The latest Superior idea

One reason I like not living in the People’s Republic of Madison is that the farther away from Madison you are, the more skepticism about government there generally is.

So imagine how you’d feel about state government if you lived in Michigan — specifically, upper Michigan. Whatever the Michigan Legislature is doing has prompted the return of the S word, according to the Marquette Mining Journal (h/t Wis. U.P. North):

With frustration over revenue sharing cuts and potential tax law changes that could negatively affect local governments, dictated by Lansing lawmakers, talk at Tuesday’s Marquette County Board meeting included a resurgence of the decades-old idea of the Upper Peninsula becoming a state of its own. …

With frustration over revenue sharing cuts and potential tax law changes that could negatively affect local governments, dictated by Lansing lawmakers, talk at Tuesday’s Marquette County Board meeting included a resurgence of the decades-old idea of the Upper Peninsula becoming a state of its own.

Commissioner Michael Quayle said he recently corresponded via email with a citizen who wanted more information about development of a potential severance tax for non-ferrous mining operations, including the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. mine in Michigamme Township.

Local taxing units have been concerned the severance tax could replace and shortchange current ad valorem tax revenue schools and local governments vitally depend on.

“The person kind of quipped at the end of the email and said we should secede from the state of Michigan,” Quayle said.

Commissioners chuckled at Quayle’s remark.

Quayle said his unnamed correspondent suggested a book by local historian James Carter on previous U.P. statehood efforts called “Superior, a State for the North Country.”

“I actually purchased the book and it’s kind of interesting reading,” Quayle said. “It’s too bad Mr. (Dominic) Jacobetti, back in ’75, didn’t see fit to maybe give it one more shot. It only lost by one vote. The vote was 67-66.”

Quayle was talking about a state house vote and the late Jacobetti, a Negaunee Democrat who still maintains the longest-serving member status in the House of Representatives. He represented two districts over his career and held office for 39 years until his death in 1994.

“Quite honestly, with how we’re being treated up here, and if you read through this book and all the efforts through the years of this talk of seceding from the state, at first I kind of joked or laughed about it, like I did back in ’75, and earlier when Mr. Jacobetti had first proposed it,” Quayle said. “I thought it was something that was probably impossible, not likely to happen and certainly there was a lot of anti-seceding issues going on at the time. But I think he had a very good vision back there and I think if he was sitting here today, he’d probably say he had wished he’d maybe taken one more vote on the issue.”

Quayle said he didn’t know “if we have the leadership in Lansing now to do something like this.”

The story of the Upper Peninsula includes a lot of Wisconsin history. The story also shows why Wisconsinites should be not merely skeptical of, but hostile to the federal government, because Wisconsin has been getting the royal shaft from the feds since before Wisconsin became a state. (With no help from many of our elected representatives, including Sens. Joseph “Red Scare” McCarthy, William “Golden Fleece” Proxmire, Gaylord “Plants Before People” Nelson and Russ Feingold the Phony Maverick.)

There is nothing logical about the U.P.’s being part of a state with which it has no common boundary — a state whose two halves were not connected until the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957 — instead of being part of a state with 200 miles of common boundary. Which means that, of course, politics was involved.

Before we continue: The story of Wisconsin’s borders and why the Upper Peninsula isn’t part of Wisconsin comes from three books, Mark Stein’s How the States Got Their Shapes and How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines, and Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States. All are fascinating reads.

Had Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Northwest Ordinance, had his way, what now is Wisconsin would have been part of three states. Everything north of the 45-degree North latitude line (including the Upper Peninsula and, for that matter, all of Minnesota north of the Mississippi River) would have been Sylvania, between 45 degrees North and 43 degrees North (think of a line going west and east from Jefferson and Waukesha) would have been Michigania (not including any of Michigan), and south of that (including Chicago) would have been Assenisipia.

The Northwest Ordinance’s intended northern boundary for Illinois was the bottom of Lake Michigan, as was the case for Indiana. But Indiana wanted access to the Great Lakes, so Congress pushed its boundaries 10 miles north. Illinois also wanted Great Lakes access, but instead of adopting Indiana’s line across the lake, Illinois’ boundary was pushed another 50 miles northward. The reason had to do with an event that was four decades in the future, the Civil War, and the perceived need to be able to avoid shipping down the Mississippi River past the slave state of Missouri. Going farther north was better to construct canals between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, from which shipping could continue eastward through the rest of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s northern boundary also served as Ohio’s northern boundary, which made Michigan so angry that it dispatched a militia to fight what is known as the Toledo War. (You wonder why Michigan and Ohio State football games are so heated?)

How the States Got Their Shapes Too quotes Ohio Gov. Robert Lucas, speaking of Toledo …

Some have been driven from their houses in dread and terror, while others are menaced by the authorities of Michigan. … And for what? Is it for crime? No, but for faithfully discharging duty as a good citizen of Ohio. … The authorities of Michigan countenanced prosecutions against the citizens of Ohio … with a degree of reckless vengeance scarcely paralleled in the history of civilized nations.

… and Michigan Gov. Stevens T. Mason, with the other side of the story:

Outrages of a most unjustifiable and unparalleled character have been committed by a number of persons at Toledo upon officers of the [Michigan] Territory. … A regular organization exists among these individuals for the purpose of resisting the execution of the laws of Michigan. If [Ohio] … is permitted to dragoon us into a partial surrender of our jurisdiction … the territorial government is at once annihilated. Criminals committing the highest offences are left at large. … All law is at an end.

To prevent a civil war before the real one broke out, Congress approved statehood for Michigan (which had already elected Mason, the territorial governor fired by President Andrew Jackson, as governor of the state) on the grounds that Ohio get Toledo and Michigan get the Upper Peninsula, thus setting, by 1836, the boundaries of the Wisconsin Territory:

What does Ripon have to do with this? Mason was replaced as territorial governor by John S. Horner. After his services were no longer required when Michigan became a state, Horner moved one territory west and became secretary of the Wisconsin Territory. Horner then helped found both Ripon and Ripon College, and died in Ripon in 1883.

We might as well throw in Minnesota’s story too, since it also has to do with Great Lakes access, specifically Lake Superior. Congress gave to the future Minnesota the Mississippi River from where it meets the St. Croix River northward to a line south of the western end of Lake Superior. As Stein put it in How the States Got Their Shapes, “These boundary choices vividly reflect the nation’s commitment to the principle that all states should be created equal,” except that other states grew at Wisconsin’s expense three times. For that reason alone Wisconsin should be much more anti-federal government than it is.

The idea of creating a state from the Upper Peninsula dates back to 1858, when a secession convention was held in Ontonagon, Mich., to create a state called either Ontonagon or Superior. The New York Times even approved of the idea:

The prolific Northwest is apparently about to give birth to another member of the American family of States. We may expect soon to “welcome the advent of a little stranger” on the borders of our greatest lake. … Unless Congress should interpose objections, which cannot reasonably be apprehended, we see no cause why the new “State of Ontonagon” should not speedily take her place as an independent member of the union.

Secession came up again in 1897 and 1962. I have a vague memory of the early 1970s secession movement the Mining Journal referred to in its story. I recall seeing a map on NBC Nightly News (whether it was accurate or not I don’t know) that had northern Wisconsin joining the U.P. to form the state of Superior, and another map had just the U.P. as the newest state.

Lost States takes the secession proposal further by adding several Wisconsin counties to its version of Superior, giving everything from roughly Ashland to Rhinelander to Menominee, Mich., to the new state, under the rationale that they are “compatible with the Upper Peninsula.”

Trinklein points out the biggest barrier to the state of Superior, then suggests a solution:

Like many fifty-first state efforts, the big barrier for Superior would be population, or, more specifically, a lack thereof. Nobody lives up there. Even if you add in northern Wisconsin, the total population likely falls under a half million. It’s hard to justify two new senators for a state that has fewer people than Boise, Idaho.

However, there is one scenario that might play into Superior’s hands. Since Congress likes to add states in pairs (one Democratic and one Republican, to avoid tilting the balance of power), Superior could be the Republican counterweight to Democratic-leaning Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C.

Irrespective of whether Trinklein is correct (Puerto Rico’s governor, who is pushing statehood, is a Republican, and Republicans are the politicians about whom the Mining Journal reported complaints) on the value of letting in two new states, it seems unlikely that the Michigan Legislature would vote to split the state in two. It’s also far from certain that the Upper Peninsula has enough people or tax base to sustain itself as a separate state.

Regardless of whether the Upper Peninsula is likely to become the State of Superior, Lost States is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in American history or geography. In addition to Jefferson’s Sylvania and Michigania, Lost States includes Charlotina, a British proposed colony in what became the Wisconsin Territory, which would have been populated “with debtors ‘pining in jails throughout Britain and Ireland.’ As an added benefit to Britain, these new settlers could prevent a return of the French and ‘check Indian insurrections.'”

Not in Wisconsin but of Wisconsin would have been the state, or even country, of Rough and Ready, not far from the Yuba River in Gold Rush-era California, because …

First, the county imposed a tax on mining claims, and nobody likes taxes. Second, and much more significant, was the prohibition of alcohol. Most Rough and Readians had originally come from Wisconsin, the state whose residents (both then and now) consume more booze than any other. One reason may be because Wisconsin was settled by beer-loving German Lutherans. (Beer is still so much a part of Wisconsin culture that it’s not unusual for a Lutheran choir to tap a kegger after rehearsal.) That’s why it’s not surprising that the displaced Wisconsinites of Rough and Ready objected to their county going dry.

In case it isn’t obvious, Trinklein is a Wisconsinite. He lives in Cedarburg.

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