Ignatius Donnelly

Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) was an American politician, reformer, and author. He was an outstanding spokesperson for the political reform movements of the second half of the 19th century that culminated in the Populist revolt.

Born in Pennsylvania of Irish parents, Ignatius Donnelly attended the free public schools and read law in Philadelphia. Interested in real estate promotion, he moved to Minnesota in 1856 and established the Emigrant Aid Journal to promote settlement. The Panic of 1857 destroyed his projected ideal community and his fortune but not his optimism. He returned to practicing law and entered politics to help promote the organization of the Republican party.

Elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota in 1859, Donnelly was a tireless and fighting politician. He served three terms in the House of Representatives (1863-1869), where he strongly supported the Civil War and Reconstruction programs of the Republican party. In advocating the interests of the Northwest, chiefly land grants for railroad construction, he evoked the ire of economy-minded congressmen.

As the Republican party moved toward conservatism, Donnelly joined the protesters in the Liberal Republicans, the Grangers, and the Greenbackers successively. Serving in the Minnesota Senate (1874-1879), he crusaded for reforms to aid the underprivileged and published a weekly newspaper, the Anti-Monopolist. When his attempt to return to Congress was blocked in 1878 he abandoned politics for writing.

Capitalizing on the popular interest in science fiction, Donnelly's first book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), attempted to demonstrate the existence of Plato's fabled island Atlantis. Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883) followed. The Great Cryptogram (1888) tried to prove that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare's plays.

After another unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1884, Donnelly became active in the Farmers' Alliance and was returned to the Minnesota Senate in 1887. In 1890 he wrote Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century, painting a graphic picture of the potential horrors of life in the United States in the coming century, yet closing with a statement of what might be achieved through reform. The book was widely read. As president of the Farmers' Alliance in Minnesota, Donnelly was actively involved in the establishment of the Populist, or People's, Party. Presiding officer in caucus and conventions and author of the challenging preamble to the party's 1892 platform, he was among the Populists' foremost leaders.

Four years later Donnelly reluctantly followed the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, but he soon concluded that the fusion of the Populists with the Democrats on the free-silver issue was a betrayal of broader reforms. Donnelly ran for the vice presidency on the Populist ticket in 1900.

Late in life Donnelly married his second wife, his 21-year-old stenographer, who assisted him in publishing a newspaper, the Representative. He died on Jan. 1, 1901. His biographer rightly asserts that Donnelly was the hero of the Populist movement, his name synonymous with reform, a true rebel who was never without a feeling of alienation.

Further Reading on Ignatius Donnelly

The major full-length biography of Donnelly is the excellent volume by Martin Ridge, Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician (1962). John D. Hicks published scholarly interpretations of Donnelly's life in The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party (1931) and in numerous articles, the last of which is in John A. Garraty, ed., The Unforgettable Americans (1960). Popular interpretations of Donnelly's career are numerous and include those of Stewart H. Holbrook in Dreamers of the American Dream (1957) and Gerald W. Johnson in The Lunatic Fringe (1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Anderson, David D., Ignatius Donnelly, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Ridge, Martin, Ignatius Donnelly: the portrait of a politician, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

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