Commentary: A snapshot of Lincoln 200 years after birth
It is one of my duties as Minnesota's commissioner on the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to outline the president's impact upon Minnesota. It is appropriate to highlight Lincoln and Minnesota now, since Feb. 12 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Lincoln never visited our state but his influence was felt directly in Minnesota. He championed the Homestead Act that offered 160 acres virtually free to those who came to settle. The Transcontinental Railroad Act led to transcontinental railroads spanning the west and Minnesota. The Morrill Land Grant Act resulted in the establishment of the University of Minnesota. But Lincoln is most closely identified with Minnesota as a result of the Dakota Conflict of 1862.
I have found this to be a most controversial involvement. As president, Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men on Dec. 26, 1862. The following year he signed the Indian Removal Act that moved all Dakota from the state. Understandably, many current Dakota people are resentful because of this. But, considering the time and place he lived in, Lincoln believed he was right in his actions. He was given the names of 303 men sentenced to die.
Lincoln ordered that each case be reviewed by his staff and that only those guilty of the most heinous crimes be executed. He spared 265, believing that the "worst of the worst" had been identified for the hangman.
Unfortunately, mistakes were still made and some innocents were led up the gallows.
The next year President Lincoln oversaw the removal of all Dakota from Minnesota. In the case of the executions and the removal, Lincoln had to deal with immense pressure from Minnesota and our elected officials.
Congressman Windom said, "The outraged people of Minnesota will dispose of the wretches without law. These two peoples cannot live together." Senator Wilkinson added, "Either the Indians must be punished according to law, or they will be murdered without law."
Governor Ramsey sent a telegram that read, "Nothing but the speedy execution of the tried and convicted Sioux Indians will save us from scenes of outrage. If you prefer to turn them over to me, I will order their execution." In other words, Lincoln was being told that unless he ordered the execution of all 303 and removed the rest from Minnesota, the people of the state would take matters into their own hands.
Right or wrong, Lincoln believed that by ordering the execution of 38 and by moving the Dakota, he was saving lives of the Indians. He made two very telling statements: "I will not hang men by the hundreds," and when told clemency could hurt him politically, "I will not hang men for votes."
Let us remember Abraham Lincoln for the profound impact he has had on Minnesota and our nation. Let us remember his steadfast devotion to the preservation of the Union and, yes, let us remember the Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how he struggled to do what he thought was right. History will continue to judge his justification.
Dean Urdahl, District 18B Representative in the Minnesota House, is the author of "Uprising," a novel about the 1862 Dakota Conflict.