I have had occasion recently to examine the circumstances under which Minnesota’s constitution came into being and have been intrigued by the story. You may remember that I appointed a Governor’s Advisory Committee on Constitutional Revision not long ago. Made up of some 30 outstanding men and women from many walks of life, the committee already has had two meetings and now is well started on its work. I am hopeful that the commission will be able to arouse interest in the need for revamping our antiquated constitution and increase support for calling a convention to make the needed revision.
Looking up the records in connection with this effort, I have come upon many interesting commentaries. Getting our present constitution formulated and adopted back in 1857 was quite an acrimonious affair, I find.
When delegates to the convention were elected, it was found that Republicans and Democrats were about equal in strength.
Anticipating trouble, the Republican members took possession the meeting hall at midnight, twelve hours before the convention was to open. W. H. C. Folsom, one of the members, said in describing the scene: “Occasionally, a delegate nervously examined his revolver as if he anticipated some necessity for its use.”
A few minutes before the appointed hour, the Democratic delegates burst into the hall. At the hour of noon, leaders of each group attempted to call the convention to order. Nominations were being shouted from the floor by members of both groups in a scene of wild confusion.
Each group finally completed an organization for the convention. The Democrats adjourned to another hall. Each group, claiming it was the legal convention, proceeded to draw up a constitution.
Finally, after many weeks of bitterness, it gradually became apparent that a state couldn’t operate under two constitutions, and cooler heads prevailed on the two factions to select a conference committee of five members from each group to work out a compromise. Probably no stormier session ever has been held. At one point, arguments so heated that Republican Thomas Wilson and Democrat Willis Gorman set upon each other with canes. Said a headline over a story of the incident in the Republican “Daily Minnesotan”: ‘Most Ruffianly Assault by Gov. Gorman Upon Republican Member of the Compromise Committee.” The Pioneer & Dem, with Democratic declinations, blamed Wilson, declaring, “He has shown himself to be possessed of an unbridled tongue and a malicious, quarrelsome and insulting disposition.”
The compromise committee hastily pieced together in a little over a week a constitution that included sections from the Democratic and Republican documents and many provisions not found in either. Two original copies were made, and each group passed its own copy with 24 hours, almost without debate. Said one delegate: “This is a dose that has to go down, and we might as well shut our eyes and open our mouths and take it.”
A total of 41 Democrats signed one copy, and 53 Republicans signed the other, neither being a majority of the 108 delegates. Comparison of the two documents later showed 300 differences in spelling and 17 discrepancies in wording. Since both enrolled originals are of equal validity, no one today can be sure he knows what the constitution contains. Questions even have been raised whether Minnesota has one constitution, two constitutions, or none.
But the demand for revision of our constitution is based not merely in uncertainties and weaknesses that come from the circumstances under which it was formulated. Time has brought many changes, and in many respects, it no longer meets the needs that have developed. Many sections are obsolete and no longer workable. Others need to be revamped. I hope to call some of them to your attention in later reports.