Norwegian-Americans and Wisconsin Politics in the Forties
By Bayrd Still (Volume VIII: Page 58)
A member of the Wisconsin legislative council once implied that he would rather vote for a Negro than for a Norwegian. This happened on the eve of Wisconsin's statehood, while the members of the territorial council were attempting to determine a particular suffrage qualification in the territory. Marshall M. Strong declared that Negroes were "as deserving of a vote and [the] privileges of freemen as are many of the whites, and more so as a class in this territory than are the Norwegians." "The negroes here," he said, "were more intelligent, more civilized, better acquainted with our institutions. . ." He "had seen the Norwegians living without what any other people would have considered the most absolute necessaries of life, burrowed so to say in holes in the ground, in huts dug in the banks of the earth."
That he was at once challenged is to be expected; the response both of members of the council and, later, of the press, indicated that Strong's words did not necessarily represent a majority opinion about the Norwegians in Wisconsin. The delegate from the Milwaukee area assured Strong that the Norwegians "in Milwaukee County, and he presumed they had as many as Racine, were not such a degraded race of beings as he had represented them." But Strong's attitude does raise a question about the political prestige of the Norwegian group at that moment. The damaging words were spoken in 1846. In the next two years Wisconsin was to achieve admission to the Union.
Here is an opportunity to examine the participation of Norwegian-Americans in Wisconsin politics of the late forties.
From two Norwegians who traveled in the West in 1847 we learn that their countrymen were not then taking an active part in Wisconsin political life. In that year the consul Løvenskjold traveled among the approximately seventy-five hundred Norwegians who then comprised the Wisconsin settlements of that nationality. His report paints no attractive picture of the conditions under which they existed. Many settlers complained that they had been healthier in Norway; there was much actual sickness; their liberty was not as great as they had expected. Where log houses did not shelter the settlers Løvenskjold found them dwelling "to a large extent in sod huts almost underground, with only the roofs projecting above the surface." Many were cursing "the persons who through glowing accounts had led them to come"; yet, with the true expansiveness of frontiersmen, they had determined to be patient, hoping ultimately to build a better place for their children to live. As for political activity, the consul reported that the Norwegian settlers played no part in this field --- perhaps because they were as yet unacquainted with the English language and American life and because they were generally ignorant of the subject --- an ignorance that had led Americans to call them the "Norwegian Indians." Indeed, Løvenskjold could not boast of the political influence of his Norwegian countrymen on the Wisconsin frontier.
Along with Løvenskjold came Ole Munch Ræder, a Norwegian commissioned to investigate legal procedure in the United States and other countries. From Raider's letters, written in 1847 and 1848, we learn of the Norwegian reaction to Wisconsin's state constitutional movement. Many foreigners traveling in America during the period 1850-50 were writing accounts of what they saw. None, not even
De Tocqueville, exhibits a keener interest in the state constitutional process than Ræder. Having come into the West by way of the Great Lakes, (and it was West in those days, for at the Sheboygan port two Indians in blankets came down to the ship) Ræder paused for a moment in Milwaukee. This, he said, ranked "first among American cities for the energy and rapidity with which it has grown." A few years before it had been but a nameless spot in the wilderness; now it had a population of eleven or twelve thousand. Yet a boy only sixteen or seventeen years old was the oldest person native to the place. From Milwaukee Ræder traveled out among the scattered Norwegian settlements to the West. He, like the consul, heard complaints of illness, hard work, and homesickness, alongside expressions of satisfaction with the good wages and the low cost of provisions, and of hope that conditions would become better soon. It was the same partly minor, partly major, strain that Løvenskjold had recorded.
Ræder, too, was convinced that the Norwegian-Americans knew very little about American politics. He found them confused about issues, the prey of local politicians who used political motives to gain the Norwegian support. To the politically untutored immigrant, the term "democrat" made a lively appeal. Hence both Whigs and Democrats, or Locofocos, identified themselves and their program with the "true" democracy. It was the latter group --- the Locofocos --- who somehow succeeded in gaining Norwegian support for their proposed delegates to the constitutional convention of 1846. In the words of the defeated Whigs, the Locofocos had "palmed off their spurious doctrines on the Norwegian voters" and thus had got their candidates elected. Ræder tells how the Locofocos of Janesville attempted to gain Norwegian support by collecting about a hundred dollars toward the erection of their church. The Democratic press, however, did not hesitate to refute all
charges. The Whigs had tried all manner of rascality to enlist the Norwegians, they said, "quartered upon them, slept and ate with them, had their 'Declaration of Principles' translated and placed in the hands of every Norwegian in the country, accompanied by suitable personal admonition, furnished means of conveyance to the polls- but all to no purpose." Madison's Wisconsin Argus of October 6, 1846, gives a specific example:
We have been credibly informed that, shortly previous to the late election, a Whig candidate for the convention in this county went to an influential Norwegian who was supposed to be a Democrat and offered him fifteen dollars if he would go round among his people and electioneer for the Whig ticket. The man promptly declined, and the candidate raised his bid, which was again declined. Again and again was the bid raised and again and again declined, until it reached the nice little sum of two hundred dollars, when, Ole standing out still as firm as his native mountain, the candidate gave him up as a tough stick and sloped for softer timber.
The Locofocos succeeded in obtaining Norwegian support for their convention delegates, either because of the lack of interest and ignorance of the "Norwegian Indians" or because of propositions made to them. The striking fact is that when the result of the convention's work, the constitution of 1846, came to a vote, the Norwegians stood against it. Their opposition was centered upon what were, as a matter of fact, the most democratic provisions in the constitution: what they called the "women's law" (allowing married women to hold separate property) and the "money law" (outlawing paper money and exempting from distraint for debt twenty-four acres or property to the value of a thousand dollars). Here the Norwegians were acting with the conservative interests of the state in their objection to a constitution too "far-fetched," too "ambitious," --- in the words of Ræder containing "regulations which offended both the common sense and the prejudices of the people." It was a
constitution which, in fact, was too much a reflection of economic experience in eastern states and hence too radical for a frontier community that was in some respects conservative in its democracy. To be sure, the Norwegians, before voting, had finally had the opportunity to read pamphlets on the constitution, printed in their own tongue. A Milwaukeean, Søborg, wrote an able tract against the proposed frame of government as did Reymert, editor of the first Norwegian paper in the West. Other pamphlets were written in Norwegian favoring the constitution. Already official recognition of the Norwegian vote had been given when the convention in its meetings resolved to have copies of the constitution printed in Norwegian. Even then some of the delegates had tried to block the move with facetious amendments suggesting printing "1000 in Winnebago, 1000 in the Chippewa, and 500 in the Potawatomi tongue."
Thus in their opposition to the originally proposed constitution for Wisconsin, the Norwegians took their first significant stand in state politics. If they were acting upon conviction and not upon the pressure and influence that seem to have governed their choice of Locofoco delegates, we have an interesting example of the conservatism of the immigrant group. We also have an illustration of the identification of the immigrant with those frontier forces whose action suggests that, by the forties, first constitutional movements in the frontier states were essentially conservative in their adherence to the principles of frontier democracy as opposed to the tendencies then being suggested in eastern innovations born of the economic crisis of the thirties and forties. That they were acting upon a "frontier-minded conviction" is borne out by the fact that their attitude remained essentially consistent in the constitutional movement that came later. One native of Norway was elected to the succeeding constitutional convention of 1847-48, which deleted the radical provisions and framed the constitution upon which
Wisconsin was admitted to the Union. This Norwegian was J. D. Reymert, editor of Nordlyset In the convention he was active in furthering the interests of the immigrant group, supporting the proposal that aliens should have the same right of property descent as citizens, and urging liberal suffrage provisions for alien voters. When the second constitution came before the people March 13, 1848, it won the support of the Norwegians and was ratified.
By this time the Norwegian element was apparently becoming integrated into American political society. The formerly despised "Norwegian Indian" (who never bore that reputation in the minds of all) was beginning to find a respected position in American political life. As this came about, another problem, and one which Ræder recognized, presented itself. Although Ræder was eager for the American Norwegian to lose his political gullibility, he did not wish him to lose his national identity. This is a problem that many thoughtful Norwegian-Americans, especially students, are facing at the present time. As they do now, Ræder in 1847 objected to the way the Norwegians in Wisconsin were forgetting their own language (because they no longer saw it in its pure form) and losing a feeling for the glories of their own literature and tradition. Raider wanted the Norwegian-Americans to contribute their share to the political life of their adopted country, as they do now, without depriving it of the benefits of the richness of their own national being. "As you know," he wrote, "I cannot convince myself that all these countrymen of ours, as they leave our own country, are to be regarded as completely lost and strangers to us." He believed that their mission consisted "in proclaiming to the world that the people of the Scandinavian countries, who in former days steered their course over every sea and even found their way to the distant shores of Vinland," had not degenerated. "Let them become Americans," he continued, "as is the duty of holders
of American soil, but this need not prevent them from remaining Norwegian for a long time to come." He envisaged a time when America would "absorb and mold together into a compact whole all the various nationalities which are now making their contributions" in rich measure. When that time should come, however, the Scandinavian North would rank as "one of the parent nations for this nation to whose lot will undoubtedly some day fall the place of leadership in the affairs of the world." If the condition of the Norwegians in the West was to be at all lasting, Ræder concluded, "there must be more intelligence among them; they must realize that this instinct of theirs is quite consistent with good sense and honor; they must learn to appreciate their own nationality more than they do and to cause others to respect it, too."
<1> A paper read at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on November 13, 1933, at a meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.