Halvor Quie was an exception among the Minnesotans who answered the Union Army call in 1861, and not just because he was a Norwegian immigrant in a state then dominated by New England Yankees.

The 27-year-old bachelor farmer from Dennison hated slavery, relates his grandson, Al Quie, Minnesota’s 35th governor. Halvor had come to America in 1845 at age 11, learned to read English as a hired hand on a Wisconsin farm, and happened upon the 1850s best seller, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The book’s impact was what his grandson calls “an epiphany moment.”

Halvor became an avid abolitionist. When war came, he saw it as a chance to end slavery. He was so devoted to that cause that he recruited his neighbors to take up arms with him, inspiring one farm wife to chase him away with a horse whip. Or so Quie children told their children, and the former governor told me.

That much antislavery passion made Halvor a rare bird among the several thousand Minnesotans who stepped forward to fight for their new country in the spring of 1861, barely three years after being granted statehood. So I concluded from the exhibit that opened this month at the Minnesota History Center, “Minnesota and the Civil War,” and a conversation with History Center director Dan Spock.

It’s an exhibit that lets a visitor peer into the crucible of violence and conflicting values that forged this state in its youth. And it’s not a bad frame of reference for the quarrels that continue to this day at the other end of John Ireland Boulevard — or will this week as legislators return to the Capitol from spring break.

“Ending slavery was not the motivating factor for the vast majority of men who initially volunteered to fight against the Confederacy,” says an exhibit panel. “Many Northerners believed the U.S. Constitution protected the right to own African Americans.” The U.S. Supreme Court had told them as much in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Minnesota in the late 1850s was building a tourism industry. Though the state Constitution forbade slavery, some entrepreneurs didn’t let legalities get in the way of commerce. Southern tourists were invited to bring their slaves with them to the handsome new Winslow House in St. Anthony. A Stillwater Gazette editorial assured sojourners that they’d be unbothered by “odious” abolitionists here.

One slave woman, Eliza Winston, escaped from her Mississippi owners during their Winslow House stay. She was granted her freedom by an antislavery Minneapolis judge named Vanderburgh — but she also had to be shielded from mob violence outside the courthouse. Amid threats, she bravely spoke at an antislavery meeting on Oct. 19, then vanished, one hopes to freer “free” territory.

But that was in 1860. By 1863, Minnesota views were changing. Like the rest of the nation, Minnesotans sought a higher purpose to justify the bloodbaths the state’s soldiers experienced at Bull Run, Antietam (where Halvor Quie nearly lost his leg) and Gettysburg, where 215 of 262 Minnesotans fell dead or wounded in a pivotal charge down Cemetery Ridge on July 2, 1863.

They agreed with President Abraham Lincoln’s judgment that ending slavery was critical to winning the war. The freedom of slaves in Southern states “became a military and a heightened moral issue,” the History Center exhibit says.

That’s not to say that Minnesotans were ready to accept African-Americans as full citizens. The exhibit describes the near-panic of the local constabulary in May 1863 when a group of 76 freed slaves, soon to be joined by 130 more, arrived by steamship in St. Paul. They came looking for paid work, much as did earlier Irish immigrants who weren’t thrilled to see more competition for jobs.

The St. Paul Daily Press of May 6, 1863, referred to the arrival as a “thundercloud.” (Some of those first “pilgrims” would go on to found Pilgrim Baptist Church, a blessing to St. Paul to this day.)

It took three tries before the state’s voters agreed in 1868 to give black men the vote. (Women had to wait 52 years longer.) A relatively small black population in early Minnesota made racial justice more a matter of theory than practice for most Minnesotans until well into the 20th century.

Some would say that’s still true. They’d point to what Gov. Quie calls “the worst crime we commit” — the achievement gap in the state’s public schools between white and nonwhite children.

Minnesota has been too tolerant of a learning gap that persistently has been measured as the widest in the nation. Lawmakers have resisted pleas to better fund the most promising tool society has for closing that gap, high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families.

That’s been so despite the love for education that runs deep in Minnesota and was deepened by the Civil War. Halvor Quie came home to work as a teacher while he nursed his mangled leg. Back to farming and no longer a bachelor in the 1870s, he helped found St. Olaf College, using his bilingual ability to convince his fellow Norwegian immigrants that their children needed to be well-educated if both they and Minnesota were to thrive.

Do Minnesotans believe that still? A color-coded map in last week’s Economist magazine should make this state’s stewards wince. It shows that Minnesota ranks among the stingiest states in provision of early childhood education for 4-year-olds. Plenty of states in the old Confederacy do better.

Early childhood education is part of a funding tussle that will play out in the remaining seven weeks of the 2013 legislative session. The Legislature’s DFL leaders are enamored of the idea of fully funding all-day kindergarten. They are less vocal about Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to provide scholarships that needy parents can use to send their children to high-performing preschools.

That’s so even though research shows that while all-day kindergarten is nice to have — and politically popular with middle-class parents — intervention with at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds is crucial to closing the learning gap.

In 1860, Minnesotans were frontier folk without much sense of themselves or their state as special. By 1865, they were fully connected to and invested in the nation. War veterans came home convinced that the Minnesota they were building could rank among the nation’s leaders in opportunity, prosperity and justice.

That ambition has elevated this state for 150 years. But it’s due for some renewal.


Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She can be reached at lsturdevant@startribune.com.