Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A novelist and Populist Governor of Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly grew up in South Philadelphia.
Born in 1831, Ignatius Donnelly became one of the best known and most forgotten figures in the political reformist age of the 1800s. He was involved in the leadership or party policies of all of the major independent political parties active in the Midwest from 1870 until his death in 1891. In additional to having a busy political career, Donnelly was a prolific public speaker, the founder and editor of several newspapers, and the author of several books and novels. His life was spent pursuing many careers, often simultaneously. Furthermore, each enterprise Donnelly undertook was afforded the same vigor and tenaciousness as all of the others.
On November 3, 1831, Ignatius Loyola Donnelly was born to Philip Donnelly (an Irish immigrant and a physician) and Catherine Gavin (a pawnbroker) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born in what is now referred to as the Old City, on Pine Street between 9th and 10th Streets, but attended public primary school in Moyamensing Township. He was well educated in both English literature and law at Central High School, a distinguished center for learning that had a similar curriculum to the colleges of the time. In this atmosphere, Donnelly wrote his first published piece of literature, a politically liberal poem called "The Mourner's Vision." Over the two years after his high school graduation he wrote and published more poetry, but at the same time entered into a three year legal apprenticeship under the rising lawyer Benjamin Harris Brewster.
Finished with his apprenticeship in 1852, Donnelly entered politics under the Democratic Party banner. He abandoned poetry for political speeches, and was the featured speaker for the Democratic Party county convention at Independence Square, Philadelphia, on July 4th, 1855. By this time, only his third year in politics, his party loyalties were already questionable. In the same year he withdrew from his race for the state legislature to support his Whig opponent's bid. The following year he was a loyal supporter of the Democratic candidates for the presidency, Buchanan and Breckinridge, but the year after that he would declare himself a Republican.
Donnelly married Katherine McCaffery in 1855 and moved with her to St. Paul, Minnesota to extend his law practice. Once there, he formed a speculative partnership with John Nininger, and together they planned to found their own city: Nininger City. Donnelly was in charge of the promotional aspects of the town, and founded the newspaper The Emigrant Aid Journal (which began its printing in Philadelphia) for that purpose. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1857 followed, ending Nininger City and many other speculative ventures.
With the failure of Nininger City, Donnelly became a wheat farmer and picked up his political career in St. Paul. In 1857, he was elected secretary of the Republican Territorial Convention, and was then the Republican nominee for the territorial Senate in Dakota County. He lost his bid for the Senate, but stayed active in politics. As a second career, he became the editor and an editorial writer for the Republican newspaper, The Minnesotan, that year as well, both positions that he used in his future campaigns to promote his candidacies and platforms. Losing a bid for the Senate in 1858, he ran for and was elected to the position of lieutenant governor.
He held this position two consecutive terms, meanwhile earning himself a reputation as an energetic and effective orator. He had a tendency to put more effort into arousing passion in his audiences than to being factually correct, a point often pointed out by his Democratic rivals. In fact, he often included bold lies in his speeches and writings (which would quickly be contradicted by his opponents), such as claiming that a substantial number of Southern slaves were white, and that the numbers of white slaves were rapidly increasing, in one of his anti-slavery editorials. While his techniques were questionable, the ideals for which his speeches and letters were written were often admirable. He was fervently for anti-slavery and a supporter of charity to the poor (especially the European immigrants). From his early days in Philadelphia, he was part of multiple associations to build and finance homes for new German and Irish immigrants. Once in Minnesota, he spoke often of his grand plan (never implemented) of a mass exodus of the coastal poor to the open opportunity of the Midwest. When the Sioux Indians rebelled in 1862, Donnelly himself joined the troops sent to quell them, furthering his reputation as a man of the people, and gaining him a strong military vote.
Having made for himself a positive reputation through his speeches, and actions as lieutenant governor, Donnelly won the 1862 Congressional election by a landslide. While in office, he campaigned for black suffrage in Minnesota, endorsed the Wade-Davis Manifesto, and supported the creation of a National Bureau of Education for the education of freed African Americans. He was also a major supporter of the causes of railroad companies and served on the Committee for Public Lands. These last two contributions became a scandal for Donnelly after he accepted stock in two railroad companies after using his committee position to give away favors. In addition to the railroad scandal, his brazen tactics did not go over as well in Washington D.C. as they did in St. Paul. He was re-elected in 1864 and in 1866, but finally in 1868 he had made enough enemies that the Republicans ran another candidate against him, splitting the Republican vote and costing the Republican Party the election. Suspecting he might lose that election, Donnelly had also been campaigning for a Senate seat, but he lost that bid as well. After a brief stint in Washington D.C. as a lobbyist for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, and as the Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch, Donnelly returned to politics. Disgusted with the Republican Party's corruption and increasingly capitalistic policies, Donnelly denounced party loyalties, and associated with whichever party supported his platform in any given election. He ran for the House under a People's Party-Democrat Party coalition, in 1870, but lost. He then took another short break from politics to lecture for a year in Minnesota. His two lecture topics were "Six Years in Washington" and "American Humorists." In 1872, he was occupied with campaigning for Horace Greeley's presidential race (another defeat for Donnelly).
He then turned to organizing and leading the new Grange Party in Minnesota. Donnelly ran for a seat on the state senate and won (1874-1878), this time under a Grange-Democrat coalition called the Anti-Monopolist movement. He also established and was the editor of another newspaper: the Anti-Monopolist. Near the end of this term, he broke off from the Grange Party with a large group of followers, and they called their new party the Anti-Monopolists. However, on an Anti-Monopolist-Greenback-Democrat ticket, he lost another bid for the national House of Representatives.
Disgusted by the alleged voter fraud on behalf of the Republicans and the lumber companies, Donnelly then left politics for a literary career. In 1882, he published his first successful novel: Atlantis; the Antediluvian World. In it he uses Plato's writings to "prove" the past existence of Atlantis, using a lawyer's methodology rather than a scientist's. Furthermore, he uses Atlantis to tie together the histories and mythologies of all of the ancient civilizations around the world. He argues that modern civilized societies are civilized because they can trace their roots back to Atlantis, and non-civilized societies are not civilized because they cannot. In 1883, he released a second well-received novel, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, in which he proposed the theory that a comet was the reason for the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the cause for the "Drift," the mass of fossil-less, unstratified till and gravel that covered the earth. Again, it was a pseudo-science novel, written from the prospective of a lawyer. This book was not received as well as Atlantis, and Donnelly did not bear the ridicule well. Driven back towards politics, Donnelly ran for the House again under a coalition of the Democratic and other parties, and lost.
His next novel steered away from pseudo-science, towards pseudo-cryptography. He worked on The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays from 1884-1887, attempting to prove that Bacon was the true author of the Shakespearean works. Furthermore, Donnelly theorized that Bacon had hidden a claim to authorship as well as a history of England, by means of a mathematical cipher, in the plays when he wrote them. The work generated a mixed review. He achieved acclaim for the first time from the literary world, and he had a successful promotion tour in England where he was invited to speak at both Oxford and Cambridge. However, it invited derision from most cryptographers and many others besides in both England and America, and it did not sell well.
Meanwhile, Donnelly was involved in formulating the national platform for the Farmers' Alliance, a new liberal political party. He was then elected to the state legislature in 1887, backed by the Alliance party. He attempted election as governor in the next election under the renamed Farmer Labor party, but withdrew from the race when it became obvious he would not succeed. Instead he became the Democratic candidate for the state legislature in the same election. Losing that election, he immediately began campaigning for the U.S. Senate again, but in 1889 he lost that election as well.
Following a consistent pattern, the defeats drove Donnelly back to literature. He wrote his first fictional novel by the end of that year: Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. David Anderson describes this as a story of "materialism, greed, and technology [triumphing] until the ultimate mindless revolution." This futuristic novel was inspired by Donnelly's political losses and failure to reform American policies to the degree he had desired. Set in 1988, the story explores a New York City in which an elite class benefited from the technological advances and rich capital gains of the future, and used these advances to exploit the masses of under-privilaged lower class workers. These workers form an underground movement called the Brotherhood of Terror, whose goal is to bring down the civilization which has caused their oppression. The story is told by the letters a visitor from a small town in Africa writes to his family, so that the narrator is in a position to discover the culture of this future New York City with the readers. This book was well received by the public, and is the work Donnelly is best remembered for today.
The following year, in 1890, Donnelly was the keynote speaker for the Minnesota Convention of the Northwest Alliance, and ran for the state senate under the Alliance Labor Union. He won the senate position, and was involved in the formation of the Populist Party. During the same year Donnelly wrote his second fictional novel: Doctor Huguet, to call attention to the fallacies of racism.
In 1892, Donnelly was instrumental in founding the Populist Party. He prepared the parties platform, and presented it at the party convention in St. Louis. He was the keynote speaker for the second convention in Omaha later that year, and the gubernatorial candidate for Minnesota. That same year, he released his third novel, The Golden Bottle, which endorses much of the independent party's position that the only way to prosperity was to have the universal availability of money.
Donnelly published other books and remained active in politics over the next six years. In his advanced years he was a well known figure, although public opinion of him varied from ridicule to admiration. When he stepped down from the leadership of the Farmers' Alliance in 1895, a group of the prominent politicians in Minnesota (both his friends and foes amongst them) honored him with the presentation of a pen and a golden cane, saying of the pen "May it be used unhesitatingly against enemies of your cause." His wife passed away in 1896, and he was remarried to Marian Hanson in 1898. That same year Donnelly was nominated as the vice-presidential candidate for the Populist Party, but lost the election in 1900. In that year, his health began to fail him; he suffered a stroked during a campaign speech. Just after midnight on January 1, 1901, in the first hours of the new century, Donnelly had a heart attack in his sleep and passed away peacefully.
"The Mourner's Vision." Philadelphia: n.p., 1850.
The Sonnets of Shakespeare: An Essay. Saint Paul: George W. Moore, 1859.
Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882.
Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. New York: D. Appleton, 1882.
The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare's Plays. Chicago: R.S. Peale, 1887.
The Shakespeare Myth. N.p.: n.p., 1887.
Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: F. J. Schulte, 1890.
Doctor Huguet: A Novel. Chicago: F. J. Schulte, 1891.
The Golden Bottle or the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas. New York: D.D. Merrill, 1892.
The American People's Money. Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1895.
In Memoriam Mrs. Katherine Donnelly. N.p.: n.p., 1895.
The Cipher in the Plays, and on the Tombstone. Minneapolis: Verulam Publishing, 1899.
A Tribute to Lincoln. Washington: Usher L. Burdick, 1942.
Anderson, David D. Ignatius Donnelly. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Brennan, Stephen. "Ignatius Donnelly." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 12: American Realists and Nationalists. Detroit: The Gale Group. 1982. 137-144.
Kennedy, Roger G. Men on the Moving Frontier. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1969.
Ridge, Martin. Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962.