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150 Years of Human Rights: 1858-1865

In 1858, Minnesota was admitted to the Union. Its constitution declared that "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state." Thus, Minnesota joined the ranks of 16 other free states, in a nation that also included 15 states where the slavery of African Americans was legal. Only three years later, Minnesotans would be among the first to answer the call to fight in a bloody Civil War, a war that would settle the matter of slavery, yet leave much work undone -- work that continues today, as America still seeks to fulfill the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed to all.

In this look back at Minnesota's 150 years of statehood, we'll recall some of the milestones that have marked the struggle for human rights in our state. It's an epic story, a blockbuster, with twists and turns and fascinating characters -- and it's still being written. It's a story to which we all can still contribute... but to do so, we need to know what's happened so far.


Let's begin at the beginning -- of Minnesota's entry into the Union. Minnesota became part of the United States as the Minnesota Territory in 1849, and eight years later, Minnesotans drafted a Constitution. Well, actually, two constitutions, one written by Republicans and one by Democrats. A major point of contention: whether black males should have the right to vote. Republicans argued yes, but Democrats strongly disagreed, and the only way to break this deadlock and allow Minnesota to become a state was a compromise. So Republicans and Democrats agreed that the constitution would prohibit slavery and guarantee religious freedom, but while everyone could worship as they chose, only white males would be allowed to vote. But, as part of the compromise, the Constitution would be easy to change -- allowing Republicans to come back and amend it in the future. That they did, coming back time and again to raise the issue of non white suffrage. In 1868, ten years after Minnesota became a state and three years after the end of the Civil War, they finally succeeded ing passing an Amendment to Minnesota's Constitution. Minnesota thus became one of the few states to voluntarily extend voting rights to blacks -- two years before the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution would mandate non-white suffrage.


The battle of Gettysburg, fought over three days in July 1863, is said to have marked the turning point of the Civil War. Between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans died in that battle, that ended with Confederate General Lee's retreat to Virginia. Four months later, President Lincoln would honor their sacrifice and invoke the principles of liberty for which the Union had fought, in his famous Gettysburg address.

Minnesota played a pivotal role in that battle. The First Minnesotan Regiment answered the call, and on the second day of the battle, amid savage fighting and mounting Union casualties, a force of 262 Minnesotans charged the Confederate lines, engaging a force four times its size. In the end, more than 80 percent of the First Minnesotan Regiment was dead or injured, but their heroism had halted a Southern advance and bought other Union troops precious time -- a sacrifice that would ultimately lead to victory.


While the Civil War was raging, another armed conflict, between the United States and the Dakota people, would claim hundreds of lives. The Dakota Conflict began on August 17, 1862 along the Minnesota River in Southwest Minnesota, but its roots stretch back to Minnesota's earliest days as a territory. An 1851 treaty between U.S. and Dakota leaders had ceded vast amounts of Indian land to the union, in exchange for money and goods -- but much of the promised compensation was never received, or was siphoned off by corrupt traders. In 1862 the Dakota faced food shortages and famine. The attitudes of some white settlers were perhaps summed up by trader Andrew Myrick, who declared that so far as he was concerned, if the Dakota people were hungry, "Let them eat grass, or their own dung."

A series of attacks by Dakota warriors erupted in Meeker County. Trader Myrick was among the first killed -- he was found with grass stuffed into his mouth. Dakota raids on farms and settlements in south central Minnesota continued, and over the next six weeks white settlers and Minnesota troops would sustain heavy casualties. In the end, the Dakota would surrender, and more than 300 would be sentenced to death by military tribunals. President Lincoln commuted the death sentences of most, but refused to spare 38 others. They were hanged, in a mass, public execution from a single scaffold, on December 26, 1862 in Mankato. It was, and still is, the largest execution in U.S. history.


At the dawn of the third year of the Civil War, on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

The proclamation did not immediately free a single slave. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, and its promise depended upon the Union winning the war. It also exempted border states that had not joined the Confederacy.

But the proclamation helped transform the war, in the eyes of many in the North, into a war to abolish the scourge of slavery, adding moral force to the Union's growing military strength.

The war ended with the surrender of the Confederate Army on April 18, 1865. in January of that year, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution; it abolished slavery in the United States. A year later, the 14th Amendment would grant citizenship to former slaves, and to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. The 14th Amendment also declared that no state could "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws which applied to federal and state governments." Despite these Amendments, the promise of equal protection under the law and the right to vote would remain unfulfilled for at least 100 years -- poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation would remain barriers to true equality and reminders of the legacy of slavery. Yet these measures would become the basis for changes that would redefine civil rights and reshape America in the 20th Century.

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