Minnesota 2020 Journal: Dark Minnesota Days
My mother tells me that, if I can’t say something nice about someone, I shouldn’t say anything at all. With the conservative policymaker-created state government shutdown crisis blooming, I’m working especially hard to follow her direction. In that spirit, conservative state legislators certainly seem to feel the correctness of their public policy convictions.
The problem with righteous determination is that it can be wrong.
A little less than a hundred years ago, Minnesota was undergoing rapid change. Rural life, turning on farming’s seasonal rhythms, was yielding to industrialization’s transformative change. It’s not as simple as saying that people were steadily leaving the country for city life and city jobs, although that phenomenon was true. Minnesota tipped from rural majority to urban majority in the 1920s. Rather, the very nature of work changed and, consequently, so did the social relationships informed by the work.
Even as late as the 19th century’s end, farming was a labor-intensive business. Farm workers commanded good wages. Farming’s seasonal nature reinforced that high-wage pattern since a large workforce was only needed for relatively short periods of time. Machines changed all of that.
Tractors and combines lowered labor costs. Farm equipment, powered by the internal combustion engine and not horses, meant that farmers needed fewer seasonal workers. The machinery magnified the farm family’s labor. Simultaneously, public investment in crop sciences at land-grant research universities improved crop yields. Farmers squeezed more bushels per acre from the same labor and capital investment. Finally, modern banking and finance innovations made capital more accessible. Farmers could finance tractor and combine purchases, backed by increasing land values reflecting new productivity.
But, these changes also changed farming life’s pace and social structure. Older social controls didn’t command the same authority that they did a century earlier. Then, just when it seemed that modern life was growing a little too quickly, World War I happened. For Minnesota farmers and food production businesses, the European war was a god-send. Europe’s agricultural capacity dropped and the U.S. quickly met the new European demand. Change accelerated.
More money didn’t, however, solve all problems. It fixed some but exacerbated many more. Growing income disparity meant that fewer people were sharing in the new economy’s profits. Consequently, when the U.S. government proposed formally entering WWI on the British-French side, it didn’t enjoy widespread support.
Eager to swing public opinion to a pro-war position, Minnesota’s Republican power structure followed the national trend and used the opportunity to marginalize Germany’s supporters while also crushing growing labor organizing. In April 1917, Governor J.A.A. Burnquist and the Minnesota legislature created the Minnesota Commission on Public Safety. It was formed to facilitate Minnesota’s contribution to the pro-British/French war effort. Practically, however, it was used to crush political opposition to the state’s Republican majority. It achieved its mission by scape-goating German-Americans.
On the ground, CPS propaganda efforts recast opposition to the war as evidence of anti-American disloyalty. CPS undercover agents regularly filed secret reports, enthusiastically finding subversion, particularly in German immigrant communities. The CPS created a non-National Guard, uniformed and armed “Home Guard” to protect businesses from rumored sabotage.
Mobs confronted German-Americans. A few people were tarred and feather, meaning that hot tar was smeared on their bodies and then they were doused in chicken feathers. German-Americans were made to publicly kneel and kiss the American flag. Some were ridden out of town on a rail, meaning that they were forcibly evicted from their communities under threat of further violence or death. Labor leaders were jailed. New Ulm’s mayor was removed from office by the Governor because the mayor questioned the national war decision and accompanying military draft. Burnquist’s action communicated a clear message regarding who was in control of Minnesota and the consequences of challenging that authority.
I’m sure that Governor Burnquist, state legislative leaders, anti-German mob members and the state-funded CPS apparatus whipping up all that fury believed in the correctness of their actions. I’m sure they believed that they were saving Minnesota from a grim future. I know that they were unwilling to compromise.
A hundred years later, a new CPS is hard to imagine, as is tarring and feathering. We’ve come a long way. Since WWI’s end, Minnesota dramatically expanded public infrastructure, creating extraordinary stability and prosperity. Those dark 1917-1919 days stand in stark contrast to our own progress. They also remind us what we face if we continue to undermine Minnesota’s strong school, healthcare, and economic development traditions. We can slide back. Discussion, negotiation and compromise are good things; a government shutdown is not.