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My Minnesota: Lincoln's connection to Minnesota

  • Article by: James Lileks
  • Star Tribune
  • February 23, 2013 - 8:59 PM

With Oscar attention paid to “Lincoln,” people might wonder how much of a connection there is between the revered president and the state of Minnesota — aside from the valiant contributions of the 1st Minnesota Regiment at Gettysburg, of course.

Well ...

Lake Calhoun was named after John Calhoun, a segregationist vice president. He died years before Abraham Lincoln came to office, but one of the most popular pictures of Lincoln turns out to be his head on Calhoun’s body, more than a century before Photoshop — a program used by many Minnesotans — was invented.

So there’s that.

Looking for more, we turned to Michael Paulsen, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. You know anything about this Lincoln fellow?

“I’ve taught a seminar on Lincoln and the Constitution since the mid-1990s,” he says. “The really interesting constitutional issues weren’t the late 20th century but the mid-19th — secession, slavery, power to control slavery, war powers — all of the really interesting stuff was aired and to some extent settled around the time of Lincoln.”

Paulsen’s working on a book on the subject. You might learn something:

“The Emancipation Proclamation was justified in his eyes as a war powers measure. He didn’t have the authority to free slaves because he wanted to, but it was a convention of war that you could seize the resources of the enemy. So that which was regarded as property of the enemy forces was subject to capture and conversion to Union purposes. He seized upon that as the legal basis for emancipation.”

If this sounds familiar to people who saw the movie, it should. The professor found the movie “astonishingly accurate. There’s a scene early on where he explains his legal concerns, and he gives an extended speech. That speech doesn’t exist. It’s a collection and dramatization, but as a distillation of his views, it’s marvelous.”

All of which gets us no closer to the elusive Lincoln-Minnesota link, though. Help us out.

“There was a famous incident involving the Sioux Indian wars. Some of the most vicious, violent Indian wars were in Minnesota at that time. Eventually the white settlers win, and appoint military commissions to execute captured Sioux. Lincoln, to his great credit — in the midst of the worst times of the Civil War — personally reviews some 300 cases.”They’re all appealed to him as commander-in-chief, and he can issue pardons. He concludes that “some committed murderous war atrocities and some didn’t,” and he sorts through the records and makes the hard distinctions.

“It was politically unpopular in Minnesota, where some wanted to hang them all.”

And there’s your connection.

James Lileks

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