age, Donnelly received the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor and conducted a grueling canvass for votes, accompanying the patrician nominee for governor, Alexander Ramsey, in the campaign stagecoach.
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.
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.
Donnelly repeated the formula during six weeks of furious writing the following summer— Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel . “Remember then, in the discussions that follow,” he cautioned his readers, “that if the theories advanced are gigantic, the facts they seek to explain are not less so.” He contended that in Biblical times the earth passed through the tail of a great comet, picking up the deposits of clay, sand, and gravel which have otherwise been attributed to glacial action. His evidence came once more from Scandinavian, German, Saxon, and French folklore, all referring to a world catastrophe. Here also, he claimed, was the scientific explanation for the Book of Job, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the account of Joshua and the sun standing still. A broadside of geology and astronomy again supported the argument. Donnelly was the first in America to use this scatter-shot method of compiling evidence, a technique that in our own day still has the power to confound and irritate.
Donnelly’s lecture fees, added to the book royalties, assured him a modest but steady income. If he had been able to carry a tune, his voice would probably have been classed as baritone. It was well-modulated for speaking, however; it carried well and could survive as many as three two-hour speeches a day. It earned him, delivering one of five or six standard lectures, in the neighborhood of fifty dollars an appearance—plus train fare. Between 1870 and 1900, most of Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Iowa at one time or another turned out to hear him talk about “Wit and Humor,” “Atlantis,” “Ragnarok,” or “The Authorship of the Shakespeare Plays”—in the last of which, ever the heretic, he championed the cause of Francis Bacon.
Arm-waving, calisthenics, or bombast were not part of his speaking style; from a man five feet six inches tall and weighing 190 pounds, violent oratory would only have appeared ridiculous. He occasionally rested his hand inside his vest or bowed slightly to make a point. He wore a double-breasted frock coat, sometimes adorned in season by a sprig of lily of the valley in his boutonniere. Frequently he napped before his lectures; if he took coffee or tea he generally paid for it with a sleepless night. (Eventually he came to regard them both as “nerve poisons,” along with tobacco and alcohol.)
Donnelly regularly announced that he was through with politics, but he could not keep away from it. Disillusion with the railroads, lingering anger at the Republicans, and a growing and genuine awareness of the problems of the western farmer—all combined to involve him in public affairs, and enroll him among the voices of protest rising everywhere along the Middle Border.
Donnelly was one of the first to tell the farmer he should organize and vote as a single interest-group. By 1873—3 year of financial panic, plummeting farm prices, and abundant grasshoppers in southwestern Minnesota—Donnelly was chief lecturer (without fee) for the state Grange. The founders of the Grange had intended that their organization remain above partisan politics and concentrate instead on improving rural education and farm life generally. But Donnelly’s pleas for direct political action soon began to draw strong support from large parts of the growing membership. To rural audiences up and down the southern half of Minnesota he repeated his message again and again: There is an organized conspiracy in this country, with its ramifications in this very state, whose sole object is to ignore and depress the agricultural interests of the nation; and set up, as the gods of national idolatry, a few spindles and mines … If the nation is to live it must not be with one section fastened like a wolf on the vitals of the rest … we must fight with the ballot box.
The Minnesota farmer of the 1870*5, like his counterpart throughout the Midwest, was caught in a murderous cost-price squeeze. Donnelly was in favor of whatever practical if limited ways the farmers could find to avoid being at the mercy of the market. He complimented the Granges of Iowa for going into the grain storage business. He argued for a Great Lakes canal system to compete with the railroads and called for government regulation of rail rates. Trying to keep track of his position on the tariff and monetary questions, however, is like charting the course of a jumping bean on a hot griddle. As an early Republican he was for high tariffs; as a Granger he was against them. After a trip to Europe and a look at English wages and factory conditions in 1888 he came back frightened—and once more a high-tariff man. His only constant in these issues was the insistence that the status quo would surely drive the western farmer to bankruptcy, and that change was necessary.
Donnelly was at his best as an agitator. His skill at arousing and channeling protest, his parliamentary experience, and his ability to write platforms that would both inspire confidence and avoid factional disputes won him increasing recognition. When the first Anti-Monopoly party convention—largely made up of Grange members—met at Owatonna, Minnesota, in the summer of 1873, Donnelly was temporary chairman and keynote speaker. He filled the same roles at the Greenback National Convention at Indianapolis in 1876, and in 1890 he was president of the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance. When the Populist movement began to gather momentum in 1891, Donnelly was a member of the platform committee for its conventions at Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Omaha.
During the twenty years from 1872 to 1892 he lost four congressional campaigns but won four terms in the state legislature. Dakota County seems to have regarded him as something of a mascot and failed him only once at election time—even though his legislative accomplishments rarely lived up to advance billing. In 1873 and 1875 he led the Anti-Monopoly forces in the legislature, but despite brave words—and initially hopeful prospects—most of the bills he was favoring failed to pass. When it came to harnessing protest to actual reforms, Donnelly’s efforts were unavailing. He founded a protest newspaper, The Anti-Monopolist , but it collapsed with the return of relative prosperity in 1878.
During all this time he was also managing, with indifferent success, both the Nininger farm and a larger one near the South Dakota border. His family life, at least, was a source of consolation and encouragement. Donnelly respected his wife Kate’s advice in politics, as in everything else. She was the closest thing to a balance wheel he ever had. From Philadelphia, where she had taken young Iggy to an eye specialist, Kate wrote him just before the election in 1873: … I hope you will be elected—work hard I know you willbut if anything should happen contrary to your expectations don’t be cast down because you are an indefatigable old fellow that can’t be wiped out & you will rise in a new place … You and I can defy the world together. We have a love for one another and a happiness that can never be defeated, by time, trouble, poverty or any ills of this world … and you are the dearest old love in the world & there isn’t just another one—& the children endorse this and say you can command a character at their hands at a moments notice fee &c—
By this time Donnelly had virtually ceased agitating the scholarly world and turned his energy toward political reform. In 1888 he had published The Great Cryptogram , a monster volume which attempted to prove with numbers—an enciphered code—that Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Six years of effort had gone into it, along with the faith that it would be a lasting contribution to world literature, but the book was such a failure that the publisher sued for recovery of his original advance. Donnelly did, however, continue to write. His new books were novels—novels filled with explosive political ideas. The first of these, probably the best, was his Orwellian Caesar’s Column , which appeared in 1890.
He had begun it the night in early 1889 after his old enemy, William D. Washburn of Minneapolis, was elected to the United States Senate. Six weeks later the manuscript was finished. Undoubtedly the idea of writing it owed much to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward , a Utopian novel which had been published in 1887 and had sold more copies than any American book that year. But where Bellamy had looked ahead a century and seen an ideal world, Donnelly gloomily predicted an inhuman society where corrupt plutocracy and callous populace were drawn apart in hate and suspicion. He wrote at the beginning:
“I seek to preach into the ears of the able and rich and powerful the great truth that neglect of the sufferings of their fellows … must—given time and pressure enough—eventuate in the overthrow of society and the destruction of civilization.”
The plot of Caesar’s Column mixed two heavyhanded love stories with the main narrative of a visit to New York by the hero, Gabriel Weltstein, his befriending the leaders of a proletarian underground, witnessing a revolution, and escaping by dirigible to his home in the hills of Uganda. Here civilization is begun again. In the “ideal” Ugandan state there is a tri-cameral legislature (producers, employers of labor, and intellectuals), an eight-hour workday with two holidays each week, and a program of socialized medicine. Interest rates are abolished, bribery of a government official is punishable by death, and brotherly love is established as life’s governing principle.
Donnelly accurately foresaw the present-day problems of air pollution, population pressure, and man’s terrible war machinery (in this case poison gas), yet at the same time he was unable to predict anything beyond the horse and carriage for outdoor transportation. He wrote as many as twenty pages a day and had neither time nor patience to revise extensively, with the result that his style varied from somber power to absurd melodrama. Here, for example, is the hero describing his dirigible escape from New York during the revolution:
Up, up, went bundle and package and box; faster, and faster, and faster. The roof of the house next us was now blazing, and we could hear the fire, like a furnace, roaring within it. The work is finished; every parcel is safe. Up, up, straight and swift as an arrow we rose. The mighty city lay unrolled below us, like a great map, starred here and there with burning houses.
By contrast, when Weltstein is preparing to escape from the villain’s castle where the heroine—a Miss Washington—is held captive, this is the preposterous dialogue: “Then be it so,” said Rudolph [the trusty servant]. “Let Miss Washington withdraw by the farther door; and after a reasonable delay we will pass into a communicating series of rooms, and I will then show your friend where he is to be concealed.”
The same erratic quality also appears in Dr. Huguet (1891), a fantasy protesting race prejudice in the South, and in The Golden Bottle (1892), where the Kansas hero does away with the gold standard, frees Ireland from the British, and conquers Europe.
Donnelly’s books were widely read in the farm areas of the Midwest, and were for many the great literature of Populism. By mid-1892 Caesar’s Column had sold over 150,000 copies and had been translated into three languages. Perhaps more important, it ran in serial form in many of the nine hundred Farmers’ Alliance newspapers throughout the country. But the climax of Ignatius Donnelly’s career, and the high point of the agrarian revolt, came on the sultry afternoon of July 4, 1892, in the Coliseum at Omaha, Nebraska. Here the Populist party platform, largely Donnelly’s work, was read aloud with almost exactly the preamble Donnelly had read five months before at the St. Louis Populist convention: The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation. We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine on the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists …
The indictment went on to make the same forecast Donnelly had made in Caesar’s Column —that without corrective action there would follow “terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”
The platform then listed its specific demands: “a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible”; a graduated income tax; establishment of postal savings banks; a free and secret ballot; direct popular election of United States senators instead of by state legislature caucus; direct voter initiative and referendum; an eight-hour work day; the prohibition of “armed mercenaries” in labor disputes; public ownership of telephone, telegraph, and railroad systems; and free coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1.
One reporter who witnessed that scene probably did not exaggerate the reaction of the business and financial community when he wrote that an intelligent man could not look on “without a feeling of great alarm at the extent of the social lunacy there displayed … Cheers and yells … rose like a tornado from four thousand throats and raged without cessation for thirty-four minutes, during which women shrieked and wept, men embraced and kissed their neighbors … and leaped upon tables and chairs in the ecstasy of their delirium …”
Seventy years later their “social lunacy” seems all but commonplace. The Populists never proposed to desert a basically free economy or appeal to any arbiter but the ballot box. The actual means of reform which Donnelly suggested were often unworkable, to be sure; the silver coinage plank has been well replaced by a more radical scheme—the Federal Reserve System—and his demand for public utility ownership has been met instead through federal regulation. But his fundamental ideas have proven uncannily sound; and the Omaha platform reads for the most part like a list of the worthwhile changes in twentieth century American government—finally accepted and enacted by the major parties.
At Omaha Donnelly was offered enough support for the Presidential nomination to make him think he might win it, but the majority thought him too unpredictable and turned instead to General James B. Weaver of Iowa. Back in Minnesota, however, Donnelly became the People’s party nominee for governor. His diary on November 3 recounts the last great burst of energy: Aitkin, Minn.—I am sixty-one years old today. Here I am, in this little frontier town, full of sand and sawdust, near the end of a gigantic campaign, in which I shall have made about 88 speeches, or, counting the addresses delivered before the nomination about 130 in all … I have conversed with 10,000 persons, wrote a novel, prepared two “broadsides” of eight pages each; carried on a large correspondence and supervised the whole campaign. I hope to win, but nothing is certain … I may have all my immense labor for nothing; … I live in Caesar’s Column and I would avert those results if possible.
A week later his hand shook as he wrote: Beaten! Shippedl Smashed! Got but 40,000 votes when I looked for 100,000. Another of a long series of disappointments. Our followers scattered like dew before the rising sun …
Like any man who has made politics his career, Donnelly measured his success largely in votes received and offices won. He saw little hope for the future; he had grown old in battle and saw no one ready to rise in his place. He did not correspond with, and appeared to take little note of, other politicians like La Follette, Norris, and Theodore Roosevelt—the men who would press for reform in the coming century. His resilient spirit never recovered from the defeat of 1892.
Within two years Kate died, after a brief illness- another severe blow. Three years later, then past sixtyfive, Donnelly regained a measure of happiness in marrying his twenty-one-year-old secretary, Marian Hanson. He founded another newspaper, served two relatively quiet years in the legislature, and wrote three more books. In 1896 the Populists stampeded with the Democrats for William Jennings Bryan, leaving only a splinter of anti-fusion Populists standing apart from the major parties, and in 1900 this group nominated Donnelly to run for the Vice Presidency of the United States. But by then his health was faltering, his brown wavy hair beginning to turn gray at last. He became briefly interested in spiritualism, and on one occasion believed he had communicated with his first wife.
On the morning of July 3, 1900, the Donnellys boarded a train for Decorah, Iowa, where he was to deliver the Independence Day oration. Marian noticed he was forgetful, unable to finish his sentences. She begged him to cancel the speech, but he would not hear of it. They spent a fitful night, awakened frequently by the noise of celebration. At ten o’clock the next morning he began the address. The words came haltingly—the ideas jumbled. The speech was a complete failure. He appeared less frequently after that, lost the election, and died January 1 the following year.
It is doubtful whether anyone today has the opportunity Donnelly enjoyed to display such amazing versatility. For all his variety, however, two themes are constant: he never attacked a small problem if a larger one was at hand; and he was happiest when attempting something his contemporaries were sure couldn’t be done.
He would be pleased, I think, if he could visit Nininger now. The fields—still farmland—raise seventy bushels of corn to the acre (corn replaced wheat as the main crop in the ig3o’s). But housing developers from Minneapolis and St. Paul come down more frequently to look with obvious interest at the magnificent river view. The price of land is rising once more and has already reached the level of those brief, hectic months of early 1857. This time it is not likely to collapse. The instinct and the energy and the audacity that went into Nininger had been right. Only the timing was wrong.