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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Debunking: Dewey or Don't We?


Each Wednesday, an entirely different version of Odd Wisconsin runs on the front page of the Local section in the Wisconsin State Journal (like this online version, it is written by Society staff). Two weeks ago that column (given below) poked a bit of fun at Gov. Nelson Dewey (1813-1889), highlighting his eccentricities and calling attention to the odd fact that a public figure so prominent in the state's history should have died in utter obscurity.

Some readers in Cassville -- where Dewey spent most of his life and where his home is a historic site (Stonefield) that includes the State Agricultural Museum -- were disappointed in the article and contacted us. They pointed out a historical error we'd made (their town was founded in 1827 rather than 1836) and a mis-leading turn of phrase, but were most dismayed that we'd chosen to highlight unattractive traits in Dewey's character rather than laudable ones.

We should always feel grateful when our errors are corrected. None of us is as wise as all of us, and only by having mistakes pointed out do we improve. So, too, with lapses of style. Odd Wisconsin is meant to entertain readers for a moment or two, in 250 words or less, and its success depends on clear and effective prose. We admit failure on both those counts (noted in the text below), thank our readers for their criticism, and hope to do better in the future.

But do we want to ignore, or to expose, the flaws of our heroes? It was probably unfair to highlight Dewey's oddities while saying nothing at all about his admirable qualities. But we would argue that to learn that our heroes were fallible -- that they chain-smoked cheap cigars, lost their tempers, trampled blithely over loved ones, drank too much, periodically went insane, were perpetually in debt, and so forth -- only makes them seem more human, more vital, more lovable. It also inspires hope, for if they could achieve greatness in the face of such obstacles, what may not we ourselves achieve, burdened only with the usual petty neuroses of modern life?

Dewey was as deeply heroic and deeply flawed as most public figures. You can balance the eccentricities we emphasized, if you wish, by reading his short autobiography and tributes by friends in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History online collection.

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The article sent to the Wisconsin State Journal read:

"Yesterday was the birthday of our most eccentric governor, Nelson Dewey.

"Convinced that Wisconsin’s capital would be located on the Mississippi, Dewey founded the town of Cassville there in 1836 [untrue; settlers had arrived in 1827]. The capital passed it by, and Cassville became home to the State Agricultural Museum instead [mis-leading; the two events were entirely unconnected]. In 1848, when infighting paralyzed the Democratic convention, Dewey emerged as a compromise candidate for governor. To everyone’s surprise, he won the popular election and became Wisconsin’s first chief executive.

"Chain-smoking cheap cigars and “never backward about coming forward and calling the average grafter ‘a damned scoundrel,’” Dewey’s main job from 1848 to 1852 was to get the government up and running. His most lasting legacy is the state motto, “Forward.” Supreme Court justice Edward Ryan wanted “Excelsior” engraved on the state seal but Dewey, who was recalled as “not being an easy man to get along with [and] bound to have his way,” ultimately prevailed. Forward the state went.

"Being Wisconsin’s first governor didn’t guarantee fame or fortune, though. A staunch Democrat, Dewey was marginalized when Republicans seized the Capitol after the Civil War. He eked out a living as a pugnacious attorney but ultimately lost his savings, his home, and even his family. In old age he was given a sinecure as a prison inspector, living out of a suitcase and sleeping on a cot at Waupun. He died in 1889 wretchedly poor, a friend surmising that most people “did not know whether he were living or dead” when he finally passed away." [all supported by this memoir by an old friend]


:: Posted in Odd Lives on January 3, 2007

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