“The property . . . of all persons in the state of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States . . . is declared to be confiscated to the public use, and their slaves . . . are hereby declared freemen.”
Gen. John C. Fremont
August 30, 1861
A steadfast conviction is something that is rare and respected in American politics. Unfortunately if it is not joined with good timing it can be disastrous. The Minnesota territory played a significant role in the maturing of one of the most steadfast in conviction politicians in American history: John C. Fremont.
Fremont was not so much remembered for his political involvement but as a military man and explorer. Fremont would have been little known to American history had he not caught the fancy of and married Jesse Benton, daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As a champion of Western expansion between the 1830s and 1860s Senator Benton was able to get his son-in-law a commission on an exploration to map the Minnesota Territory in the 1830s that would be led by Joseph Nicollet. It was on this mapping expedition where Fremont distinguished himself and carefully learned wilderness exploration skills.
With these skills he put together and led a team of mountain men including Kit Carson to map most of the major routes through the Rocky Mountains between the 1840s and into the early 1850s. Those routes are still used today as major interstate highways and railroads. His exploits made him one of the most famous Americans of his time.
In addition to being the famed “Pathfinder” of America he helped in bringing about the conquest of California and was actually the first Republican nominee for presidency in 1856. He lost to Democrat James Buchanan due in large part to his strong antislavery conviction. It is unfortunate that at this time in our history our country was not ready to free the slaves. In 1860 Republicans decided to go with the less strident candidate on the issue of freeing the slaves in the South by the name of Abraham Lincoln.
Because of Fremont’s fame and connection to Missouri through his in-laws he was named the Commander General of the Western Department of the Civil War at its beginning. Headquartered in St. Louis, he issued the above proclamation with huge disapproval from the border slave state of Missouri and from President Lincoln. The first Emancipation Proclamation of the war was actually overturned by order of the President only a few days later with a clear explanation that this war was not about freeing the slaves. This nearly divided the north and Fremont was reassigned to a command in West Virginia.
Fremont’s convictions were later proven correct, but his timing was a little bit off. Unfortunately for the first Republican majority to control both houses of the Minnesota Legislature in modern history, their timing happens to be as bad as that of the first Republican nominee for president.
Whether or not you believe in a smaller state government and a less active legislature these are truly held convictions of Republicans in our legislature. Therefore several Republican legislators view it as a badge of honor that they are called a “do-nothing legislature” in the central talking points of their DFL opponents. In many ways those of us in the conservation community would be okay with them doing nothing as opposed to dismantling environmental protections as has occurred in several pieces of legislation this session, most of which have been signed by our DFL governor.
Unfortunately for the true believers of limited government, the timing of the Republican caucus leaders could not be worse. Instead of getting out of session before Easter break with the tax bill on the Governor’s desk, they were still stumbling around trying to find a unified message. They are now lingering around several weeks later at the Capitol trying to put together a crony capitalism style solution to subsidize professional football. This week the Republican majority came up with a new football stadium plan that called for smaller state commitment for infrastructure only, but this came across with the timing of a lawyer joke at a judge’s convention.
From the beginning of session Republican leadership has failed to spell out a clear limited agenda in a unified fashion, giving their opponents plenty of opportunities to attack. To add insult to injury, the Senate Republican caucus was wracked with soap opera style scandals that are contrary to their stated beliefs. Further deteriorating their credibility as fiscal managers is the sad fact that the Republican Party was not paying their rent and is millions of dollars in debt.
There is a lot that goes into the electoral mix that will have an impact on the legislative races this fall, but their treatment of conservation issues is another sign that Republicans are starting off on the wrong foot. Almost all successful conservation initiatives that have passed in Minnesota have been the result of a strong bipartisan coalition. There is a simple reason. Protecting our lakes, lands and outdoor way of life is important to voters of all political stripes.