1846 – Iowa Elects A State Governor.

You see, in 1845, the U.S. Senate and President James Polk had already signed off on Iowa Statehood – including Florida in the deal – but the proposal was narrowly voted down by Iowans on April 7, 1845 because the legislators in Washington D.C. insisted on adding in a silly map (see above) that we Hawkeyes simply refused to accept! You can read more here.

But now, it’s one year later – the map issues have been resolved – and on election day – Monday, April 6, 1846, Iowa voters approved thirty-two delegates to go to Iowa City with the instructions to write up a revised version of the State Constitution – one with an improved map option. The whole process was to be done quickly – beginning on May 4th – because no one wanted to miss this opportunity to seal the deal for Statehood with the U.S. Senate before those shifty politicians in D.C. changed their minds!

The 1846 Territorial Convention met in The Senate Chamber – Iowa City

When those thirty-two delegates met in Iowa City in early May, this Iowa Territorial Convention quickly approved a revised State Constitution on May 18, 1846. The people of Iowa voted in favor of it on August 3, 1846, and the Territorial Governor James Clarke signed it on September 9, 1846. Read more here.

So, it was full speed ahead, Iowa! Statehood is on it’s sweet way – now, it was time to elect our very first State Governor!

In 1846, just as it is today, there was a growing political tension throughout the Territory of Iowa. Iowa’s population stood at 96,088, and was heavily concentrated in the eastern third of the state, and as you can see from the maps above, there were three centers of power – Dubuque to the north, Bloomington, Davenport & Iowa City in the central, and Burlington, Keokuk & Mt. Pleasant to the south. So, when it came to finding the right candidate for governor, the Whig Party nominated Thomas McKnight (top right) – a well-known businessman/politician from Dubuque, while the Democrats nominated Ansel Briggs (middle right) – a relatively-unknown stagecoach driver from Jackson County, while former Territorial Governor Robert Lucas (lower right) from Burlington entered the race, as well, as a third party candidate.

Unlike the long political campaigns of today, the amount of time between the party nominations in mid-to-late September 1846, and the actual election – October 26, 1846 – was very short. But, while the campaign season was limited, that doesn’t mean that it was not intense. Let me give you some examples from The Burlington Hawk-Eye – which was a Whig-supporting newspaper…

The Burlington Hawk-Eye obviously saw Thomas McKnight as the right choice – but in the heavily-populated counties of the south – Des Moines, Henry & Lee – McKnight was not as well known as the third-party candidate – Former Governor Robert Lucas.

Which brings us, now, to our rare postal cover & letter…

(JP-078) This rare postal cover & letter was written on September 28, 1846 in Bloomington by Ralph P. Lowe, was postmarked on September 29, and addressed to Thomas McKnight, Esq. Dubuque, Iowa Territory.
Ralph P. Lowe was born (1805) in Warren County, Ohio, settled in Bloomington (Muscatine) in 1838, and was selected as a Whig representative to the Iowa State Constitutional Convention in 1844. Lowe became an Iowa State District Judge in 1852, and, in 1858 – now a Republican – was elected as Iowa’s fourth governor, serving a two-year term. Read more about R.P. Lowe here.
Now, for your reading enjoyment, let’s look at Lowe’s letter. We’ve edited it for easier reading and added commentary along the way.

Bloomington Iowa (Territory) – Sept 28th 1846

Thomas McKnight – Sir. I hope you will pardon me for troubling you with a suggestion or so at this time. On the 25th inst (Sept) you received your nomination for governor with great unanimity by the Whig convention that met at Iowa City on that occasion.

As we mentioned earlier, the time between the party nominations and the election was very short. In McKnight’s case – he had one month and one day (October 26) to campaign for the office of governor!

A very great anxiety is felt hereabouts and south of this, as I have understood, for your election, and I have no doubt but you have the undivided sympathy of the entire Whig party for your success.

Lowe lived in Bloomington in Muscatine County and he knew that while McKnight was well-known in Dubuque and the north, from central Iowa (Bloomington, Davenport & Iowa City) and into southern Iowa (Burlington, Keokuk & Mt. Pleasant), he was at a slight disadvantage – particularly with Robert Lucas (Burlington) in the race.

Gov. Lucas will take the field as an independent candidate. I am not altogether unadvised when I say he will get no Whigs votes in this section of the Territory. I am only afraid that he will not get many Democratic votes, but still we trust he get enough to jeopardize the election of Briggs.

As it is in any election, when a third-party candidate enters a race, it usually takes away votes from one candidate, so in a particularly tight race like this one, the former Territorial Governor and Democrat – Robert Lucas – will take away votes – and it’s Lowe’s hope that this will hurt the Democrat Briggs, thus benefiting McKnight, the Whig candidate.

Yet should he not draw any more votes from the Locos than from our party, still from my knowledge of the two parties, 400 Democratic votes in addition to the support of the Whig party ought to elect you governor of the state.

In the 1840’s and into the 1850’s, both the Whig & Democratic Parties were struggling with different factions within their own parties. As we discuss in another post, the Whig Party will eventually give way to the anti-slavery movement – bringing forth the new Republican Party. The Democrats, on the other hand, had their own factions that threatened to pull the party apart. When Lowe speaks of the Locos (Focos), he is projecting that those from that faction will affect Briggs – a Democrat – more than McKnight.

Cannot these (400 votes) be had north of the Iowa River, certainly when we remember how much better you are known over the north part of the Territory than Briggs, we are justified in the conclusion you can get that number of Democratic votes if your friends will exert themselves.

In other words, if we Whigs all pull our weight, our northern and central votes – which will hopefully include 400 Democratic votes – will outweigh any support Briggs or Lucas can produce in the south!

No one seems able to answer the question – who is Mr. Briggs? And as long as he is unknown, he may run pretty well, but if anything, in your opinion, can be made by a better knowledge of his character, I would be obliged to you or anyone else who would favor me with the information. I would be glad to know what are his pretensions to the Chief Majesty of this state.

With McKnight being pretty well known, especially in the north, the real issue at hand, according to Lowe, is “who is this Briggs – this unknown stagecoach driver from Jackson County?” Obviously, Lowe is looking for any dirt he can find on McKnight’s opponent, so when asked, the Whigs will have some negative stories to share about this relatively unknown candidate. For a full biographical overview on Ansel Briggs, click here.

The truth is, I design to be diligent and active in the support of our ticket at the coming election, and I hope you will not be too modest to give me a little more information, in detail, of yourself than I now possess. If you are unwilling to do it yourself, get some of your friends to do it. I wish to use it and may do so to a good purpose in some places. I wish to know the place of your nativity, how long you have been in the west and especially in this valley & Territory & such other information as you may deem important to be used in the canvass. There is nothing like keeping a man’s name prominently before the people up to the time of the election.

Obviously, Lowe is planning a marketing campaign on behalf of McKnight, so he needs biographical data on this Dubuque businessman in order to get the campaign moving. Interestingly, Lowe will go on to win his own term as Iowa’s fourth governor – in 1858 – serving a two-year term. Read more here. As for McKnight, he was born in Augusta County, Virginia in 1787, and in 1809, moved west to St. Louis, where he went into business with his brothers. From there, McKnight moved to Galena, Illinois, and then Dubuque, where he became a very successful businessman in the lead mining industry. In the 1840 Federal census, McKnight is shown as holding two slaves in Dubuque County, in spite of the fact that slavery was not legal under the Northwest Ordinance. This, of course, is a huge blot on his record, and it just might have been one of the issues that contributed to his inability to win over the big support Lowe and others wanted for him.

We will endeavor to attend to your interest in this part of the Territory. Should you pass through this county (Muscatine), if home, I should be very much pleased to see you at my house. I am of the opinion that you should by all means spend the last week before the election in Lee County. The result of the election will depend much upon the vote of that county. You will do me a kindness in sending the enclosed note (no longer present with our letter) to Mr. Mobley.

Yours in very great haste, R.P. Lowe 

Well, now – the logical questions are these – 1) Did all of this hard work by R.P. Lowe pay off? 2) Did McKnight pick up those much-needed 400 extra votes? 3) Did McKnight end up winning Lee County? and 4) Did McKnight, Lowe and others convince enough Iowans that this former slave owner was the right man for the job? Keep reading to find out the answers…

So, less than one month after Lowe’s letter – the votes across Iowa were cast. The general election was held on October 26, 1846, and just as Lowe predicted, it was a razor-close finish. As a matter of fact, The Burlington Hawk-Eye – as you can see below – was unable to call the race for quite some time!

Yup, it wasn’t until December 3, 1846 – Inauguration Day, when the Iowa Legislature – meeting in Iowa City – announced the final results – which The Burlington Hawkeye reluctantly published in their December 10th edition…

Much to the surprise – and disappointment – of the Whigs – Ansel Briggs won the election in a very close race7,626 for Briggs, 7,379 for McKnight – a narrow margin of 247 votes! Apparently, Robert Lucas’ attempt as a third option for voters faltered before election day, since, in the public records, there is no mention of him receiving any votes.

As you can see from the voting results (above), McKnight did end up winning the large counties of Henry, Des Moines, Louisa, Muscatine, and Scott. But interestingly, the Whig candidate barely won his own county of Dubuque (2 votes!), and like Lowe predicted – Lee County played heavy in the final decision – going big for Briggs – 1040 to 767!

Interestingly, when Ansel Briggs agreed to put his name in the running for governor, he seemed to believe that he’d likely lose and go back to fulfilling his stagecoach contracts from his home in Andrew, in Jackson County. Instead, Briggs – age 40 – who had been a member of the Territorial House of Representatives for four years and Jackson County sheriff for two years, became the first Governor of the new State of Iowa. Congrats – Governor Briggs – you did it!

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Locofocos, Wikipedia

Thomas McKnight, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, October 1, 1846, p 2

Our State Ticket, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, October 8, 1846, p 2

Tho’s McKnight’s Circular & Who Told That Lie, The Burlington Hawk-eye, October 15, 1846, p 2

Thomas McKnight, The Burlington Hawk-eye, October 22, 1846, p 2

Des Moines County Vote Results, The Burlington Hawk-eye, October 29, 1846, p 2

Editorial Correspondence, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 10, 1846, p 2

Ansel Briggs, Wikipedia

Representative Ansel Briggs, Iowa State Legislature

Time Machine | Iowa’s first governor, Ansel Briggs, hailed from Jackson County, ran a stagecoach line, Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 8, 2018

Ansel Briggs, Find-A-Grave

Thomas McKnight (Iowa pioneer), Wikipedia

Thomas McKnight, Encyclopedia Dubuque

Slavery in Dubuque, Iowa, Confederates From Iowa

Thomas McKnight, Find-A-Grave

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