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Minnesota was tainted by slavery, too

Marshall H. Tanick

Today is a somewhat overlooked landmark: The 210th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

The anniversary of his birth on Feb. 12, 1809, used to be a holiday in Minnesota and elsewhere but is now incorporated into President’s Day next week, although it is still commemorated as a free-standing celebratory day in some places, including Illinois.

One of his many cardinal achievements also has resonance today: the Emancipation Proclamation. Issued by Lincoln at the height of the Civil War, it directed the freeing of slaves in portions of the South held by the Union Army and paved the way for the total abolition of slavery at the end of the war in April 1865.

But that “peculiar institution,” as some southerners euphemistically referred to it, did not leave Minnesota untouched. Lincoln’s birthday provides an opportune occasion to correct the misconception held by some that the state was not tainted by the scourge of slavery that tore the nation apart.


Notwithstanding Minnesota’s status as a “free” territory and then a state beginning at its inception in 1858, slavery made its mark here in the days surrounding the Civil War, and its impact affected the whole country.

Dreadful decision

One of the major precipitants of that conflict, the infamous Dred Scott case, arose on Minnesota soil. The litigation concluded in 1857 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that African-Americans had no rights that warranted “respect”; that slaves were property, not “persons” entitled to legal protection; and that it was unconstitutional to bar or limit slavery, even outside of the South.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford — later termed by scholars a “self-inflicted wound” and the “worst” one ever made by that tribunal — is regarded by many as a crucial catalyst of the Civil War a few years later.

Indeed, the leading presidential candidate at the time, William Seward of New York, regarded it as signifying an “irrepressible conflict” that could not be avoided without war. He, incidentally, was trumped by a more conciliatory and moderate candidate, Lincoln, who took him into his Cabinet as secretary of state and chief adviser.

The divisive ruling came about because an African-American man enslaved to a military surgeon spent a couple of years, 1836-38, with his master at Fort Snelling, living with his slave wife and children in the basement of the building then used as an infirmary, which happens to still stand on the site less than a mile from Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The slave subsequently sued for his freedom, claiming that his bondage was terminated because he had lived for a while in an area, the pre-1858 statehood territory of Minnesota, that had been designated by federal law since the 1780s as off-limits from slavery and confirmed by the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which barred slavery in the northern area acquired in the Louisiana Purchase 17 years earlier.

After years of litigation in state and federal courts, the Minnesota-based case reached the high court in the mid-1850s and, after long and contentious hearings, yielded the odorous opinion that helped trigger the Civil War four years hence.

The case of Eliza Winston

But Dred Scott was not the only African-American litigant who made legal history in Minnesota during that period. A number of wealthy southerners temporarily evacuated their torrid homes and plantations during the summer seasons by taking voyages up the Mississippi River and vacationing at resorts that sprouted along the banks of the river, especially in the nascent St. Anthony area and around some of the lakes that dotted the region. One of their favorite haunts was the Winslow House, a hotel near where the St. Anthony Main facility currently exists and the namesake of the high-rise condominium building there today.

The vacationers from below the Mason-Dixon Line brought some of their slaves with them, mainly domestic servants. One of them, known as Eliza Winston, encouraged by a local free African-American man, escaped bondage. In August 1860, a state trial court judge, in contrast to the Dred Scott case, deemed her free. In the face of threatened vigilante action by slavery supporters to restore her to her master, she was spirited away to Canada, where she spent the rest of her life as a free woman.

The Minnesota territory was home to about three dozen African-Americans in 1850. The Census that year recorded 39 of them among the 6,600 residents. A decade later, in 1860, two years after statehood, the Census reflected 259 African-Americans in a population of 172,000, barely 0.2 percent (2/10ths of 1 percent) in the new state shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, along with 2,369 Native Americans, probably an undercount. Although the number of African-Americans had increased more than sixfold, the percentage of them here actually was substantially greater in the period before the population boom of the 1850s.

More than 100 African-American soldiers from Minnesota served in the Union Army and several more in the Navy during the Civil War, among the 25,000 troops the state contributed to the cause, a remarkably high percentage of the fewer than 300 total African-Americans, including women and children, in the state at the time.

African-Americans were, despite Dred Scott, legally guaranteed freedom in Minnesota. The Minnesota Constitution that accompanied the state into the union provided in Article I, § 2 that “no slavery or involuntary servitude” would be allowed, terminology that presaged the wording of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery at the end of the Civil War.

Another Minnesota law that affected more than Minnesotans, the Equal Accommodations Act of 1885, barred racial discrimination in access to public facilities and hotels. Enacted 20 years after slavery was abolished, the measure was a model for the federal Civil Rights Act enacted nearly 80 years later, as well as the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Emancipation edict

Recalling slavery and related topics is particularly timely on the 160th anniversary of birth of the man most attributable to the Emancipation of slaves in the country. The edict was first announced more than three months earlier in mid-September 1862, after the titanic Battle of Antietam (known as Sharpsburg in the South). The bloodiest single day in American history, with some 23,000 casualties (including nearly 4,000 dead), about one-fourth of the total 100,000 combatants, it was deemed a victory for the Union forces. Although only slight, the triumph supplied Lincoln with the momentum to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, which he was to formalize and put into effect on New Year’s Day 1863 unless the Confederacy ceased armed hostilities.

It didn’t – and he did.


Hardly an elimination of slavery, the military directive banned slavery in all areas under control of the Union Army. But it left the institution intact elsewhere, including some border and even a few northern states where the servitude relationship was lawful, although not prevalent.

While imperfect — and incomplete — Lincoln’s edict changed the tenor of the war from one for preservation of the union to eradication of slavery and presaged its demise. The end of the war in 1865 brought about enactment, at Lincoln’s prodding before his assassination in April of that year, of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Amendment antipathy

The measure abolished slavery everywhere, effectively repealing the Dred Scott ruling. It was one of the three Civil War amendments, along with the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship, due process of law, and equal protection to all persons born or naturalized in this country, and the 15th extending the right to vote regardless of race, but still confined only to men. (Women, while entitled to vote in some local and state matters, including some school board and library elections in Minnesota, did not get the national constitutional right to vote until 1920).

The first two Civil War Amendments were quickly and overwhelmingly approved by the necessary two-thirds of the states. But the voting rights amendment was greeted initially with antipathy, especially here in Minnesota. Voters in this state twice defeated measures to amend the state constitution to allow African-American males to vote, first in 1865 shortly after the war ended and again two years later. The outcome was close both times, a margin of about 1,500 against the measure out of 55,000 ballots cast. Similar measures were defeated in six other states around that time, including Wisconsin.

It was not until 1868, three years after the war ended, that Minnesotans approved a colorblind electorate by a 9,000-vote margin, two years before the 15th Amendment went into effect. A year later, the state enacted a law prohibiting racial segregation in public schools in St. Paul, where most of the African-Americans then lived.

By that time there were some 750 African-Americans, referred to as “Colored,” recorded in the 1870 census. The number had trebled in the decade since the war began, outpacing a bit the overall state population growth to 439,206 in that decennial count, which also recorded an inexplicable, and probably grossly inaccurate, decline of Native Americans to only 690.

Minnesota’s adoption of these varied post Civil War measures, despite the two earlier voting rights defeats, reflected Lincoln’s earlier praise for the state, which he never visited. Welcoming one of the two new senators from the state (elected at that time by the state Legislature), he sagaciously observed that “the people up your way have very correct political views.”

That outlook was reflected more than a century later in judicial formats that addressed, yes, 20th-century claims of slavery in Minnesota. In 1970, a federal judge in Minneapolis, Philip Neville, threw out a claim by a Vietnam War objector that the military draft law constituted impermissible slavery in U.S. v. Crocker. It was affirmed by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the claimed violation of the 13th Amendment had been “squarely faced and rejected” by other tribunals as well.

More than two decades later, the issue resurfaced in a lawsuit entitled McMaster v. State, brought by an inmate at the Oak Park Heights prison who contended that compulsory work details for prisoners constituted illegal slavery. Federal Judge Harry McLaughlin in Minneapolis dismissed the lawsuit, noting that the constitutional slavery prohibition does not extend to those “who have been convicted of crimes.”

As for Lincoln, one of his most well known aphorisms was reflected in Minnesota jurisprudence in a 2002 case entitled State v. Craig. Accused of terroristic threats and fifth-degree domestic assault, the defendant sought to represent himself, despite several warnings by the Stevens County District Court judge. At a pretrial hearing, after the judge asked him, “You know what Lincoln said?” The defendant answered affirmatively “Yes, I do,” although neither judge nor the defendant explicitly uttered the remark. It might have been Lincoln’s saying, “Better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” More likely, the judge was discouraging pro se representation, recalling Lincoln’s phrase: “A person who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

These diverse legislative, judicial, and social occurrences reflect that slavery has made its presence known in this state, and its existence — and demise — has had impact on the entire nation and the course of its history.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/12/2019 - 09:53 am.

    Thank you for this very interesting article.

    Despite Minnesota’s relatively progressive stance on racial discrimination laws, discrimination was still the norm. The contralto Marian Anderson was initially denied permission to stay at the Dyckman Hotel when she performed in Minneapolis. The hotel relented only after public protests.

    It is interesting to look at copies of the Green Book, to see how few establishments here were willing to serve African American travelers.

  2. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 02/12/2019 - 10:13 am.

    Marshall, thanks for an interesting read. It is amazing how many occupants of then “Union” states don’t know or refuse to accept their history regarding slavery.

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