From President of Canada to Governor of the People
From the Wisconsin territorial capitol, Abram D. Smith captivated his audience with tales of an electrified future of global republicanism.
Abram Smith on Texas Annexation
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Abram D. Smith, the one‐time President of the Republic of Canada, moved to the Wisconsin Territory in 1842. By this point in his life, Smith had become quite the frontier‐hopper. He was born in upstate New York (where he regularly consumed radical locofocoism from New York City), he moved to Cleveland between 1834 and 1837 (the exact date is unclear), and on to Milwaukee just a few years later. While in Cleveland, of course, he participated in the Canadian Rebellions of 1837–39 and he boosted for Texas annexation in Wisconsin. Smith was the archetypical frontier American—and if only he had slaughtered a bear with his hands, or fought the Indians or Mexicans, we might well remember him today. Instead of becoming that sort of folk hero, he was a lawyer, a local politician, even a state Supreme Court Justice, and an early libertarian. So, naturally, almost no one has ever heard his name.
Yet this is the man who nullified the Fugitive Slave Act on states’ rights grounds. He helped start a whole movement of northern states ignoring unjust national laws. Years before that, though—before Wisconsin was even granted statehood (1849)—Abram D. Smith was your run‐of‐the‐mill, on‐the‐ground radical Democratic activist. He liked to call himself “Governor of the People,” and quickly became known for the same reasons people knew him in Cleveland: he gave public speeches laced with grandiose visions for global republicanism, free people around the globe wakening, breaking their chains, and transforming their world. Smith always had much more faith in America than he did in America’s politicians, so as “Governor of the People,” he tried to both inspire and instruct his audience. Inspire them to spontaneous, individual action and instruct them on the best ways to accomplish their ends together.
In 1846, the all‐encompassing issue of the day was Texas—Should the United States annex her, and risk war with Mexico? Or should they let her go and risk annexation by Great Britain? It was the deciding factor in the presidential election of 1844, and once the pro‐Texas James K. Polk was elected, outgoing president John Tyler went to work signing a treaty. Texas joined the United States on December 29, 1845. Abram Smith gave the following speech just a few weeks later, on January 20, 1846. To him, Texas was a singular event in world history, a harbinger for all the better days yet to come. Never before had two sovereign nations peacefully and voluntarily merged their institutions together—this was how America should work. All the nations of the world could theoretically apply for US statehood. Texas was just the first. Throughout his stump speech, Smith connects the diverse themes of Manifest Destiny together with hefty amounts of humor (okay, well, mid‐nineteenth century humor). Not only was there the amazing Texas triumph, but telegraph lines were quickly crisscrossing the country and revolutionizing commerce and culture. On top of that, Wisconsinites were preparing for their own statehood and Smith offered his listeners a rash of locofoco policy proposals to rocket them all forward into the vastest, deepest frontier of all: The Future.
Three months later, Polk ordered American soldiers into disputed territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers. Mexican soldiers fired on the Americans, Polk demanded a declaration of war, and the grisly work of imperialism was in full swing.
Madison: Beriah Brown, People’s Printer. 1846.
Message of His Excellency, A.D. Smith, Governor of the People, Delivered at The Capitol, January 20, 1846
Your Executive congratulates you on the choice you have made, and takes great pleasure in assuring you that you could not have given better evidences of your wisdom, and capacity for self government.
Agreeably to usage, and in conformity with law by yourselves enacted, it becomes my duty to say something to you, which you will perceive I am determined to do.
In performing this duty, I cannot better give expression to my own feelings, and do justice to your character, than by the acknowledgement of our gratitude, that we have all dwelt in peace and security, in spite of judicial and legislative interference. The nominal Governor of the Territory, has, I am happy to inform you, whenever requested, wisely co‐operated with your Executive, in all great measures of public interest. The other public functionaries, are, as usual, noisy, and whenever practicable, perpendicular.
The peace of the public, through the gallant services of the Mineral Point Dragoons and Washington Guards, has been happily preserved. But there are many public pieces, which will require all your wits and theirs too to preserve.
You will observe that your Executive has received from the nominal Governor two small appointments to office. Lest this should be deemed by some, extraordinary, I deem it my duty to state, that I thought it due to his Excellency, to accept these appointments, not only, as a small return for his aid and co‐operation in public enterprize, but also to show to the world, that in his efforts to follow, and execute the people’s will, his Excellency has the countenance of your executive.
The public debt is not very large, and it is a matter of earnest congratulation, that no one knows how large it is. It is a wise maxim of law, still in force, that “He that’s robbed not knowing what he’s lost, is not robbed at all.” By changing this maxim slightly, without doing violence to the measure, we shall find ourselves absolved from all condemnation and obligation, the public faith preserved, and private conscience unoffended. Your Executive therefore recommends an amendment of the above law so that it shall read “He that owes not knowing what he owes, is not in debt at all.” This once adopted by your Sovereign body as a fundamental principle, all will be relieved from embarrassment, and a long agitated and vexed question put forever at rest. In case this measure be adopted you will see the necessity of communicating your will to the lower House, to save them as well from fruitless labor, as from the more vulgar measure of repudiation.
Your Executive has been advised, that annual elections frequently operate to the inconvenience of some of the candidates. And instances are not wanting in which one or the other of rival aspirants to the same office have been contemplated by the people. It calls loudly for relief.–In one or two instances when the defeated candidate was an officeholder, the difficulty has been obviated by refusing to count the votes. But no relief is thus afforded to a candidate who is not an office holder. Some provisions covering the whole ground, some remedy adequate to the evil must be devised.
Since your last assemblage, not only this country, but the civilized world, has been agitated to a degree scarcely equaled in any age. A new and sublime discovery in the operations of government has burst upon the nations. The sword, at first the only means known to ensure domestic tranquility, and always, the only known power by which extension of empire could be accomplished, has lost its efficacy. The human intellect, emancipated by free government, has demonstrated its energy, and presented to an astonished world, its first trophy in the bloodless acquisition to the United States of a foreign nation, achieved by moral power alone. A conquest made by the equity of our fundamental laws, and the power of the great truths on which our system is based.
Were the annexation of Texas, the only result to be expected from the operations of this power, sectional interest might well, as it did at first take alarm. But the mind emancipated, its energies in full exercises, passed at once from that result to a still wider field of moral conquest. A magnificent thought, at first tremblingly entertained, has rapidly swollen into an universal sentiment, and already is demanding as a settled policy of the country, the union of the whole North American Continent, with all its dependencies under one, free democratic government. This is our destiny. He that rebels against it will be found warring against the inevitable consequences of the intellectual and moral energies of the American people.
However vast this idea, it has possessed the public mind, and is now fully entertained in all its comprehensiveness and sublimity. No power on earth can arrest its progress, or prevent its glorious results.
Intimately connected with, and accessory to the glorious destiny that is thus opening upon us, is the projected rail road from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. That stupendous achievement is required by the spirit and capacity of the present age, and is essential to the permanency of the acquisitions in prospect. In case the representatives of the people fail to provide for the construction of the proposed rail road, as is to be expected of them, your Executive has taken measures to have the work completed without delay, and also to establish a magnetic telegraph parallel with the rail road along in its whole line from Sauk Washington to the mouth of the Columbia.
This is designed by your Executive as but the beginning of a system of internal improvements. Should he prove equal to your, and his own expectations, the world will be electrified by a telegraphic communication connecting, and circumventing all parts of the globe, commencing at Sheboygan, from thence in its progress dispensing its branches and diffusing its blessing to all intermediate points and finally terminating at St. Jo.
A rail road from the Lake to the Mississippi is required by the commerce of the Territory, its agricultural advancement, and mineral resources–to obviate the inconvenience and ruinous delay which will inevitably occur, by the constant passing and re‐passing of the cars from Astoria.
Other improvements, with which you are more immediately and intimately acquainted, will require your guardian care. Among such, a few, and only a few, will be presented. A deep felling has long agitated the people in consequence of the neglect or omission of the proper authorities to provide for the improvement of the navigation of the Battle Creek and Beaver Dam streams.–They water extensive and fertile regions, and if they do not connect any important points, it is solely because there are no important points to be connected by them. An early attention to this measure, may put a stop to the croakings which have for a long time been heard from their borders.
The improvement of Harbors has engaged much of the attention of your Executive, and while he has taken care that Sheboygan and Manitowoc shall be duly provided for, he has not overlooked the claims of Sauk Harbor. In addition to the construction of a Harbor at that place, it is soon to be made a Port of Entry. These advantages will secure to it the full development of its natural facilities, and tend to the increase of its population and importance.
The character of a fiscal officer of the Territory should be viewed by you in the light of a corporation. Such he is in fact, and however elegant and persuasive the exterior presented, or captivating his deportment, the solemn engagements you have assumed, forbid your being beguiled thereby. That officer is a corporation within the true intent and meaning of the term adopted and recognized by the competent authority. His commission is a charter, and subject to repeal. Your Executive has been advised that he has neglected to supply himself with funds to meet and answer the calls soon to be made upon him. This is a non user.–Your Executive’s landlord is deeply interested in this matter, and it is presumed that others are equally concerned therein. I recommend therefore a repeal of that charter.
The Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company is another corporation, to which your attention is invited. Your Executive has looked well to that institution, but often without avail. He has frequently desired personally to witness the blessings it pretended to bestow.–But your Executive regrets to inform you that so far as his kpersonal experience is concerned, those blessings and benefits, though often called, have been like Glendower’s spirits from the vasty deep–“they would not come for calling.”
Under these circumstances, various modes of discipline and remedy have been suggested. A quo warranto proceeding has its claims, but as often as that has been suggested, it has been met with a quid pro quo, which as our courts are organized, constitutes a full and perfect defence. Proceedings in Chancery have likewise been suggested, and one of the lower houses has attempted to provide for that proceeding. But Chancery proceedings, you are aware, are altogether a chance matter, and experience has demonstrated that there is no end to chances, and as long as chance for participation in the spoils remains, there will be no end to the proceeding. Repeal of the charter has been also suggested, but all know, who know any thing, that this can only be legally done by the Sovereign body, organized as you are.
The question then is settled, that the duty devolves on you, of settling this vexatious matter. But it may be well inquired whether it is expedient, at this time, to exercise your undoubted powers in this behalf. Cogent reasons may be urged why you should not be hasty in your action. The subject is before the lower houses. Should you dispose of the subject before their final action, and above all before their final speeches are made, there would remain to them, no material out of which great men could be manufactured.
Moreover this subject deeply concerns the finances of the people, &c. You have been made acquainted with the vast system of internal improvement in which your Executive is concerned. Funds must be had as well to enable him to complete that gigantic system, as to sustain the dignity of the station to which you have wisely elevated him. In full view, therefore, of the whole case, your Executive feels constrained to recommend, however much he may be opposed in the abstract to special charters, that you charter a vehicle, to proceed to Milwaukee, enter the vaults of that institution, and bring all its “coorrent foonds,” forthwith before your body, or deposite the same with your Executive. But the omissions of inferior legislative bodies, sufficiently to guard the charters they have granted, admonish you in passing the charter for the proposed vehicle, to reserve specially the right of repeal.
Your Executive further suggests, that as no one ought, even by Sovereigns, to be condemned unheard, a committee be appointed, to call upon the fiscal agent of the Territory, resident at Milwaukee, and inquire, whether provision is made for the payment of your body and its officers. If ample means are found already provided, would it not be well, inasmuch as the offending institution cannot be kicked, to permit it to escape with a wholesome reprimand.
The question has sometimes been [asked], how you should demean yourselves towards the members of the lower houses. In behalf of many of them it may be said in extenuation of whatever errors they may commit, that they know not what they do. My illustrious predecessor, held that they were as good as we. From this opinion your Executive must dissent, but as they are soon to be among, and of us, the fact that they have for a short time got out of their appropriate places, and probably will not soon err in like manner again, I recommend that they be treated with tenderness and humanity.
Your attention is called to the measure of public defence. The old fortification at Aztalan should be repaired. A pire[?] of ordnance ought to be placed upon the Blue Mounds, and upon no account you omit to refurnish the aresenal at Shake rag, and rebuild the fortification at Belmont.
Much inconvenience is felt from the relation of landlord and tenant, in the mining region, and it is objected that the lessee is made tenant at will on his failure to pay rent. This evil will be fully appreciated by you. But it ought not escape your notice, that the same inconveniences are felt by tenants in other portions of the Territory. I recommend the abolition of all tenants from [their] charge. It is incompatible with the maxim of ancient law, which declares a man’s house to be his castle. Who, [let] me ask, ever heard of paying rent on one’s own castle? And is not the absurdity equally as glaring, in the General government demanding rent for a “[hole] in the ground.” In every effort to expunge all such regulations, you will have the hearty co‐operation of your Executive.
The territorial suits, should not [go] overlooked. They have been a long time on the tramp, and it is high time that some mode of conveyance be provided for transporting them from court to court. They are at present mounted upon affidavits of the parties, by which they are constantly circulating round and round in a circle from which it must be evident they can never come to an end.
There is another feature of this subject. The public favors should be equitably distributed. The public goose should be generally picked. It is well known that not more than ten lawyers have been employed in behalf of the Territory. The fees charged by them are not more than is necessary for their support. There are a great number of lawyers in the Territory, as much in want of the necessaries of life as the retained advocates heretofore fed. So it is not due, as a mere requirement of justice to say nothing of the dictates of humanity that additional counsel be employed, and that the old attorneys stand aside till the new ones have, at least a few crumbs.
I recommend the civilization of the Winnebago Indians. The best mode of accomplishing that object is to require them to attend court in the third circuit. Should that fail, let the Washington Guards and the Mineral Point Dragoons hold a union hall in the most approved wigwam of that tribe. In the one case official dignity cannot fail to overawe them, and in the other the splendor of refinement cannot come short of an entire subjugation to all the forms, which the most scrupulous may regard as fundamental.
In relation to the division of old, and the organization of new counties, I have only to say, that you ought to do just as you please. Your executive has only to say, that in the division of Iowa prayed for, in the establishment of the boundary lines, take a range upon the oldest mineral holes. So far as the division of Milwaukee county is concerned, you will enquire whether it would not be preferable to build a poor house and a penitentiary. Should this measure be proposed it will undoubtedly be carried.
There are no applications for divorce before our servants. It is understood that the cases have already been considered by the courts, but that they have erred in the decision of them. I recommend that all such cases, when the courts have erred in their adjudication, be submitted to the lower houses, with instructions to grant the divorce on presentation.
The action of replevin should be abolished. There can be no valid reason why any of you should not be permitted to keep what you get.
The Chancery jurisdiction of our courts ought to be abolished, and those powers conferred upon the Tiger.
The office of Attorney General is useless, and should be expunged, and a Quo Warranto issued to him to show cause why he should not be compelled to divide the fees among indigent members of the bar.
The condition of the Capitol will require your early attention. The root is said to be in a leaky condition. The eaves require to be regulated in their dropping. You will perceive the advantage of getting the building repaired and completed without any expense to the Territory. A large outstanding claim, for past labor and material yet exists.–But the genius of the lower houses has always been equal to its most powerful presentation, and hitherto the treasury has been preserved from any draft to satisfy the demand. This cannot be too highly commended. The hall is as comfortable, the windows let in the light of heaven, and the fire blazes as brightly as though the same were paid for. It is urged upon you as the only means of getting rid of all future importunity on this subject, to repeal forthwith all contracts heretofore entered into by the agents of the Territory with Daniel Baxter.
You will soon be called upon to adopt a new form of government more commensurate with your amplified character and dignity. This is the most important event that can occur. Take care that in escaping from Territorial vassalage, you do not rush into State bondage. You will be called upon to appoint servants to frame for you a constitution. From past experience, you will see how easy it is to be mistaken in that behalf. Whoever you shall choose for this service, let them be instructed to provide the following safeguards to your rights.
No contracts shall be considered binding after either party shall become dissatisfied.
Courts of law shall so offset their judgements that no one shall get more than he loses.
Chancery shall be abolished, and the powers conferred upon the Tiger.
No charters shall be granted without a vote of the people in their favor, and may be repealed at any town meeting.
The Legislature may borrow money, but it shall never be considered, that payment thereof is necessary or proper.
Judges shall be selected by the people at the democratic conventions in each county, and shall hold their office but for one term of court.
Provision shall be made whereby any public officer defeated at an election may hold over.
Abolish all tenantries at will when rent is unpaid.
These and a few other specifications of inalienable rights will effectually secure the popular Sovereignty.
Madison, January 20, 1846.
Further Reading: Dunley, Ruth. “A.D. Smith: Knight‐Errant of Radical Democracy,” (PhD Diss.). The University of Ottowa. 2008.