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Aspiration for equality as our enduring essence 

Part IV: Fifty years after the Time magazine cover story touting Minnesota as the nation’s model state, it’s time to reassess.

Eliza Winston, left, was one of the enslaved people who walked away her enslaver, who were visiting old St. Anthony and stayed at the Winslow Hotel, building on left.
Eliza Winston, left, was one of the enslaved people who walked away from her enslaver, who were visiting old St. Anthony and stayed at the Winslow Hotel, building on left.
Images courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Southern plantation owners in the 1850s were discovering the glories of Minnesota’s cooler summers and they began taking steamboat excursions up the Mississippi River to stay at the fancy new Winslow Hotel, overlooking the still wild and untamed St. Anthony Falls. 

As they disembarked with their enslaved Black people and piles of baggage at St. Paul’s Lower Landing, the rich white tourists from Dixie were sometimes rudely confronted by forerunners of today’s so-called “woke” activists. Ardent Minnesota abolitionists, many freshly arrived themselves from New England, jeered the slave owners and encouraged the enslaved people to simply walk away and seek refuge on Minnesota’s free soil. Some did, helping precipitate legal battles that led to the Civil War and the end of slavery in the rest of the United States. 

These early zealots, in concert with pioneering Black Minnesotans who fought for their own equality, were intent not only on abolishing slavery but also on expanding universal equality under the law to all people in the state, challenging unfairness and disadvantage on many other fronts.    

They also were advocates for women’s rights and suffrage, universal entitlement to education, public parks, free homesteads for immigrants and others, better care for poor and disabled people, and all manner of communitarian and egalitarian reforms. These people and causes often prevailed in Minnesota during the formative years of territorial government and statehood, shaping our institutions and culture to this day.   

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A half-century later, the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire capitalism were creating a Gilded Age of wealth and technological advance, but also widening and compounding inequalities, creating riches for a very few and desperation for many farmers and factory workers. Minnesotans, many of whom were now fresh immigrants from northern Europe, again were at the national forefront of the American left, demanding reform and social justice, and a more equitable share of the expanding pie. 

In 1912, Minnesota was one of only seven states that voted for Theodore Roosevelt, who had broken with the more conservative Republican Party to run under the Progressive Party label. He challenged the monopolistic business establishment, favored a progressive income tax, pushed for conservation and national parks and more security for workers.  

Pushing further left, Minnesota in the first half of the 20th century routinely elected not only progressive reformers in both major parties, but radicals and socialists from the new Farmer-Labor Party.  It became the most successful left-wing third party in American history, electing three governors, four U.S. senators and nine U.S. House members between 1917 and 1944, leaving an indelible imprint on Minnesota’s culture and policy, and a label that still lives in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.

Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party was the most successful progressive third party in U.S. history.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party was the most successful progressive third party in U.S. history.
 The narrator of TPT-TV’s recent documentary video on the history of the Farmer-Labor Party describes it as a lasting force that “challenged economic inequality and monopoly power. Although many of its more sweeping reforms were blocked, the Farmer-Labor Party created Minnesota government in the public interest: from founding state parks to implementing public relief programs and a progressive (state) income tax … Farmer-Labor ideas continue to influence Minnesota’s civic culture: an educated citizenry, strong voter participation, social movement activism and a belief in government for the public good.” 

Outside of direct electoral politics, Minnesotans were creating nation-leading cooperative enterprises as alternatives to traditional private and corporate ownership, also colleges and universities, hospitals and clinics, and other charitable and educational organizations. Captains of industry were getting plenty rich off the state’s natural resources, too often damaging ecosystems, but eventually they also shared considerably more than robber barons in other states, building a reputation for philanthropy. Minnesota was getting to be known not just for liberal politics and policies, but for its vibrant arts scene and cutting-edge brainpower industries, especially in health care, computer technology, agribusiness and small manufacturing. 

Another half-century after the advent of the Progressive and Farmer-Labor parties, Time magazine in 1973 presented Minnesota to the world as “A State that Works” with this summary paragraph: “By a combination of political and cultural tradition, geography and sheer luck, Minnesota nurtures an extraordinarily successful society.’’ 

Time accurately summarized the key ingredients in the state’s development, specifying a DFL Party that was “radical in its origins” and Republican leaders that had “supported the liberal wing of the GOP for more than a generation.”  Time strongly emphasized that Republicans were a force for good government and innovative structural civic reform “that accounts for much of the honesty of Minnesota politics today.”  

Theodore Mitau, author of the standard textbook for Minnesota political science students, summed up the essence this way: “Immigrants and natives, prohibitionists and suffragettes, farmers and laborers, in ever-changing coalitions of principle or convenience, attacked social and economic problems. … Whatever their methods, they fought with righteous zeal for their conceptions of social justice and good government.”

Yet another half-century later, after the 2022 mid-term elections and after the 2023 Legislature had adjourned, Minnesota once again was out front nationally on equalizing reforms. Defying predictions of a right-wing tidal wave led by red-capped worshippers of former president Donald Trump, Minnesotans elected the most racially diverse Legislature in history, reflecting an energetic new wave of progressives and striving immigrants of color from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Together, they enacted the most expansive (and expensive) progressive policy agenda since the mid-1970s. 

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National pundits were taking note of Minnesota as a unique outlier for racial equity policies and climate action, with admirers calling it “nation-leading’’ and detractors settling on the term “bonkers.’’ The missing context from most news media is that 2023 Legislature’s prodigious product reaffirmed an essential and distinctive character that historians and political scientists had observed since territorial days:  an overriding moral concern for fairness and a willingness to use the powers of democracy and government to improve the lives of those on the wrong end of the inequality statistics.   

 Communitarian first people   

Even before the Caucasian invasion, descendants of the continent’s first peoples, the Ojibwe in the northern forests and the Dakota on the southern prairies, were also Minnesota’s original communitarians and environmentalists. Both tribal traditions emphasized reciprocity and civility, sharing of resources between individuals, and living in harmony with the earth rather than subduing and exploiting it.  

Reappraising ‘Minnesota: A State That Works’Despite enduring a horrific history of conquest, removal and oppression, this spirit has prevailed and is becoming more influential than ever in the state’s political culture. Minnesota’s native people led the way nationally with the creation in Minneapolis of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, initially condemned by conservative voices and mainstream media as radical and militant. Co-founder Dennis Banks, who was born on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bemidji and forced into a boarding school at 4 years old, summed up AIM’s legacy near the end of his life: “Americans realized that native people are still here, that they have a moral standing, a legal standing.” 

Time in 1973 quoted tribal leaders who were upbeat about their prospects for equality and autonomy. Since then, Ojibwe and Dakota activists have gained ground in battles at the state and national level for increased tribal sovereignty, the rights to develop a gaming industry, and for reparations from the University of Minnesota and elsewhere. Perhaps most important, long-term, are the roles Minnesota’s indigenous people are playing as leaders in climate action and other environmental protections, with ongoing protests against corporate fossil fuel and mining interests.  

Socio-economic disparities between whites and indigenous people remain far too wide, but energy and optimism are reaching new levels. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, an Ojibwe tribal member and the first Native American elected to statewide office, told MPR in a 2020 interview that “we’re in this moment where you can feel things shifting and changing. … What it means to be Indigenous Minnesotan is complicated, but it’s also I think, a really helpful and powerful time. … I think we’re on our way.”  

Humanist Yankees       

The Americans who came next to Minnesota may have failed to practice what they preached, especially in regard to indigenous nations, but they were the most equality minded white Americans of their time. A prime example was John North, an immigrant to Minnesota from upstate New York, already deeply committed to abolition. Speaking passionately for Black equality under the law at the state constitutional convention in 1857, North declared:  “I know of no principle on which our own rights are based that does not guarantee to every other class of human beings the same rights we claim for ourselves. … The complexion of the face which the Creator has stamped on a human being does not give one class the right to inflict wrong and injury upon another.’’    

North’s fiery declaration, infused with a religious fervor typical of American liberalism through much of its history, reflected the attitudes of many of earliest white settlers, who came primarily from New England and mid-Atlantic states. North’s biographer, Merlin Stonehouse, describes this phenomenon as “evangelical humanism’’ and Minnesota as a model state of the “reform frontier.”   

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In “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” author David Hackett Fischer documents how New England Puritans and Mid-Atlantic colonial Quakers, idealistic and literate and committed to equality and democracy within their own ranks, evolved into liberal reformers of their larger states and regions. They established democratic communities and a more “ordered liberty,’’ establishing public institutions with universal rights and entitlements. 

In contrast, the South was founded and populated by aristocratic cavaliers who transitioned easily from manorial serfdoms in southern England to enslaving Africans for labor-intensive tobacco, sugar and cotton agribusiness.  The other major Southern folkway, immigrants from the northern borderlands and Scotland, settled in Appalachia. They brought a culture that valued fierce individualism, clan loyalty, fundamentalist Christianity and a tendency toward violence and vigilantism. (Unlike most Minnesotans, I’m entirely a descendant of these Tidewater aristocrats and Appalachian hillbillies. I keenly appreciate the cultural differences between the folkways of my adopted Minnesota and my native Texas.) 

From the start, the Northern colonies were more liberal, democratic and egalitarian, whereas the South was conservative, authoritarian and hierarchical. Minnesota was so clearly a part of the New England historical tradition that it was drawn, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, entirely within the boundaries of “Yankeedom,” by author Colin Woodard in his 2011 book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.” Both Fischer and Woodard go to great lengths to illuminate the ways in which “cultural persistence” runs through the centuries and manifests itself in today’s politics and social cultures of the states. 

Egalitarian Scandinavians 

While other Upper Great Lakes states, especially Michigan and Wisconsin, shared these progressive Yankee roots, none could match the further liberalizing and egalitarian influence of Scandinavian immigration. About 1.6 million Minnesotans are of Nordic ancestry, highest in the nation in total numbers, second only to sparsely populated North Dakota as a percentage of the total.  

In the most definitive book to date on this unique Nordic imprint “Scandinavians in the State House” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017), Swedish-American journalist Klas Bergman notes that every governor between 1915 and 1976 (including Wendell Anderson on the cover of Time) was of Scandinavian descent.   Many of those in the early waves were radicals fleeing persecution at home, and, as Bergman wrote: “Once in Minnesota, they did not let up. They were trade unionists, founders of cooperatives, strike leaders in the mines on the Iron Range (which had a larger eastern and southern European population), socialists, Wobblies (members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW) and communists.’’ 

By no means were all Scandinavians radicals, however, and many found a natural home in the Republican Party, especially before that party turned toward a more nativist and fundamentalist Christian conservatism in the 1980s. Bergman cites historian John Haynes, who wrote, “One is tempted to see progressive Republicanism as a sort of secularized Scandinavian Lutheranism, earnest, moralistic, well-meaning and moderate.” 

Bergman frames the Yankee/Scandinavian tradition as “two complementary streams” and quotes Carleton College political science Professor Steven Schier’s assertion that new immigrants of color are likely to accept it and further reinforce it. “The culture replicates itself and it will persist. There are no major movements of rival elites coming in, nothing to replace it. It is here to stay.” 

Bergman cites several sources that see Minnesota as a liberal and communitarian exception to American conservatism and individualism, analogous to the “Nordic Model” in Europe, with Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland generally ranking above other European nations and all the wealthy industrialized democracies on measures of prosperity, equality and quality of life.  

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To be sure, other European immigrants played their part in the Minnesota mosaic and many strains were also reform minded. Germans matched Scandinavians in total numbers, and many of those fleeing after the failure of democratic revolutions in 1848 brought with them a strong belief in liberal democracy, education and equal opportunity. Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to Minnesota’s northeastern iron mines greatly strengthened the state’s labor union movement. Today, Minnesota ranks 10th in the percentage of union membership in the workforce. 

Cycles of conservatism and backlash 

Although far less influential than in other states and seldom a dominant force, conservativism has had its heydays in Minnesota. Swings of the pendulum away from reform and social justice fervor occurred after the Civil War and Reconstruction, after World War I, after the New Deal era of the 1930s and World War II, and after the civil rights and social justice movements led by Minnesotans during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Reactions to liberalism, especially to higher taxes on the middle class as well as the affluent, was sometimes a necessary and healthy adjustment. These periods arguably offered respite and time for implementation, not just a wholesale rejection and reversal of previous progress. Farmer-Labor and Democratic leaders were prone to nepotism and patronage, and urban political machines too often were corrupt. Republican resurgence and leadership of the distinctively moderate Minnesota brand, from Harold Stassen in the 1930s to Gov. Arne Carlson in the 1990s, actually served to improve and expand public services and systems that provided more equality and economic security.  Journalist and author Lori Sturdevant has written extensively about key leaders of this progressive Republican tradition, from the Pillsbury family in the 19th Century through the late U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, who co-authored with her  “When Republicans Were Progressive.” 

On racial justice issues, however, conservative backlash and liberal acquiescence did lasting damage. Several books by Augsburg University historian William D. Green document with abundant examples how the early abolitionist zeal faded and died, allowing segregation and inequality to flourish in practice despite some of the most high-minded laws in the nation. As hordes of new white European immigrants poured in after the Civil War, Minnesota’s progressive leaders shifted their attention to other issues. They aligned more closely with capitalists and economic development of the state and resolving inequalities between white capital and white labor. Rather than encourage Black immigration and integration, Minnesota did very little to welcome newly freed Black people and even obstructed their efforts to homestead or settle. 

In “The Children of Lincoln,” Green details how whites found it more important to reconcile with their white southern kinfolk and accept a new form of oppression under Jim Crow laws than to stay the course on full civil rights for people of color. Minnesota historians and journalists in recent years, led by many new authors of color, are still uncovering the full extent of purely racist behavior since then, from housing covenants in real estate deeds, to violent harassment of Black families moving into white neighborhoods, to a horrific lynching of three young Black men in Duluth in 1920.  

Just 28 years after that atrocity, however, a rising young political leader from Minnesota would herald a new era. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, delivered a fiery speech on the floor of the national Democratic convention in Philadelphia, calling for the nation to step out of the “shadow of states’ rights and into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Hubert Humphrey, shown here greeted by Minnesotans on his triumphant return from 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia, was arguably the most impactful national leader in the state’s history, and a symbol of the state’s enduring liberal attitudes
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert Humphrey, shown here greeted by Minnesotans on his triumphant return from 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia, was arguably the most impactful national leader in the state’s history, and a symbol of the state’s enduring liberal attitudes
 This Minnesotan would become the most important white partner of the civil rights movement in the United States over the next 30 years, also arguably the most impactful political leader in state history. He and other liberal Minnesotans like Roy Wilkins, Walter Mondale, Orville Freeman, Gene McCarthy and Wendell Anderson (all of whom would be on the cover of Time at some point) would come to symbolize the state’s exceptional progressive character on many other fronts over the next 75 years. (That story will be analyzed in Part V of this series.) 

Divining and wondering about our core character has become a cottage industry in Minnesota, and national and international observers have played a part too. One of the most ambitious and comprehensive efforts to understand our essence was an anthology of 13 essays published in the summer 2000 edition of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Contributors to “Minnesota: A Different America?” included prominent historians, journalists, political scientists and other academics, from Minnesota and elsewhere. 

The consensus was overwhelming that Minnesota was indeed a different and mostly better America, in both spirit and deed, and future commentaries in this series will draw from those essays. Several of the writers arrived at a similar conclusion about Minnesota’s “moralistic” culture, in the sense of devotion to public good, not judgmental or fundamentalist Christian notions of personal morality. 

One essay in the anthology focused on the seldom explored religious history of Minnesota and its preference for mainstream or liberal factions of the larger Protestant and Catholic faiths. The spirit of a place is inevitably linked to the spirituality of its people and that aspect will be explored further in a “Reappraising Minnesota” installment that examines the evolution of our non-profit, religious and philanthropic communities. 

Always asking the “common good” question 

Daedalus contributors Wyman Spano and Virginia Gray, drawing on a theory developed earlier by renowned political scientist Daniel J. Elazar (a Minneapolis native), focused their essay on a trichotomy of state cultures. Elazar sorted the states into moralist (Minnesota, Vermont, Washington), individualistic (New York and Illinois) and traditionalistic (Southern).  

In traditionalist states, the dominant factions and persistent cultural traditions require policymakers to ask: How have we done this in the past? Or what do the Founding Fathers, or the Bible, or the established ownership class tell us to do?  

In individualist states, with a more liberal but transactional mindset, factions and interest groups ask:  “Where’s ours?”  And policymakers wonder, “What kind of deals and compromises can we swing to appease everyone, especially our business leaders?” 

In moralist Minnesota, people and their public servants ask “What’s the right thing to do for the greatest common good?” And leaders representing the dominant center-left coalition that has held sway for most of our history in Minnesota, ask: “What about those among us who have the least? What can we do together to help everyone realize their full potential and contribute to the common good?”   

Rankings that help define Minnesota’s essence 

No. 1 Most Charitable, based on 19 indicators, U.S. News, 2019 The Most Charitable States in America (; No. 2 Adult Literacy, ThinkImpact, 2023  48+ US Literacy Statistics 2023 – Percentage by State (  No. 3 Happiest States in America, 30 key metrics, 2022, Wallet Hub Happiest States in America (; No. 6 and No. 13 Most Liberal Cities in U.S.  (Minneapolis and St. Paul), World Population Review, 2023   Most Liberal Cities 2023 (; No. 8 Percent of Employees Working for Non-profits (15%), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016  Nonprofits account for 12.3 million jobs, 10.2 percent of private sector employment, in 2016 : The Economics Daily: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (  No. 10 Union Affiliation (Percent of workforce belonging to unions, 14.2%), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022  No. 11  States Ranked by Income Equality, 2019, Wikipedia/American Community Survey List of U.S. states and territories by income inequality – Wikipedia; No. 18 States Ranked by Highest Liberal/Moderate Percentage Most Liberal States [Updated April 2023] (; No. 33 Overall “Religiosity”  List of U.S. states and territories by religiosity – Wikipedia, Pew Research, 2014; No. 38 States Ranked by Evangelical Protestant Percentage  US States by Evangelical Protestant Population – WorldAtlas

Next: A political rewind, winds and tides since 1973 

Sources and links 

History of Ojibwe and Dakota People, Minnesota Libraries Publishing Project, Early Minnesotans: The Dakota and Ojibwe – Potential and Paradox: A Gateway to Minnesota’s Past ( 

“A Peculiar Imbalance,” “Degrees of Freedom,” “The Children of Lincoln,” “The Lynchings in Duluth,” books on Minnesota’s history of racial relations, by William D. Green,  Augsburg University history professor, William D Green Books | List of books by author William D Green ( 

“Minnesota: A Different America,” Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2000 Vol. 129, No. 3, Summer, 2000 of Daedalus on JSTOR 

“American Federalism: A View from the States,” Daniel J. Elazar, 1966, American federalism;: A view from the States: Elazar, Daniel Judah: 9780690066838: Books 

“John Wesley North and the Reform Frontier,” by Merlin Stonehouse, 1965, University of Minnesota Press John Wesley North and the Reform Frontier on JSTOR 

“Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” by David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history, Volume I): 9780195069051: Fischer, David Hackett: Books   

“The Farmer-Labor Movement:  A Minnesota Story,”  TPT Documentary, Farmer-Labor Documentary — Farmer-Labor Education Committee ( 

“Politics in Minnesota,” by G. Theodore Mitau, Politics in Minnesota: Mitau, G. Theodore: 9780816605590: Books 

“When Minnesota Republicans Were Progressive,” “The Pillsburys of Minnesota,” “I Trust to Be Believed” and other books about moderate Republican leaders, authored or co-authored by Lori Sturdevant Books by Lori Sturdevant (Author of Her Honor) ( 

News story on impact of lawmakers of color, Sahan Journal/MPR News, From ethnic studies to healthcare, Minnesota lawmakers of color played pivotal roles in advancing policy | MPR News