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The Historical Case for the Iowa Caucuses.

By Jon Lauck.

AS PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA struggles in the polls, the prospects of the Republican Party winning the White House in 2012 have brightened.  Who Republicans choose to be their standard-bearer during the 2012 contest will be greatly affected by the outcome of the precinct caucuses in Iowa, the farm state in the prairie Midwest which votes first in the nomination process.  The coastal commentariat in the United States, unfortunately, is mostly critical of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status and largely ignorant of the state’s history.  Most of the commentary about Iowa is superficial and focused on fleeting and forgettable moments and sound bites and the details of campaign tactics.  The commentary is devoid of historical perspective.

Some political scientists, however, now recognize the value of Iowa and cite several common-sense reasons for allowing Iowa to vote first.1  Their reasoning, however, could go deeper and include the longer arc of Iowa’s history, which includes much to recommend the state’s prominent role in presidential politics.  Although the Iowa caucus system dates to 1846, when Iowa entered the Union, the origins and early patterns of Iowa politics have rarely attracted the attention of political scientists.  If political scientists relied more on the work of historians, they would discover that Iowa’s formative history provides another reason to look positively on the caucuses and Iowa’s leading role in the presidential nomination system.

THERE IS MUCH TO be said about Iowa as a geographical and historical space where the nation argues and spars about political questions.  Iowa, in part because of the timing and arc of its history, lends itself to modern democratic politics.  From its beginning, Iowa has transcended much of the Old World’s heavy and suffocating monarchical and feudal traditions, some of which were transplanted to colonial America.  These persistent forms of aristocracy and social inequality fueled revolutions and ideological warfare that explain much of the European bloodletting of the twentieth century.  But these Old World barriers to democracy had eroded much earlier in the New World and finally a group of American democrats led a revolt against imperial Britain.  Despite the victory of the revolutionaries, there were plenty of Loyalists in the colonies and the trappings of aristocracy lived on in planter society, in Brahmin Boston, and among the Federalists.  Out in the West, however, where Jefferson thought agrarian democracy would grow and bolster the American experiment in republicanism, General Jackson and frontier Democrats inveighed against the persisting forms of aristocracy, criticized the unholy alliance of bankers and politicians, worried about the growing power of the federal government, and generally sought to remove the remaining impediments to popular democracy. In the territories of the Old Northwest, settlers championed the cause of free labor and small farmers and took pride in outlawing slavery and shunning the land baronies of the South.2

These political currents intertwined to form the original basis of the political culture of Iowa, where politics was active and civic affairs were taken seriously from an early date.  Instead of reading the familiar campaign “war story” books by journalists such as Theodore White and Richard Ben Cramer, it is wise to consider some books about the history of Iowa in order to learn about the state’s formative moments and to better understand the historic undercurrents of the political battlefield in Iowa.3

WHAT IS NOW THE state of Iowa was once a part of the massive New World holdings known as New France.  Father Jacques Marquette and the explorer Louis Jolliet first saw Iowa when traveling down the Mississippi River in 1673.  But when the French lost the Seven Years’ War in what was history’s first genuine global conflict, they surrendered all of Canada, a large part of the future American Midwest, and lost the massive piece of real estate known as Louisiana to the Spanish.  The British assumed control of the area East of the Mississippi River and the Spanish took the area to the West.  The Spanish did little with the northern part their newly-acquired holdings except grant some land to a French-Canadian, Julien Dubuque, who mined lead and traded around the future city which bears his name. When the American colonies revolted against the British crown and won their war for independence, the new American republic inherited the land to the East of the Mississippi and started organizing the Northwest Territory.  The territory of Louisiana, however, was still held by the Spanish, who quietly returned it to the French in 1800.  Napoleon was planning to rebuild New France, but he again became focused on his European wars and sold Louisiana – including the future state of Iowa – to the Americans in 1803.4

The state of Louisiana was admitted into the American Union in 1812, but the land which would comprise the state of Iowa was lumped into Missouri Territory until Missouri became a state in 1820.  That left Iowa unattached to a larger political unit until 1834, when Congress assigned it to Michigan Territory, which included the lands that would later become Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. In 1834, the first two counties in Iowa, Du Buque and De Moine, were created by the territorial government, and in 1836, as Michigan approached statehood, Congress created Wisconsin Territory, which would include the District of Iowa and its roughly 10,000 settlers. The territorial government of Wisconsin soon split De Moine County into seven new units. The Congressional delegate representing Wisconsin Territory in Washington pushed for the creation of a territory for the Iowa District – and, in so doing, relied upon the novel political procedures of the young American republic: meetings, speeches, conventions, petitions, newspaper editorials, legislative maneuvering, resolutions, memorials, committee hearings and reports, and, finally, popular votes.

Nothing came easily for the settlers of Iowa. They endured Congressional delays caused by wider debates over President Jackson’s battle with the banks, the future of Texas, outrage over the continuing practice of dueling, growing sectionalism, then-Congressman John Quincy Adams’s slavery petitions, the salaries for Iowa territorial officials and terms of office for territorial legislators and judges, and general legislative wrangling. In early 1838, Congress finally passed an organic act formally creating Iowa Territory, which would come into existence on the symbolically significant date of 4 July 1838.5 The new territory included all of the future state of Iowa and what would become western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas.

Robert Lucas (1781-1853) by J.H.H. Witt, 1868. Ohio Statehouse.

THE YOUNG TERRITORY QUICKLY went about the business of civic life.  Territorial governor Robert Lucas, a former governor of Ohio appointed to the Iowa post by President Van Buren, passed over the eager towns on the Mississippi River who were hoping to become the territorial capitol and instead created a commission to find a location in the interior. Iowa City was selected by “rough and ready frontiersmen” because it “offered great possibilities for both functional and aesthetic development.”6 In 1839, Lucas also began to argue that the territory should prepare for statehood, but Iowa settlers, ever pragmatic, were wary of the expensive nature of such a proposition (the federal government paid the freight of territories’ administration but the states were on their own).  As a result, the residents of Iowa Territory voted twice to oppose the calling of the constitutional convention to write a constitution for a future state. When the federal government began to assist states with the expenses of statehood, however, resistance to statehood lessened and in April 1844 Iowans voted to call together a constitutional convention. Iowans petitioned for territorial status, held elections for the territorial legislature, voted on constitutional plebiscites, and organized courts. They closely followed these events not only in the territory’s newspapers – which were available in the territory’s proliferating libraries – but also at various public lectures, Chautauquas, and lyceums. Because the territory was a farming frontier, agricultural fairs and societies were also common in Iowa (perhaps not surprisingly, the Midwest in general had the highest proportion of agricultural societies in the nation).7 There is an historic basis, in other words, for political scientists’ discovery of so much “social capital” in Iowa in later years.8

In its early years – prior to the creation of the Republican Party – Iowa was the home of many Western Democrats of the Jacksonian persuasion. When Iowa voters went to the polls to select delegates to the 1844 constitutional convention, for example, they chose 51 Democrats and 21 Whigs.  Because of the convention makeup, the resulting constitution had a strong Jacksonian flavor and included restrictions on banks, the popular election of judges, and toleration of all religious affiliations. The first governor of Iowa, elected in 1846, was a Democrat and former Whig named Ansel Briggs, who was a stagecoach driver from Jackson County.9 Briggs and the early Iowa Democrats represented the Jacksonian “fear of centralized government linked to a trust in the virtue and political wisdom of ordinary American voters.”10

ALTHOUGH DEMOCRATS SHOWED EARLY strength in Iowa, the Whigs were active and the political system competitive.  During the 1848 presidential election – the first after Iowa became a state – the Democrat, Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan, only defeated war hero Zachary Taylor, a Whig, by four percentage points – 50 percent to 46 percent – despite a political history that included a term as territorial governor. In the Iowa governor’s race of 1850, the Democrat barely won by 2,000 votes. Then the shift away from the Democrats became more pronounced: in 1852, the Whigs elected a Congressman from Iowa and in 1854 the Whigs won the governorship by 2,000 votes.  The threat of slavery’s expansion into Kansas and the unwillingness of Democrats to stop this extension set off a series of anti-slavery meetings and protests in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa.11 This anti-slavery ferment weakened both the Democrats and the Whigs and gave rise to the new Republican Party.  During the fateful presidential election of 1860, writes historian Joseph Frazier Wall, Iowa’s “Republican Wide Awake clubs held torchlight parades, barbecue picnics, and rail-splitting contests for Honest Abe.”12 Lincoln, the first Republican president and a man of the Midwestern prairie, won sixty Iowa counties and Iowa’s four electoral votes.13

More fundamental to early Iowa politics than partisan affiliation was the broad commitment to American political principles and frontier political practices. Robert Cook, now a professor of history at the University of Sussex, emphasizes the ubiquity of the “primary values” which controlled all of politics around the time Iowa entered the Union in 1846 and which “provided rich fiber for the growth of what was one of the most democratic societies in the western world in the middle of the nineteenth century.” Iowans, Cook notes, recognized the great achievement that was the American republic, shunned the corruptions of Europe and its oppressive monarchies, and maintained a “deep commitment to republican government, the sovereignty of the people, and the developing concept of meritocracy.” The pillars of early Iowa politics, according to Cook, included Christianity, patriotism, a devotion to American republicanism, and a market orientation.14

The dominance of these primary values followed the precedents established during the Revolution. They had been planted deep during the early republic and in the Old Northwest and the broader territories of the prairie Midwest.  As Cook writes, what “gave political conflict its edge on the prairies were the debates occasioned by commitment to these values.” In the early years, Western-oriented Jacksonian Democrats had gained the advantage in Iowa politics by emphasizing local control, disdain for federal power, suspicion of banks and their connections to government, and opposition to African-American rights. The Iowa Whigs had won support for promoting the economic development of Western territories, railroads, greater access to credit, tolerance of African-Americans, and moral reform (protecting the Sabbath, prohibiting drink).15 Within a decade of Iowa attaining statehood, however, the Second Party System (Jacksonian Democrats v. Whigs) collapsed over sectional tensions and the rise of the Republican Party in the Midwest.

THE IOWA REPUBLICAN PARTY – formed in Iowa City in February 1856 during the largest Iowa political convention to date, after dozens of local meetings, forums, petitions, local conventions, resolutions and platform debates – was propelled by fears of the growing power of Southern Democrats and attempts by the Slave Power to expand the peculiar institution to Kansas and the West.  The “central tenet” of the Iowa GOP, Cook notes, “was simple: opposition to the spread of slavery in the United States.”  Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter from Springfield, Illinois, to the party organizers, who had invited him to Iowa City, and proclaimed “All thanks, all honor to Iowa!!”16

Iowa’s entry into the Union in 1846, about the same time the nation’s sectional tensions began to inflame politics, makes the state’s history inseparable from the nation’s greatest trauma.  The Civil War touched all facets of Iowa’s story, coloring it with a hue familiar to spontaneous political movements. Small gestures took on an eloquence shaped by the times: in 1850, signaling its early commitment to national unity and its opposition to secessionists, for example, Iowa opted for this as its inscription on the Washington Monument: “Iowa. Her affections, like the rivers of her borders, flow to an inseparable Union.”  In 1854, a group of Iowans met in a small Presbyterian church in Crawfordsville in Washington County and began planning a strategy to oppose slavery.  A few days later, like-minded people in Ripon, Wisconsin, met to do the same, a process that triggered the creation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, which quickly gained members throughout Iowa. Iowa became an active area for the Underground Railroad and John Brown was even in the state for four visits prior to his raid on Harper’s Ferry and stayed with Iowa abolitionists.  Of Brown’s 22 raiders, six were Iowans, the largest contingent from any one state.17 Iowa, in the words of historian Louis Pelzer, “stood with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in the front of the anti-slavery column of states.”18 Joseph Wall argues that the Civil War would become the “single most determinative factor in Iowa’s history, politically, socially, and economically”19 – an influence repeated throughout the Midwest.

An Iowa GAR band.

Indeed, the slavery issue did transform Iowa politics.  The Jacksonian Democrats of early Iowa politics had been hostile to blacks and worked to exclude them, by statute, from Iowa Territory.  But the rise of anti-slavery Republicans undermined Democratic dominance, gave rise to Iowa’s reputation for racial tolerance, and shaped Iowa’s firm support of the Union.  General Grant, who hailed from Galena in neighboring Illinois, would call Iowa the Union’s “Bright Radical Star,” a place where support for the Union and the war was strong.  When the war began, Iowa quickly filled its quota for soldiers.  Nearly 80,000 Iowans served in the war despite the state only having a population of 96,000 at the time of statehood in 1846 and a population of 675,000 when the war began.  Nearly 13,000 Iowans died in the war and 8,500 were seriously wounded.20 Pelzer said “Iowa gave freely of her sons and of her treasure,” helped save the still young American republic and was proud of the state’s role in the Union victory.21 In May 1865, when 15,000 Iowa troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with Sherman’s victorious army they looked, one observer said, “like the lords of the world.”  An Iowan composed the marching song “Sherman Marched Down to the Sea.”22

AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, Iowa became known for its racial tolerance.  In 1868, Iowans voted to extend full suffrage rights to blacks, joining five New England states and Minnesota as the only states to do so.  In the 1860s and 1870s, Iowa courts ruled that black students should be allowed to attend school with white children and that racial segregation on steamboats and other common carriers was illegal, steps that preceded many other Northern states.  In 1884 and 1892 the Iowa state legislature adopted a civil rights law and prohibited discrimination in hotels, public transportation, barber shops, theaters, restaurants, lunch counters, bathhouses, and other facilities.  Dorothy Schwieder concluded that Iowans had made “their state one of the most progressive in civil equality for blacks.’23

In keeping with their profound respect for the American Founders who made the deal with France to purchase the future state of Iowa and their great sacrifices to help preserve the Union during the Civil War, Iowans took constitutionalism seriously. After three popular votes over calling a constitutional convention, Iowans finally met in 1844 to frame the state’s fundamental law.  The most heavily represented occupation at the convention, in keeping with Iowa’s agrarian origins, was farmers, with 46 delegates, followed by lawyers at a distant second, with nine delegates.  In 1856, the old Whigs had blended into the upstart Republican Party and the new party started planning to revise the 1844 constitution. Iowa voters consented, giving their approval in 1856 to the convening of a new constitutional convention by a vote of 32,790 to 14,612.  The convention delegates met in Iowa City for six weeks beginning in January 1857.  The delegates embraced compromise and produced a revised constitution that has endured down to the present.  The new document promoted business and credit, moved the capital to Des Moines, placed the state university in Iowa City and, in a bow toward the Jacksonian Democrats, provided for the popular election of judges, including Supreme Court justices, a decision that recently reverberated throughout Iowa.  In March 1857, Iowans gave the new constitution a narrow victory, supporting it by a vote of 40,311 to 38,681.24 The story of the framing of Iowa’s constitutions is beautifully recounted in The Constitutions of Iowa by Benjamin Shambaugh, a native Iowan, an early political scientist at the University of Iowa, a prominent proponent of Midwestern history, and a founding father of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review.25

While some might credit Iowa for its Civil War leadership and its attentiveness to constitutionalism, they might still question Iowa’s fitness to begin the presidential nomination process because it lacks “diversity.”  Early Iowa, however, included a complex mix of peoples, even by our current standards.  In fact, historian Joseph Wall finds a “wonderful diversity” in the state.  Of the 192,000 people living in Iowa in 1850, despite a perception of puritan New England dominance, only three percent were Yankees and 13 percent were from the mid-Atlantic states (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware).  Many of the frontier Democrats of early Iowa came from the border states of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Maryland and constituted 14 percent of the population.  Only two percent of Iowans came from the deep South.  The largest share of Iowans, 31 percent, came from the Old Northwest Territory states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.26

ACADEMICS TOO OFTEN LUMP all “European” immigrants together and only see Iowa as “white,” but this obscures many distinctions.  Iowa historian Dorothy Schwieder notes that “cultural pluralism had become a fact of life in the Hawkeye State by the 1880s.”  The number of foreign-born Iowans reached 262,000 by 1880.  After the European revolutions of 1848, many Germans immigrated to Iowa and settled on farms in or near Mississippi River towns.  The large number of Swedish immigrants helped form towns such as New Sweden and Stanton.  Irish immigrants to Iowa left a deep impression on towns such as Dubuque (where, in 1980, a nun was elected mayor) and Emmetsburg and as a result these towns are strongly Catholic.27 The ethnic group which has “demonstrated the greatest social and religious cohesion” is the Dutch, who settled in the areas around Pella and later Orange City.28  A large number of Norwegians also migrated to Iowa.  Most famously, they congregated in Winneshiek County in and around the town of Decorah, where the Decorah-Posten, a Norwegian-language newspaper, was published and where Luther College was founded in 1861.  Decorah is also home to the Vesterheim, a Norwegian-American museum, and every summer hosts a “Nordic Fest.”  By 1900, the foreign born or the children of the foreign born still constituted more than half of the population in 39 Iowa counties.29

The early regional and ethnic diversity of Iowa in part explains Iowa’s religious diversity.  While almost exclusively Christian, Iowa saw no denominational dominance.  Irish immigrant miners gave the Dubuque area a Catholic cast and Dutch immigrants adhered to the principles of the Reformed Church.  Congregationalists from New England, while not a large group, established many churches run by scholarly ministers and established Grinnell College.  The activism and frontier pragmatism of circuit-riding Methodist ministers had lasting effects and the Methodists became the largest religious group in Iowa.30 Active churches in Iowa help explain its high degrees of communalism, civic participation, social capital, and even political activism. Leland Sage notes that “practically all the leaders” of the abolitionist movement in Iowa prior to the Civil War were ministers.31 In addition to abolition, some ministers were advocates of moral reform such as temperance. Robert Cook explains that some clergymen saw the Western territories of the prairie as “the moral Thermopylae of the world” where moral standards could be saved.32 One major study of the history of Iowa was subtitled “The Genesis of a Corn and Bible Commonwealth.”33 Some Iowa churches remain heavily involved in the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa’s ethnic and religious diversity, its active politics, and support for the Union did not make Iowa a perfectly ideal democratic polity, of course, as the treatment of blacks in the early years of Iowa’s history demonstrates.  The Indians of Iowa, too, were pushed West by the American settlement process.  It would not be correct to assume, however, that the Indians living in Iowa were simply massacred to make way for settlers.  The federal government signed treaties with the Sauk, Fox, and Sioux and actually went to great lengths in Iowa to prevent these tribes from fighting each other.34 The United States, Leland Sage notes, “insisted on a formal policy of treaty relationship with the Indians, the same as with the French, Spanish, or any other foreign power.”35 The so-called “Black Hawk War,” according to one expert, “was barely a war” and many Indians who were engaged in the conflict supported the federal government.36 What Sage calls the “saddest event in the whole of Iowa history” was not a government or settler attack on Indians, but instead an Indian massacre of 34 settlers in their cabins around Spirit Lake.37

Alexander G. Clark.

IN SOME MEASURES OF social inclusion Iowa led the nation.  In 1857, the University of Iowa became the first state university to allow women to enroll and in 1860 Grinnell College was one of the first colleges to admit a black woman.  An African-American man from Muscatine, Alexander G. Clark, graduated from the University of Iowa’s law school in 1884 at age 58 (his son preceded him by five years as the law school’s first black graduate) after raising a regiment of black soldiers – the 1st Iowa Volunteers of African Descent – to fight in the Civil War and, in 1868, successfully petitioning the state supreme court to rule segregated schools violated the state constitution. In 1869, Arabella Mansfield, a graduate of Iowa Wesleyan, became the first woman in the country to be admitted to the bar.38

Iowa’s egalitarian inclinations and wealth of social capital can be traced in part to its agrarian orientation and the centrality of yeoman farming to Iowa’s development.  Allan Bogue, formerly the chairman of the history department at the University of Iowa, explains that the “prairie triangle” included “almost all of Iowa” and pioneers were quick to move into this area and begin farming.39 The farmers who moved in before the government had surveyed the land were called “squatters” and once the federal government starting selling the land, these farmers tried to cooperate to promote their claims and to dissuade others, through quasi-legal mechanisms, from outbidding them since they had first improved the land. Benjamin Shambaugh thought the meetings, organizing, customs, bylaws, and constitutions relating to these “claims clubs” were the “beginnings of local political institutions in Iowa.” To him, these were all evidence that the “early settlers of Iowa were literally, and in the good old Anglo-Saxon sense, ‘lawful men of the neighborhood.’”40 Iowa farmers’ civic and social organizing was persistent and Iowa remained overwhelmingly agrarian.  By the 1870s, for example, there were 1,823 Granges in Iowa.  By 1880, almost all of Iowa’s 36 million acres were being farmed and almost 90 percent of Iowa was classified as “rural.”41 Iowa is still defined by farming and by small towns and by the absence of a major city that would “dominate the state’s social, economic, and political structure” the way, say, Chicago has dominated Illinois’ civic life.42 The decentralized nature of farming and the prominence of small towns is a major reason why grassroots politics and localized campaigning define the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa’s agrarian heritage and orderly farms and its generally rooted character also help explain Iowa’s political culture. One-time University of Iowa history professor Laurence Lafore, in an article in Harper’s in 1971, noted how Easterners were beguiled by Iowa’s countryside and how the “land is very beautiful, and the special quality of its beauty is coherence and order” – a theme exploited to great and amusing effect by Meredith Willson in The Music Man. Lafore thought Iowa’s “most conspicuous trait is geometry.  The roads run sternly to compass points, as they do throughout the Midwest.”  The historian Joseph Wall also noted the “coherence and order” of Iowa’s fields, farms, and township roads.  The size and shape of the 99 counties of Iowa are similarly quite uniform.  Dorothy Schwieder explains that Iowa is roughly in the center of the country and even roughly in the middle of the prairie Midwest.  Many Iowa towns created town squares to further center the civic energies of their hamlets.43

Iowa’s historical development – its settler origins, its commitment to the processes of republicanism, its agrarian character, its hidden diversity, its heritage of inclusion, community, and civic obligation – explains its laudable political stature.  One 1984 study concluded that there is “very little corruption in Iowa politics” and “Iowa politics is blatantly characterized by honesty, fair play, honorable intentions, and good government.”44  One turn-of-the-last-century Iowan, weary of complaints that Iowa’s history was “prosaic” and devoid of “accounts of bloodshed, wars, and ‘seismic convulsions’” and the “spectacular, the war-like, the lurid, the mysterious, the terrible,” pointed to the “story of this commonwealth wherein the peoples of many lands have happily comingled, where varied industries have continuously flourished, where society is peaceful, thrifty and intelligent, where government is orderly, generally efficient, economical, and progressive, where illiteracy is rarely found and education and respect for law are practically universal.”45 A stable and decent prairie state such as Iowa, in other words, is fine place to start the process of choosing a president.  Understanding this, however, depends on understanding Iowa’s history. Apparently, that’s something few media commentators can be bothered to study.

Jon Lauck, Ph.D., is Senior Advisor to U.S. Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a former assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University, and the author of American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), Daschle v. Thune: Anatomy of a High Plains Senate Race (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), and co-author and co-editor of The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Fall 2011).


  1. Jon Lauck, “The Case for Iowa,” Claremont Review of Books (Fall 2011), Retrieved 11 November 2011.
  2. See Richard B. Latner, “A New Look at Jacksonian Politics,” Journal of American History vol. 61, no. 4 (March 1975), 943-969; Marvin Meyers, “The Jacksonian Persuasion,” American Quarterly vol. 5, no. 1 (Spring 1953), 6-11; and John Barnhart, Valley of Democracy: The Frontier versus Plantation in the Ohio Valley, 1775-1818 (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1953).
  3. For those willing, some enlightening books await to serve as fine supplements to the work of political scientists, especially the histories compiled by Joseph Frazier Wall, Leland Sage, and Dorothy Schwieder, books rarely cited in the political science literature.  Joseph Frazier Wall was a native Iowan and a long-time professor of history at Grinnell College who held a Ph.D. from Columbia and won the Bancroft Prize in 1971 for a biography of Andrew Carnegie.  Wall wrote his beautiful book about Iowa for W.W. Norton’s “The States and the Nation” series during the nation’s bicentennial.  Leland L. Sage was a professor of modern European history at the University of Northern Iowa for 35 years and in 1974 published a serious survey of Iowa history.  The project caught his attention because “no scholarly general history of the state existed” at the time.  Dorothy Schwieder, who hails from South Dakota, earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa, and taught at Iowa State University for many years, published her superb survey of Iowa history in 1996 after many years of diligent commitment to teaching Iowa history.  These works, along with many other more focused studies, provide a much broader appreciation of Iowa’s political culture than can be provided by technical and statistic-heavy political science or from the ephemeral attention of the mass media. Joseph Frazier Wall, Iowa: A History (New York, W.W. Norton, 1978), xv; Leland L. Sage, A History of Iowa (Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1974), ix; Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land (Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1996).  For a review of earlier works on the history of Iowa, often written by newspaper editors and reporters, see Alan M. Schroder, “A History of Iowa Histories,” Annals of Iowa vol. 46, no. 6 (Fall 1982), 441-58.  See also “The Pioneer Historians of Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 47, no. 1 (Winter 1984).  Sage was dismissive of Benjamin Gue’s four volume history of Iowa as too commercial and of other less professional books about Iowa.  Sage, A History of Iowa, x-xi.  For criticism of these earlier works of history, see Schroder, “A History of Iowa Histories,” 441-58.
  4. Sage, A History of Iowa, 34; Laenas Gifford Weld, “Joliet and Marquette in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 1 no. 1 (1903), 3-16; Louis Pelzer, “The Scope of Iowa History,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 1 no. 1 (1903), 3-16; Ora Williams, “Rulers Over the Land that Is Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 29, no. 4 (April 1948), 299-306
  5. Sage, A History of Iowa, 53, 57, 59, 96; Kenneth E. Colton, “Iowa’s Struggle for a Territorial Government,” Annals of Iowa vol. 21 (1937), 363-96; Wall, Iowa, 25.
  6. Sage, A History of Iowa, 63; Wall, Iowa, 30, 36.
  7. Wall, Iowa, 38-39, 193-96; Allan G. Bogue, From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1963), 204.  Bogue also notes the “social gatherings or when neighbors met on the streets or in the stores of the little prairie trade centers and towns” and the “work-exchange groups or rings of neighbors.” Bogue, From Prairie to Corn Belt, 209.  See also Chris Rasmussen, “‘Fairs Here Have Become a Sort of Holiday’: Agriculture and Amusements at Iowa’s County Fairs, 1838-1925,” Annals of Iowa vol. 58, no. 1 (Winter 1999), 1-26.
  8. Christopher Hull, Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2007), 98, 145, 149.
  9. John W. Gannaway, “The Development of Party Organization in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 1 no. 4 (1903), 496-97; David S. Sparks, “The Decline of the Democratic Party in Iowa, 1850-1860,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 53, no. 1 (January 1955), 3-4; F.I. Herriott, “Whence Came the Pioneers of Iowa?” Annals of Iowa vol. 7, no. 5 (April 1906), 367-79; Wall, Iowa, 41, 45.
  10. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York, W.W. Norton, 2005), 307.
  11. Louis Pelzer, “The Negro and Slavery in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 2, no. 4 (October 1904), 478-81; Wall, Iowa, 88, 95, 97.  See generally William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1987).
  12. Wall, Iowa, 106.
  13. Wall, Iowa, 107.
  14. Robert Cook, “The Political Culture of Antebellum Iowa,” in Marvin Bergman (ed.), Iowa History Reader (Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1996), 92.
  15. Schwieder, Iowa, 34, 71; Cook, “The Political Culture of Antebellum Iowa,” 93-94; F.I. Herriott, “The Transfusion of Political Ideas and Institutions in Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 6, no. 1 (April 1903), 50-53; Henry Hyde Hubbart, The Older Middle West, 1840-1880: Its Social, Economic and Political Life and Sectional Tendencies Before, During and After the Civil War (New York, D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1936), 11.  James Connor emphasizes that many of the Southern Democrats in Iowa were not pro-slavery.  James Connor, “The Antislavery Movement in Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 40 (1969), 343-376.  See also John D. Barnhart, “The Democratization of Indiana Territory,” Indiana Magazine of History vol. XLIII no. 1 (March 1947), 10 and William O. Lynch, “Anti-Slavery Tendencies of the Democratic Party in the Northwest, 1848-50,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review vol. 11, no. 3 (December 1924), 319-31.
  16. Cook, “The Political Culture of Antebellum Iowa,” 100-102; Schwieder, Iowa, 70, 72; Louis Pelzer, “The Origin and Organization of the Republican Party in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 4 (1906), 487-525; David S. Sparks, “The Birth of the Republican Party in Iowa, 1854-1856,” Iowa Journal of History vol. 54 (1956), 27.  Louis Pelzer concluded that antagonism “to the further extension of slavery was the foundation upon which the Republican party originated and organized.” (Pelzer, “The Origin and Organization of the Republican Party in Iowa,” 485.)
  17. Wall, Iowa, 46, 97-99; Sage, A History of Iowa, 124-25; Richard Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 (New York, W.W. Norton, 1980), 264; Thomas Teakle, “The Romance in Iowa History,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 14, no. 2 (April 1916), 166-67; Connor, “The Antislavery Movement in Iowa,” 360; Pelzer, “The Negro and Slavery in Early Iowa,” 480.
  18. Pelzer, “The Origin and Organization of the Republican Party in Iowa,” 492.
  19. Wall, Iowa, xviii.
  20. Schwieder, Iowa, 48, 68, 73, 75, 86-87; Robert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993), 227; Wall, Iowa, 108, 116; Robert Cook, Baptism of Fire: The Republican Party in Iowa, 1838-1878 (Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1994), 136; Frances A. Lord, “Iowa Brigades in the Civil War,” Annals of Iowa vol. 39, no. 4 (Spring 1968), 275-81.  On the organization of the 37th Iowa Infantry regiment, which was composed of old farmers (almost 600 of the 914 soldiers were over fifty years old), see “Greybeards in Blue,” Civil War Times Illustrated vol. 36, no. 7 (February 1998).
  21. Pelzer, “The Negro and Slavery in Iowa,” 484.
  22. Wall, Iowa, 114-15; Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State: Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Iowa (New York, Viking Press, 1938), 54.
  23. Schwieder, Iowa, 84-89.  Cook began his study after “discovering that nineteenth-century Iowans were at the forefront of the movement to grant equal rights to blacks.” Cook, Baptism of Fire, xi.
  24. Sage, A History of Iowa, 82; “The Convention of 1844,” The Palimpsest vol. 15 (1930), 106-13; Wall, Iowa, 100-101; Grant Schulte, “Iowans Dismiss Three Justices,” Des Moines Register, November 3, 2010.
  25. Benjamin F. Shambaugh, The Constitutions of Iowa (Iowa City, State Historical Society, 1934), recently re-published by Dodo Press (April 2010). Shambaugh was the superintendent and editor at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City from 1907 to 1940.  For a greater appreciation of Shambaugh and his public spiritedness, see Rebecca Conard, Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2002); “Benjamin F. Shambaugh,” The Palimpsest vol. 21, no. 5 (May 1940), 133-139; and Jon Lauck, “The Prairie Historians and the Foundations of Midwestern History,” Annals of Iowa (forthcoming).
  26. Wall, Iowa, 26, 51; Herriott, “Whence Came the Pioneers of Iowa?” 367-79; Bogue, From Prairie to Corn Belt, 14.  Wall notes that many of these Southern immigrants “had come from the mountain areas of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where the hostility to slavery was strong”  (Wall, Iowa, 90). Connor notes Iowa’s “sectionally fragmented population.” (Connor, “The Antislavery Movement in Iowa,” 350.)
  27. Schwieder, Iowa, 84, 91, 94-96, 103, 106; John D. Buenker, “Growing Up Iowan—Sort Of!” Annals of Iowa vol. 67 (Spring-Summer 2008), 150; David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910 (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 261-64.
  28. Schwieder, Iowa, 104-5.
  29. Schwieder, Iowa, 99-100; George T. Flom, “The Growth of the Scandinavian Factor in the Population of Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 4, no. 2 (1906).  On ethnic settlements in early Iowa, see Sage, A History of Iowa, 94-95; Bogue, From Prairie to Corn Belt, 16.
  30. Wall, Iowa, 68, 72.  When explaining the distinctions between the Midwest and the Far West, James Madison notes that “Methodist churches were far more important in Iowa than bordellos or saloons.”  Madison, “Diverging Trails: Why the Midwest is Not the West,” Robert C. Ritchie and Paul Andrew Hutton, Frontier and Region: Essays in Honor of Martin Ridge (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 45.
  31. Sage, A History of Iowa, 124; Connor, “The Antislavery Movement in Iowa,” 359, 460-61.
  32. Cook, Baptism of Fire, 55.
  33. Irving Berdine Richman, Ioway to Iowa: The Genesis of a Corn and Bible Commonwealth (Iowa City, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1931).
  34. Jacob Van der Zee, “The Neutral Ground,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 13, no. 3 (July 1915), 311-48.
  35. Sage, A History of Iowa, 39.
  36. Sage, A History of Iowa, 50, citing Donald Jackson (ed), Black Hawk: An Autobiography (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1964), 15. Allan Bogue notes that the federal government had purchased the land in Iowa and Illinois “long before settlers were ready to move in.” Bogue, From Prairie to Corn Belt, 12.  See generally Roger L. Nichols, “The Black Hawk War in Retrospect,” Wisconsin Magazine of History vol. 65, no. 4 (Summer 1982), 238-246 and John W. Hall, Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2009)
  37. Sage, A History of Iowa, 107; Wall, Iowa, 61.  As longtime Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Paul Engle once noted, “There has never been a war on Iowa soil, or a battle of any consequence.  One massacre by the Sioux of a few white settlers.” Paul Engle, “Iowa,” in Zachary Michael Jack (ed), Iowa: The Definitive Collection (North Liberty, Iowa, Tall Corn Books, 2009), 435.
  38. Wall, Iowa, 191-92; Connie Street, “Black History Pioneer: Alexander Clark became prominent achiever while residing in Muscatine,” The Muscatine Journal, posted 24 February 2006 (retrieved 11 November 2011); Stephen J. Frese, “From Emancipation to Equality: Alexander Clark’s Stand for Civil Rights in Iowa,” The History Teacher, November 2006 (retrieved 11 November 2011).
  39. Allan Bogue, “Farming in the Prairie Peninsula, 1830-1890,” Journal of Economic History vol. 23, no. 1 (March 1963), 3.  See also David W. Galenson and Clayne L. Pope, “Economic and Geographic Mobility on the Farming Frontier: Evidence from Appanoose County, Iowa, 1850-1870,” Journal of Economic History vol. 49, no. 3 (September 1989), 635-55.
  40. Shambaugh, The Constitutions of Iowa, 27-28, 48.  Allan Bogue noted that the claims clubs might at times protect the interests of speculators instead of farmers, but they also protected “many an honest settler in the enjoyment of improvements and in the purchase of a home from the federal government.” Allan G. Bogue, “The Iowa Claim Clubs: Symbol and Substance,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review vol. 45, no. 2 (September 1958), 253.
  41. Wall, Iowa, 122, 127, 160; Myrtle Beinhauer, “Development of the Grange in Iowa, 1868-1930,” Annals of Iowa vol. 34, no. 8 (April 1959), 601-2; Charles Roll, “Political Trends in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics vol. 26, no. 4 (October 1928), 508; Jeffrey Ostler, Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880-1892 (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1993).  On this period, see Ora Williams, “An Era of Open Debate in Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 26, no. 3 (January 1945), 159-72.
  42. Wall, Iowa, 146; Samuel C. Paterson, “Iowa,” in Alan Rosenthal and Maureen Moakley (eds), The Political Life of the American States (New York, Praeger, 1984), 90. Emlin McClain argued that this decentralization meant the absence of “rings and bosses” in Iowa.  McClain, “The Political State Convention,” Annals of Iowa vol. 31, no. 7 (January 1953), 548.
  43. Schwieder, Iowa, ix-xi.
  44. Samuel C. Paterson, “Iowa,” in Rosenthal and Moakley (eds), The Political Life of the American States, 87.
  45. F.I.H., “Is Iowa’s History Worth While?” Annals of Iowa vol. 6, no. 1 (April 1903), 71-72.


  1. wrote:

    Nice to see that my Iowa monograph got one endnote. Not exactly an endorsement of what Tyler Anbinder termed “One of the most important books ever written about the politics of race in the United States.” Or J. Morgan Kousser: “The most impressive monograph yet in what seems to me a new history of race relations, one that treats racially oriented behavior as profoouindly important, but changeable; as shaped by law, not fixed by culture.” Rave reviews also by John Lauritz Larson, James M. McPherson, and Michael F. Holt. (Sources available on request.)

    Tuesday, 22 November 2011 at 19:45 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    I, for one, do want more from you, Professor Dykstra! As a student of Alexander G. Clark and his times, I often mention your *Bright Radical Star* as our bible. Having started from your footnotes, we’ve found more and more Clark documents. Your work is central to our effort to win recognition for Clark’s house as a US National Historic Landmark. It goes without saying that I as an Iowan happily endorse Jon Lauck’s catalog of Iowa virtues!

    Monday, 5 December 2011 at 20:46 | Permalink

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