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The State Constitutions of 1846 and 1848

For most of Wisconsin's territorial existence, political leaders and businessmen (often one and the same) had urged the territory's advancement toward statehood. They believed that statehood would give politicians both personal and political benefits by increasing their scope of power and influence. Businessmen would benefit from a more efficient and cohesive government that could more effectively attract investments from the East to aid Wisconsin's economic development.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had prescribed the conditions under which territories could be admitted as states. Whenever a territory's population reached 60,000 free inhabitants, it would be eligible for statehood with the same political rights as the original thirteen states. When statehood was first proposed, Wisconsin's population was small, but by 1845 it had grown to 155,000 -- far above the 60,000 minimum suggested by the Ordinance of 1787.

Despite four previously defeated attempts at statehood, a strongly Democratic territorial legislature under Governor Henry Dodge pushed through a referendum that received overwhelming majority support in 1846. While Wisconsin seemed set for a quick transition to statehood, the process of drafting and ratifying a state constitution quickly proved unexpectedly complicated.

In the fall of 1846, 124 elected delegates met at Madison to prepare a constitution. Though most of the delegates were Democrats, they consisted of several warring factions that argued for ten weeks before finally agreeing on a draft. The economic and social problems of the time, especially those concerning banks and paper money, received the most attention from the convention delegates. Influenced by President Andrew Jackson's conviction that metallic rather than paper money was the only safe currency, and that legislatures were too easily bribed by banks, antibank delegate Edward G. Ryan of Racine drafted an article that effectively prohibited all commercial banking in Wisconsin. Ryan's proposal forbade the legislature from creating or authorizing banks, banned all banking business in Wisconsin, and allowed the circulation of paper money only in denominations less than twenty dollars. Ryan's article passed by a vote of 79 to 27.

The convention concluded in December of 1846. Far more advanced and progressive than other states, Wisconsin's proposed constitution included a number of controversial articles besides that on banking. The 1846 constitution allowed immigrants who applied for citizenship to vote, granted married women the right to own property, and (perhaps most significant, and despite strong objections from politicians) made the question of black suffrage subject to popular referendum.

These provisions excited spirited debate. Few citizens of the territory were satisfied with the entire draft of the constitution, as shown by the documents included here. Each region of the territory reacted differently to these issues, but enough opposition surfaced to defeat the constitution and black suffrage in April of 1847.

A new convention met in December of 1847 and drafted a more acceptable and moderate constitution in only seven weeks. Using the results of the April vote to guide them, the delegates prepared a second document that omitted any mention of women's property rights or black suffrage. Suffrage was given to white native-born men, immigrant men who had declared their intention to become citizens, and Indians who had been declared U.S. citizens. The legislature was also allowed to charter banks after submitting the matter to popular vote. Wisconsin voters accepted the new constitution in March of 1848.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 1 and 2 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Gara, Larry. A Short History of Wisconsin. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: An African American attempts to vote in Milwaukee in 1865  An African American attempts to vote in Milwaukee in 1865
Link to article: Debates about suffrage during the 1846 convention.  Debates about suffrage during the 1846 convention.
Link to article: An anonymous writer advocates women's rights in the 1846 constitution.  An anonymous writer advocates women's rights in the 1846 constitution.
Link to article: A group expresses their opposition to women's rights  A group expresses their opposition to women's rights
Link to article: The Waukesha Freeman denounces the 1848 constitution  The Waukesha Freeman denounces the 1848 constitution
Link to article: A Racine attorney argues against giving women and immigrants rights  A Racine attorney argues against giving women and immigrants rights
Link to article: Delegates debate whether banks should be outlawed in the 1846 constitution.  Delegates debate whether banks should be outlawed in the 1846 constitution.
Link to article: An 1846 delegate offers a moderate position on banks.  An 1846 delegate offers a moderate position on banks.
Link to article: A Milwaukee newspaper disputes the results of the 1849 referendum on black suffrage  A Milwaukee newspaper disputes the results of the 1849 referendum on black suffrage
Link to article: The memoirs of Nelson Dewey, the state's first governor.  The memoirs of Nelson Dewey, the state's first governor.
Link to article: The Shooting in the Territorial Council - 1  The Shooting in the Territorial Council - 1
Link to article: Wisconsin voting and civil rights legislation, 1846-1929.  Wisconsin voting and civil rights legislation, 1846-1929.
Link to article: Wisconsin's Black citizens fight for suffrage, 1847-1869  Wisconsin's Black citizens fight for suffrage, 1847-1869
Link to artifacts: The Shooting in the Territorial Council - 2  The Shooting in the Territorial Council - 2
Link to book: The approved constitution of 1848  The approved constitution of 1848
Link to images: Early Wisconsin settler and Madison Promoter James Duane Doty  Early Wisconsin settler and Madison Promoter James Duane Doty
Link to manuscript: The rejected constitution of 1846  The rejected constitution of 1846
Link to manuscript: Northern settlers try to join Minnesota, 1847  Northern settlers try to join Minnesota, 1847
Link to places: Wisconsin State Capitol  Wisconsin State Capitol
Link to places: The first capitol in Belmont  The first capitol in Belmont
Link to places: Stonefield, home of Gov. Nelson Dewey and the State Agricultural Museum  Stonefield, home of Gov. Nelson Dewey and the State Agricultural Museum

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: The Wisconsin Constitution as it reads today.  The Wisconsin Constitution as it reads today.

Related Links

Read an article on the constitutions from the Wisconsin Bar Association.
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
A history of ethnic assimilation and the law, 1846-1920
A history of Wisconsin women's legal rights, 1846-1920
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights

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