Dakota Datebook

Political Patronage

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

 

Visitation to the Capitol Building at Bismarck in late March of 1889 was like a spring spawning run.  First there was a small trickle of visitors, but within weeks the trickle turned into a stream, and finally into a flood of hungry office seekers, maneuvering through the crowds, searching for a morsel, a promised piece of the political spoils system.

For those unable to travel, there was the postal system, the activities of which mimicked the travelers.  Gov. Mellette arrived at the Capitol on the 17th of March and with him he carried over five hundred letters.  He found a like number waiting for him and more on the way.

But scattered among the hopeful office seekers were the incumbent office holders, the Democrats, whose tenure had come to an end and most were submitting their resignations.  Some were hopeful that they could retain their positions, but so strong was the dislike for Governor Church, that even among the most competent Democrats, few would survive.  It was the cycle of life for politicians.

1889 would be different than most, following the change of governors.  Governor Mellette was expected to be in office less than a year, and many offices would be altered or abolished when the new constitutions were adopted in the fall.  Seventy-five delegates to each constitutional convention were to be chosen and a nod from a popular governor would go a long way in securing one of these positions.  There was also the possibility that those Republicans, who attained an office now, would be more likely to retain any positions that might be included in the constitutions of the new states, states which would be dominated by Republicans.

It was fairly evident to all that Governor Mellette, elected governor at the 1884 Huron Convention, would be chosen as the first governor of the state of South Dakota.  So, for those arriving from the southern portion of the territory, many were seeking to incur the governor’s favor for future positions in state government.

Among those granted a position was a man who had already crafted a significant reputation in Territorial politics but whose voice had been relatively silent since the bitter Capitol removal fight of 1883.  Alexander McKenzie had moved to New York where he had established a highly successful brokerage firm.  With an appointment to the Board of Directors of the Territorial Penitentiary in Bismarck, he was enticed to return.  It was a small gesture with a major consequence, for once back in Dakota, McKenzie would mold a political machine that would dominate state politics for the next quarter of a century.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis

Sources:

The Bismarck Weekly Tribune April 12, 1889

Jamestown Weekly Alert April 4, 1889

Grand Forks Weekly Herald April 5, 1889

History of Dakota Territory by George W. Kinsgbury;  S. J. Clarke Publishing 1915

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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