State origins leave lessons for livelihood

The United States added Minnesota’s North Star to the flag 140 years ago today. May 11, 1858, was the grandest day ever in what had been the Territory of Minnesota. The new state was the nation’s third largest; only Texas and California had more land. Railroad barons established Minnesota as the key link between the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the rail lines across the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. Minnesotans thought themselves at the center of the New World and in the vanguard of the future. That changed quickly. Three years later, Minnesota sent the Union’s first volunteer soldiers of the Civil War. By 1865, one in 10 Minnesotans served in the Northern armies. Before that terrible war, states took center stage in national affairs. After it, the federal government reigned supreme.
Contemporary America is searching once more for a new definition of federalism. The national government is shrinking its role in our lives; local governments are filling the gap. Statehood day is a good time to reflect on the North Star State’s place in America’s political constellation. Constitutionally, state government differs greatly from federal authority. The powers of Congress and the president derive from the Constitution. Federal lawmakers may do only what the Constitution specifically permits. State governments, on the other hand, may do anything not constitutionally forbidden. That’s an important distinction. Government derives its authority from the governed, and so the closer a public body is to the people, the more power it deserves.
A series of crises — starting with domestic rebellion and including the Great Depression, two world wars and the 40-year specter of a third — drove the federal government to assume its broad powers. America today faces neither external enemies nor domestic crises of any great urgency. Americans don’t need the federal government very much; its retreat reflects the good times the nation and Minnesota enjoy. The state economy is stronger, education better, the environment cleaner and the quality of life higher than most other states. There are very few better places to live than Minnesota right now.
All that was true in 1858. But the state’s origin offers a cogent warning for Minnesotans as they re-exert themselves at the local level. Despite the good times on the eve of statehood, bitterness reigned in politics. When the state’s constitutional convention assembled in 1857, Democrats and Republicans refused to sit together. So each party assembled in caucus, meeting at opposite ends of the territorial capitol. Even after a conference committee finalized a compromise constitution, members of both parties refused to sign a document bearing opposing signatures. Two copies of the state constitution were printed, one on white paper for Republicans, the other on blue for Democrats. Both copies went to Congress for ratification.
That bickering, not over the public question at hand but over the symbols of power, nearly derailed statehood. Repeated today, such pointless and selfish partisanship could obstruct the state’s move back to center stage in civic life. After 140 years in the union, Minnesota is ready to embrace a new kind of statehood. Only Minnesotans can decide whether their future brings progress or stagnation.