May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
On May 29 Wisconsin entered the Union as the thirtieth state. It was the fifth and final state to be formed from the Old Northwest, and its admission closed the book (except for a slice of present-day Minnesota) on the territory ceded from Britain in the Revolutionary War. The move had been almost a decade in the making. With new settlers pouring in, Wisconsin’s voters had rejected statehood four times in the early 1840s, preferring to remain a territory under the federal government’s financial umbrella. In 1846, however, with federal assistance decreasing and national politics heating up, Wisconsin decided that the time was ripe.
The would-be state already had a name (standardized in 1845 as Wisconsin over such variants as Meskousing, Ouisconsin, and Wiskonsan), a nickname for its inhabitants (Badgers, for the lead miners of the southwest who lived in burrows in the ground), and more or less fixed borders (though the northwestern boundary remained to be determined). All it lacked was a constitution, so 124 delegates assembled in Madison in the fall of 1846 to write one.
By this point, six decades after the Founders had assembled in Philadelphia, the basic mechanics of American government were taken for granted: executive, bicameral legislature, and judiciary. On these matters the Wisconsin convention saw only minor wrangling over questions like election or appointment of judges, apportionment by districts or counties, and the composition of the Supreme Court. Instead of stopping there, though, the delegates appointed twenty-two committees to propose articles on virtually every area of government and law. With no limit on debate, the proceedings dragged on interminably. After one yawn-inducing speech a delegate wished for a rule “that a man should not talk any longer than he had anything to say.”
Negro suffrage was a surprisingly contentious issue for a territory with only a few hundred black residents. Some whites feared that letting blacks vote would attract more of them to the state. Others, especially abolitionists from New York and New England, strongly favored Negro suffrage. Following much debate, the convention referred the question to a referendum. It failed by a two-to-one margin.
In a nod to Wisconsin’s large foreign-born population, immigrants who declared an intention to become citizens were allowed to vote after a year in the state. Suffrage for women was not seriously considered, but the final document did include a clause permitting married women to own property in their own names. One opponent predicted this would lead to “the utter destruction of the home, and the annihilation of the Marriage contract itself.” Another noted that French law contained a similar provision and “one-fourth of the children annually born in France are illegitimate.”
To counter the circulation of worthless notes by “wildcat” banks, the convention voted a sweeping ban on the incorporation of “any bank or other institution having any banking power or privilege.” Another provision exempted a debtor’s home and forty acres of land, or up to one thousand dollars in property, from attachment. The convention also banned state borrowing for internal improvements and limited state indebtedness to one hundred thousand dollars.
With so many clauses objectionable to one group or another, 59 percent of the voters rejected the constitution in April 1847. That December a new, smaller constitutional convention met. Learning from the earlier attempt, the delegates limited debate and appointed only six committees. The new constitution fudged most of the earlier document’s controversial provisions, leaving issue after issue to the legislature and the people. Voters approved the vanilla document by a wide margin, and after some final debate in Congress over the pesky northwest boundary, Wisconsin took its place in the nation’s councils.