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Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State

SOS Notes on Historical Documents

Magna Carta
Before writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Founding Fathers searched for a historical precedent for asserting their freedom from King George III and the English Parliament. They found it in the Magna Carta. Just as the Magna Carta stood as a bulwark against tyranny, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights today serve similar roles.

The Mayflower Compact
The Mayflower Compact arose from the Pilgrim’s perceived need to establish legitimacy for their settlement of New England and their desire to provide order within their community. Their aim was two-fold: to assert a degree of independence from England that would allow them to live as religious Separatists but also to keep the ties to the authority of the crown in England strong enough to appease members of their colony who did  not share their religious views.

While the Mayflower Compact had little practical effect at the time, it nevertheless became a vital element of Pilgrim legend and served as the symbol of all democratic institutions that would evolve in America in the future.

The text is taken from Gov. Bradford’s of Plymouth Plantation, as the original document no longer exists. Nathaniel Morton, Bradford’s nephew and Plymouth Colony’s first published historian, gives the listed names as signers of the document.

Fundamental Orders of 1639
Three small towns along the Connecticut River in New England (Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor) held a special convention to form an alliance for their common good.  With the Fundamental Orders, they created the first written constitution that set limitations on the government’s power, that established a representative system of government, and that provided the right to vote to all free men.

The Fundamental Orders gave mankind the basic principles of democratic and representative government.  In addition, the Fundamental Orders introduced a political relationship between the towns and the central government that ultimately the framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated into that document 150 years later.

One feature of the Fundamental Orders is particularly noteworthy and distinguishes it from the Mayflower Compact: the absence of any reference to England or the King or the British Parliament.

Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence marks our nation’s birth and describes the reasons for its separation from England. The declaration set in motion the actions that would establish an autonomous nation on the North American continent and give that new nation incentive to gain territory and increase strength. America would be the first of a new kind of nation that Europe had not seen before.

Northwest Ordinance
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was made possible when several states, including Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and Connecticut released their claims to the land area west of the Appalachian Mountains extending to the Mississippi River. This area became known as the Northwest Territory.

The Ordinance of 1787 established a government over the Northwest Territory and gave impetus to westward expansion. This outstanding governmental document gave first national recognition to the Bill of Rights, abolished primogeniture, provided for the encouragement of education, prohibited slavery, and established the principle that new states should be admitted to the federal government on equal footing with the original states.

The full effect of the Northwest Ordinance upon Minnesota law has yet to be determined. For example, the question of whether common law in Minnesota dates from the revolution or from the Ordinance of 1787 has been left open by decisions of the Minnesota courts.

The ordinance provided for the formation out of the Northwest Territory of not less than three nor more than five states. The states were to be admitted to the federal government on an equal footing with the original states.

By May of 1848 five states had been formed out of the Northwest Territory: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The state of Wisconsin was organized out of the territory of Wisconsin, the last remnant of the Northwest Territory. Although in 1848 the territory of Wisconsin extended to the Mississippi River, the state of Wisconsin voluntarily limited its western boundary to the St. Croix River. This boundary limitation by the state of Wisconsin left the land area between the St. Croix and the Mississippi available for eventual inclusion in the state of Minnesota.

The state of Minnesota can trace much of its fundamental governmental principles, and a substantial portion of its territory, back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

United States Constitution
In 1787, the original states, except Rhode Island, collectively appointed 70 men to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In all 55 attended, and 39 signed the Constitution. The Constitution’s framers worked to develop a document that would provide a stronger central government than the Articles of Confederation but that would also preserve tenets of independence and individual rights espoused by other fundamental documents like the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence. The framers drew heavily upon Athenian and English political philosophy to find the right balance.

The Constitution was adopted Sept. 17, 1787, by the unanimous consent of the states present in the convention appointed pursuant to the resolution of the Congress of the confederation, of the February 21, 1787, and was ratified by the conventions of the several states, as follows:  By convention of Delaware, Dec. 7, 1787; Pennsylvania, Dec. 12, 1787; New Jersey, Dec. 18, 1787; Georgia, Jan. 2, 1788; Connecticut, Jan. 9, 1788; Massachusetts, Feb. 6, 1788; Maryland, April 28, 1788; South Carolina, May 23, 1788; New Hampshire, June 21, 1788; Virginia, June 26, 1788; New York, July 26, 1788; North Carolina, Nov. 21, 1789; Rhode Island, May 29, 1790.

The first ten of the amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were proposed at the first session of the First Congress of the United States, Sept. 25, 1789; and were finally ratified by the constitutional number of states Dec. 15, 1791. The eleventh amendment was proposed at the first session of the Third Congress, March 5, 1794, and was declared in a message from the president of the United States to both houses of Congress, dated Jan. 8, 1798, to have been adopted by the constitutional number of states. The twelfth amendment was proposed at the first session of the Eighth Congress, Dec. 12, 1803, and was adopted by the constitutional number of states in 1804, according to a public notice thereof by the secretary of state, dated Sept. 25, 1804.

The Minnesota Constitution
In accordance with the enabling act of February 26, 1857, an election was held on June 1, 1857, at which Republican and Democratic delegates were elected to the constitutional convention. When these delegates assembled in St. Paul on July 13, 1857, to draft the Minnesota constitution, bitterness between the two parties was so intense that Republican delegates and Democratic delegates refused to meet in the same convention. As a result each party held separate sessions in different rooms of the first capitol building.

The Democratic “convention” was presided over by Henry H. Sibley, later elected first governor of Minnesota. The Republican “convention” was presided over first by John W. North, and later by St. Andrew D. Balcombe.

The political cleavage was so great that the two bodies never acted in joint meeting during the entire constitutional convention: July 13 to Aug. 29. The final work was done through a conference committee composed of five conferees from each of the conventions. The conferees, by reporting to and receiving advice from their respective conventions, were able to draft a constitution that would be acceptable to both bodies. On August 28, 1857, in spite of numerous protests by delegates, the report of the conference committee was adopted without amendment by both the Republican and Democratic conventions.

However, when it came time to sign the constitution, the bitter feeling was still so intense that Democrats would not sign an instrument which bore Republican signatures, and the Republicans objected to signing an instrument that bore the signatures of Democrats. The solution to this impasse: two constitutions. One constitution was written on white paper and signed only by Republicans. The other constitution was written on blue-tinted paper and signed only by Democrats.

Thus, on the 29th day of August, after seven weeks of political dispute and disagreement, the two conventions adjourned when as many members as could bring themselves to do so signed the copy of the constitution enrolled for their particular convention.

The schedule to the constitution provided for an election to be held on October 13, 1857. At this election the voters were to accept or reject the constitution. The ballots used for this purpose were printed to provide only for affirmative votes. A voter who wished to reject the constitution had to alter his ballot and write in a negative vote. The result: 30,055 for acceptance and 571 for rejection.

The procedure for acquiring statehood not only requires a constitution to be approved by the voters of the proposed state, the constitution must also be approved by Congress. In December of 1857 the Minnesota constitution was submitted to the United States Senate for ratification.

A certified copy of the Democratic constitution was transmitted to the senate by the territorial secretary: a Democrat. This copy was attached to the bill for the admission of Minnesota into the union. However, when the bill was reported back from the senate, historians report that the Republican constitution was attached. In any event, there is substantial authority that both constitutions were before Congress when Minnesota was admitted to the union on May 11, 1858.

In reality, the constitution ratified by Congress was not the original constitution. At the election of October 13, 1857, in addition to voting on the constitution, the voters elected executive, legislative and judicial officers. The state officers were content to wait for the act of Congress before assuming office. But the legislature took a contrary view. It convened on December 3, 1857, on the theory that under the enabling act the statehood of Minnesota began when the voters approved the constitution. Even though this theory was incorrect, the legislature proceeded to enact laws, the effects of which have remained undisturbed by the courts.

The first two acts passed by the legislature were proposed amendments to the constitution. One amendment authorized a loan to railroads of $5 million and the other related to the term of office of the first state officers. These amendments were ratified by the voters at a special election held April 15, 1858. It would appear that the constitution that Congress approved on May 11, 1858, was an amended constitution, not the original adopted by the constitutional convention and approved by the voters in 1857.

The legislature in 1971 established a constitutional study commission to review the constitution and make recommendations to maintain its utility. After two years’ study, the commission recommended that an amendment restructuring the constitution for easy reference and rewriting it in modern language be prepared.

The amendment was introduced and passed in both houses, signed by the governor, and approved by the voters on November 5, 1974. The previous wording of the constitution is printed, with all the amendments approved by voters since its adoption in 1857, in the Minnesota Legislative Manual 1973–74, pages 445–484. The amendment approved in 1974 did not alter the meaning of the constitution. In cases of constitutional law, the original document remains the final authority.

The Organic Act of 1849
Congress passed the Organic Act on March 3, 1849, to provide for the organization of the territorial government of Minnesota. (The word “organic” means “organizational” in this context.) The boundaries of the territory of Minnesota were Canada on the north, Wisconsin on the east, Iowa on the south, and the Missouri and White Earth rivers on the west.

The movement to create a territorial government arose from the necessity for formal government in the land area remaining after formation of the states of Wisconsin and Iowa.

The formation of the state of Iowa in 1846 left Minnesota’s land area west of the Mississippi without territorial government. The triangular area between the St. Croix River and the Mississippi River was left without territorial government when the state of Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in 1848. By 1848 the land area from the St. Croix River west to the Missouri and White Earth Rivers was without territorial government, a veritable “no man’s land.” Consequently, when Henry H. Sibley was elected delegate to Congress from this area, he worked with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, chairman of the senate committee on territories, to bring about passage of an organic act for the establishment of territorial government for Minnesota.

The organic act provided for a governor, secretary, judicial system, legislative assembly, and a delegate to Congress. Legislators and the delegate to Congress were elected; all other officers were appointed.

The legislative assembly consisted of two houses, a council composed of nine members and a house of representatives with 18 members. The first session of the legislature convened on September 3, 1849, in the Central House at the corner of Bench and Minnesota Streets in St. Paul. Since that time St. Paul has been the capital of Minnesota.

An important provision of the organic act was the reservation of sections 16 and 36 of each township for school purposes.

The Enabling Act for the state of Minnesota
Minnesota progressed under the territorial government, but many groups felt that progress would be accelerated if Minnesota were a state.

Henry M. Rice, delegate to Congress from the territory of Minnesota, at the opening of Congress in December 1856 introduced a bill for an act to authorize a state government for Minnesota.

The Rice bill proposed that the north, south, and east boundaries of Minnesota be continued, and that the west boundary be established as a line beginning at a point in the center of the main channel of the Red River of the North at the Canadian border and running south through Lake Traverse, through Big Stone Lake, to the Big Sioux River, and to the northwest corner of Iowa. In place of the Big Sioux River, Congress substituted a line from the outlet of Big Stone Lake due south to the Iowa border. Considerable controversy had arisen in the territory over proposed boundaries for the state of Minnesota. There were two general groups, the east and west group and the north and south group. The east and west group proposed the Missouri River as the west boundary, and a point just north of St. Paul as the north boundary. The Rice bill followed the proposal of the north and south group.

The bill for an enabling act was not without opposition in Congress. However, Minnesota again found a friend in Senator Stephen A. Douglas who was still chairman of the senate committee on territories. The enabling act passed Congress and was approved on February 27, 1857.

In addition to establishing state boundaries, the enabling act provided for a constitutional convention and an election of delegates to that convention. It further provided that the following proposals be submitted for the consideration of the constitutional convention: that 72 sections of land be reserved and set aside for a state university; that 10 sections be granted to the state to complete and erect public buildings at the capitol; that all salt springs be granted to the state for its use; and that 5 percent of proceeds from the sale by Congress of public lands lying within the state be used to build roads.

The enabling act also authorized the state of Minnesota to have one representative in Congress and such additional representatives as the population of the state would entitle it to at the current ratio of representation. For the purpose of determining the population, the act authorized a census to be taken by the United States marshal. The census was completed in October of 1857; population of the territory was 150,037.

Congressional Act of Admission of Minnesota into the Union
Acceptance by Congress is the final act in the process of being admitted as a state. A bill for the admission of Minnesota into the Union was submitted to Congress in December of 1857.

The bill for admission encountered several obstacles. The Minnesota bill was coupled with the bill for the admission of Kansas. It was customary to admit states in pairs to preserve the balance of power in Congress:  a state that permitted slavery would be linked with a state that prohibited slavery. Minnesota was to be a free state, Kansas a slave state. The proposal to admit Kansas was made under its fraudulent Lecompton constitution. The fraud in the adoption of the Kansas constitution was so glaring that admission under it was abandoned, delaying the Minnesota bill for several months. Minnesota’s bill also met with general opposition from congressmen from southern slave states.

On May 11, 1858, the bill for the admission of Minnesota was passed by Congress and approved by President James Buchanan. However, word of its passage did not reach St. Paul until almost two weeks later. Minnesota had no telegraph lines or railroads, so a telegram was sent to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and carried up the Mississippi River to St. Paul by steamboat. On May 24, 1858, the state officers took their oaths of office and Minnesota’s state government began to function.

This ended the long trek toward statehood, which had seen the area of the state of Minnesota under four nations: France, Spain, Great Britain and the United States, and under nine territories: Northwest, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Amendments to the Minnesota Constitution Proposed to the Voters
From 1858 until 1898, the Minnesota Constitution required that a proposed amendment be approved by a simple majority of both chambers of the legislature and then ratified by a simple majority of the voters at the next general election who voted “yes” or “no” on the proposed amendment. The total number of voters who cast any ballot at the election did not determine whether an amendment was approved or rejected. The total election vote figures set forth below for 1858 through 1898 are for historical information only.

Since 1898, the Minnesota Constitution has required that a constitutional amendment be approved by a simple majority of both chambers of the legislature at one session, and then ratified by “a majority of all the electors voting at the election,” whether or not the voter casts a “yes” or “no” vote on a proposed amendment. (Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution of Minnesota). Therefore, although the following table may indicate that more votes were cast to approve an amendment than the votes cast to reject the amendment, the amendment may still have failed because a majority of all voters at the election did not cast a “yes” vote.

For more detailed information concerning the constitutional amendment process in Minnesota, refer to “Amending Our State Constitution: Continuity Through Ordered Change,” by Betty Kane, 1981.

Last updated: 3/2/2011 1:42:57 PM