Madison in the ’60s: reactionary politics and opposition to racial equality

I refer, of course, to the 1860s.  Stu Levitan’s superb Isthmus feature tells the story of Madison during the Civil War, when the city wasn’t exactly the beacon of progressive values it is today:

Lincoln carried Wisconsin both before and during the war, but he did not carry Madison. In 1860, the city narrowly voted for Democrat Steven Douglas over Lincoln, 783 to 747. In 1864, when the choice was between Lincoln, a president committed to prosecuting the war until abolition, and Democratic candidate Gen. George McClellan, who would have allowed slavery to continue, Madison went for McClellan, 794-705.

Madison also twice rejected Republican governor Alexander P. Randall, an early and forceful foe of the Southern secessionists. While Wisconsin handily reelected the abolitionist Randall in 1859, he lost Madison, 956-701.

That same year, Madison reelected as its mayor George B. Smith, who in a 1862 diary entry said Lincoln was “responsible for the miserable state of things, and for this and many special and arbitrary acts which he has committed and authorized, I solemnly believe that he ought to be impeached and legally and constitutionally deposed from the high office of President.”

Levitan’s story of Madison in the war years serves as a useful guide to our early city fathers — the guys whose surnames are on the street signs, like Fairchild, Keyes, Randall, and Vilas.  This is one of the reasons we need local newspapers.  Where else are you going to read this?

Not everything about Madison was different 150 years ago, by the way.

A report from the city finance committee in 1860 was blunt: “The truth is that as a city, we have been swindled and robbed and the state prison for life would be none too good for the men who have done this. We are bankrupt for the present, bankrupt for the future, bankrupt forever, unless we can effect a reasonable compromise.”

A compromise would be reached and disaster averted. But this took three years to work out, and it left the city paying its debts at about 60 cents on the dollar.

Even incoming Mayor Vilas, a successful politician in his native Vermont before moving to Madison in 1850, sounded like an angry tea partier. Probably the richest man in Madison, he unloaded at his mayoral inaugural in April 1861, declaring that citizens “had been swindled” and that “taxes have become odious.”

Vilas bemoaned “the corruptions of men in office, and the licentious practices that prevail upon the people in selecting them.” He warned that “the imbecility and disregard of justice and right manifested in the discharge of official trusts” could result in revolution and a new government “subversive of the rights and liberties of the people.”


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