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The most distinctive facet of Michigan territorial politics from 1787 to 1825 was the pursuit of representative government, specifically the adoption of a popularly elected legislature—a feature essentially denied the citizens of Michigan Territory until statehood in January of 1837. Michigan politics originated with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, when the area that would become the state of Michigan entered the first stage of territorial government as stipulated in that seminal document. In 1798 the Northwest Territory reached the second stage of territorial government, allowing minimal representative government in the form of a popularly elected territorial legislature and a somewhat elective territorial council. Detroit, essentially the sole population center in Michigan, held its first American election that year, electing Solomon Sibley as a delegate to the territorial legislature located in Cincinnati; voters sent two more representatives in early 1799. In 1800 Congress divided the future Michigan Territory in half, the eastern region remaining part of the Northwest Territory and the western region entering Indiana Territory. When Congress granted Ohio statehood in 1803, however, it excluded all of present-day Michigan, adding it instead to Indiana Territory. The reason given for such an unwarranted move was that Detroit was heavily Federalist, yet Ohio was solidly Jeffersonian Republican, thus guaranteeing the Republican Party another set of electoral votes and congressional representation. The change greatly angered Michiganders, because Indiana Territory was still in the first stage of government and thus without a representative body. Michiganders petitioned Congress for the creation of a new territory, and Congress complied. Michigan officially became a territory effective June 30, 1805.

While the region was still in the first stage of government, Jefferson appointed and Congress confirmed the new territorial leaders: four individuals who had full powers of lawmaking and administration, subject only to congressional approval. Even though President Jefferson appointed all of them, antipathy quickly developed among the territorial officials. Governor William Hull from Massachusetts, who actually had Federalist leanings, warred from the start with one of the three territorial judges, Augustus Woodward from Virginia. Animosity escalated when, in 1808, Judge James Witherell from Vermont joined Hull, and Judge John Griffin from Virginia sided with Woodward. With the New Englanders united against the Virginians–all Republicans in the Federalist stronghold of Detroit–the open and constant feuding resulted in outright governmental deadlock. Infuriated with both factions, Michigan citizens campaigned for an elected legislature, beginning in 1809 when a Detroit grand jury petitioned Congress for a change in territorial status. Congress's preoccupation with impending war with England, however, doomed any alterations. British occupation during the War of 1812 only worsened the political scene in Michigan, and with American reoccupation in 1814, Michiganders immediately renewed their pursuit of representative government.

In 1818 the new territorial governor, Lewis Cass, organized an election in which voters, as a consequence of the heavy French turnout, rejected the move for a popularly elected legislature. New England settlers demanded more representative government, but the old French and British elements in Detroit had no inclination for self-government. Congress did authorize, in 1819, the direct election of a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Voters included all adult white males who were taxpayers and had met the one-year residency requirement. In 1823 Congress again acceded to Michigan's demand for more representative government by allowing the election of a Legislative Council, a feature inherent in the second stage of territorial government. Michigan voters nominated eighteen individuals for the territorial council, and the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, chose nine. The Legislative Council held all lawmaking powers, subject only to the governor's veto and congressional sanction. Congress made several other moves to meet Michigan's demands. In 1825, it authorized qualified voters in each county to choose all county officials except judges, and it allowed town meetings to become the governing bodies in the townships. In 1827 Congress expanded the Legislative Council to thirteen members and made them all directly elected by Michigan citizens. Still, Michiganders had been denied an elected House of Representatives during its territorial period, gaining only nominal self-government under the unicameral Legislative Council.

Bibliography

  • Bald, F. Clever. Detroit's First American Decade, 1796 to 1805. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1948.
  • Dunbar, Willis F. and George S. May. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, 3rd rev. ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995.
  • Gilpin, Alec R. The Territory of Michigan [1805–1837]. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1970.
  • Sherer, Timothy. "The Resistance to Representative Government in Early Michigan Territory." The Old Northwest, 5(2)(1979): 167–179.
  • Woodford, Frank B. Mr. Jefferson's Disciple: A Life of Justice Woodward. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1953.