By Mark Ritchie, Secretary of State
On May 11, 2008, Statehood Day, Minnesota will celebrate 150 years of statehood—our sesquicentennial. On this date and throughout the year, communities, groups, and individuals across the state will organize events and projects to help us reflect on our history and accomplishments. Equally important, our sesquicentennial offers an extraordinary opportunity to plan ahead and to plant the new seeds needed to ensure we continue to grow toward our dreams.
European immigrants who came to this region in the early 1800s found communities of indigenous people, some of whom had arrived centuries earlier. They also found rich soils, dense forests, and powerful waters that made farming and logging a solid foundation for our state’s early economy. As the population grew, these new immigrants began to push for formal recognition as a state from the federal government. Several important motivations led the drive towards this expanded self-governance of statehood.
First, the waves of immigrants arriving at this time were largely from other countries where freedom and its responsibilities were the subjects of ongoing, intense debate. Many of the new residents flooding our region as a result of U.S. government subsidies had come to America for freedom and opportunity. They knew from their own experience that these gifts did not happen automatically or magically. Self-governance for mutual benefit required the creation of governmental institutions with powers and with limits.
For example, it was clear to many of the early settlers that if you could not read, write, or do basic arithmetic, you could not fully participate in the democratic process. In our state’s founding constitution, the mandated governmental obligation was to provide a “general and uniform system of public schools.” Many of our modern democratic institutions reflect the combined influences of the indigenous people who first occupied these lands and the homeland experiences of the later immigrants who came from Europe.
Second, the growth in the size of our population demanded new relationships and structures. We needed laws written down so that everyone knew the rules. And we needed leaders we could trust to enforce these rules. We were willing to give authority and power to tax, spend, and declare war to a handful of people, but we did this knowing that “we the people” would be picking these powerful few and that we retained the right to “unpick” them in the next election if we were not satisfied with their leadership. Unfortunately, not everyone was allowed to vote in these elections—with Native Americans and women totally excluded. This injustice has been addressed over time, but some of the damage to our democracy still haunts us today.
Third, we wanted to be heard in Washington, D.C., in congress, where decisions were being made that affected our ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. As a territory, we lived under national laws and edicts in which we did not have any say. As a state we could send voting representatives who could join as full partners in the great debates over slavery, war and peace, and taxation.
So much has happened in the 150 years that has confirmed the wisdom of statehood. We have expanded liberty and justice for all—slowly, at times, but surely towards an ever-expanding electorate. The role of the sovereign nations of indigenous people that exist within the state’s borders has always been complicated, but there are many positive signs in the new partnerships that have been growing over the past few decades. While discrimination and even violence against Native Americans still occurs today, there is a strong commitment on the part of our government to address these issues.
Since the early days of statehood, we have been a progressive people. Our population and voting rights have expanded alongside our governmental institutions—our schools, hospitals, libraries, police and fire protections, parks, and so much more. We are proud of our heritage, and we are dedicated to protecting it at home and defending it abroad. The heroism of Minnesota’s soldiers from the Civil War to the World Wars and into our modern day is a measure of this dedication.
We have been successful in getting our voice heard in Washington, D.C., in all branches of government. The U.S. Supreme Court has been enriched by many jurists, including Justice Warren Burger, a Minnesota native who was the longest-serving chief justice in U.S. history. While no president has come from Minnesota yet, we have sent dozens of executive branch leaders and two vice presidents to lead our great nation.
In congress we have been blessed with powerful voices–throughout our entire 150 year history. Today we have members who chair important committees and sit in key leadership positions in both parties.
It was a good decision to move from territorial status to statehood 150 years ago. But where do we go from here? While we cannot predict the future, we can see the outlines of its promises and its challenges. We have no other choice than to embrace it, buoyed by the sacrifice, wisdom, and support of those Minnesotans who came before us.
Like our magnificent white pines that approach maturity at 150 years, our state is just beginning to mature. We are able to enjoy some of the benefits of these 150 years of growth, such as our strong democracy and successful public and private institutions. We have important responsibilities that come with maturity, such as thoughtfully planning for the future and addressing the plight of Minnesotans who still suffer from neglect or discrimination.
We know that the decisions made 150 years ago shaped our current economy, democracy, and natural environment. Investments we make today, inspired by our sesquicentennial achievements, will likewise shape the Minnesota we leave to coming generations.
Our 150th birthday gives us a special reason to pause and reflect, to stand tall and celebrate, to sing praises and offer thanks. This special sesquicentennial edition of the Minnesota Legislative Manual is our modest contribution toward that effort, from the Office of the Secretary of State.
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