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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Constitutional Labor Pains


This week the world watches the people of Iraq try to form a new national government. Here in Wisconsin, we went through a similar phase 160-odd years ago when a rag-tag assemblage of pioneers attempted to invent first a territorial government and then, a decade later, a full-fledged state government. They faced some of the same difficulties we hear about from Baghdad.

For example, in late October 1836 the first territorial representatives met in Belmont, in southwestern Wisconsin. "I find as I anticipated," Henry Baird (1800-1875) wrote in a letter home, "a great want of legal talent... The representation is however, for a new country, by no means despicable, and much superior to my expectations." In another letter written a few days later, he sounds a note we've heard in recent weeks from Baghdad when he fears that "feelings of distrust and jealousy ... may materially interfere with our deliberations" and undermine the whole attempt at forming a viable state. But after a few weeks of shady wheeling and dealing, the capital was located at Madison and the government met there the following summer. This newborn baby called "Wisconsin" learned to crawl and then to walk during the 1830s and 1840s, as squealing pigs beneath the legislative chambers or gunfights by disputing lawmakers occasionally brought proceedings to an unexpected halt.

When the time came a decade later to draft a state constitution, as happened this year in Iraq, delegates wrangled for weeks to come up with a founding document that would meet everyone's wishes. It wasn't Shiite, Sunni and Kurd but rather Southern lead miner, French fur trader, and Yankee real estate speculator who faced off. The 1846 constitution, whose original manuscript is pictured here, was a utopian document full of absurd notions such as that married women should be allowed to own property or that black residents should be allowed to vote if a popular referendum endorsed the idea. When citizens turned out to vote for or against the new constitution, as they are doing this week in Iraq, the majority rejected such radical propositions and delegates went back to the drawing board. The following year a sanitized constitution that made no mention of women's rights or black suffrage was accepted by voters, and Wisconsin became the thirtieth state.

Inventing a government is no easier in Iraq in 2005 than it was in Wisconsin in 1836 or 1846. Even without a war going on, the process here took years of disputing, compromising, arguing, drafting, editing, redrafting, and voting before Wisconsin took the shape it has today. And in a democracy, of course, that work must be carried on forever as the government is perpetually held accountable to the wishes of its citizens.
:: Posted in Curiosities on October 12, 2005

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