Guest Essayists: Kimberly Porter and Donna Pearson


The Constitution of North Dakota provided the final step on the road to statehood; however, it was not the only step on the pathway. The process required the acquisition of the Great Plains from France in 1804, as well as the subordination of Native Americans who had called the region home for centuries.

Assorted fur traders, trappers, missionaries and explorers, including Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, traveled the lands seeking to discover its riches: furs, minerals, a passageway to the Pacific Ocean, etc. Large numbers of European-Americans did not settle the region until the 1860s with greater numbers arriving in the 1879s and 1880s.

Beyond the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, the first major move towards statehood and the need for a constitution in North Dakota came with one of President James Buchanan’s last acts as president of the United States. On March 2, 1861, just two days before Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office, Buchanan signed a bill creating Dakota Territory. This territory would later be divided into the states of North and South Dakota, as well as portions of Wyoming and Montana. At the same time, the Nebraska Territory was modified to appear much like the state it would become.

Individuals did not flock to the lands which would become North Dakota. Not only did the Civil War rage elsewhere, but so did Indian uprisings, particularly one in Minnesota and Dakota Territory later referred to as the Great Dakota Uprising. Railroads had not yet crossed the region as they did in areas more centrally located, i.e., Kansas and Nebraska. Even the offer of free lands via the Homestead Act (1862) did not populate the land necessary to apply for statehood.

By 1870, the future state had a European-American population of approximately 2400, but within the next ten years, the European-American population grew to 37,000. For those who dreamed for statehood, the number of settlers rose dramatically in the decade of the 1880s. Taken shortly after statehood was achieved, the census of 1890 recorded a population of 190,000. Forever after known as the Great Dakota Boom, the explosion in population can be ascribed to an increasing influx of population from Europe, the presence of two railways across the entirety of the state, the end of incursions with Native Americans, and the claims made on more southern regions for free homestead land. The lands that became South Dakota had experienced many of these pressures a generation beforehand and commenced the pathway to statehood earlier. (See entry on South Dakota for details of that state’s path to membership in the federal union.)

Residents of the future South Dakota did not seek to join with their northern twin. There was a distinct feeling in the southern half that the northern portion was controlled by the railroads, was more strongly attached to Canada than the United States, and that its inhabitants were somewhat less desirable than those immigrants in the south. Hence, Dakota Territory did its utmost to attract homesteaders and businessmen to the northern half by positively publicizing the region throughout the United States and western Europe. Free pamphlets and even a 500-page book were dispatched upon request.

Also encouraging the movement towards statehood and a Constitution was the sense that young men in the state were overlooked in the political processes. Most governmental positions were appointed from Washington, D.C., leaving unknown westerners out of the bidding.

At this time, the Democratic Party held the movement to statehood in check. Knowing that any new state in the northern reaches of the nation would most likely vote for the Republican Party, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, did nothing to encourage the addition of northern states to the Union. The partisan debate concluded with the election of Republican Benjamin Harrison to the White House in 1888. Just before leaving office, Cleveland signed the Omnibus Bill, allowing North and South Dakota, Washington, and Montana the privilege of calling Constitutional Conventions as a precursor to statehood.

O July 4, 1889, 75 delegates descended on Bismarck, the territorial capital. Elected in units of three from twenty-five districts representing the extant population of North Dakota, the conventioneers heavily claimed the eastern third of the state home. This would prove a continuing force upon the state of North Dakota to the current day.

No member of the constitutional convention had been born in North Dakota, all were European-American, male, and under forty-five years of age. They were comparatively well-educated, with considerable representation from the legal and publishing professions. Also present in significant numbers were farmers, many of whom felt an allegiance to the Farmers’ Alliance and leaned towards the Republican party.

Forces upon the convention were plentiful. The federal government set the stage, initially denying the Dakotas the right of convening a Constitutional session, but also by requiring the future state to adhere to the Constitution of the United States, to be republican in form, and to provide land grants to support education. Railroads, often simply referred to as “corporations”, held sway as well. The Northern Pacific Railway as well as grain dealers, implement manufacturers, and banks could control the territory from a distance by acquiring political appointments. They were fully aware that controlling a state from within would be somewhat more difficult. A relatively weak government would be in their interests.

Farmers, a considerable portion of the convention delegates, could also claim relative power in Bismarck. Due to economic woes of the 1870s and 1880s, many had joined the Farmers’ Alliance, hoping to gain power in the marketplace as well as in the halls of government. The farmers presented the largest organized force at the convention. Control of the terminal market for wheat, the railroads and sources of credit were vital if their dreams were to become reality.

The farmers, businessmen, newspaper owners, attorneys and other assorted delegates gathered exemplar states’ constitutions for discussion and edification. All were from eastern locales, making a pattern for the over-creation of institutions. Only Major John Wesley Powell’s argument for the state to maintain possession of the waters usable for irrigation made the cut.

Advice for the construction of the state’s constitution did not only come from Powell of United States Geological Survey, it also came from the Northern Pacific Railway. Henry Villard, chairman of the Northern Pacific’s board of directors, asked Harvard Law Professor James Bradley Thayer to prepare a draft constitution for North Dakota. Submitted by a delegate from Bismarck, the document brought with it considerable debate.

Thayer’s draft shaped, but did not control, the Constitution that came out of the convention. Lively debate ensued on woman suffrage, jury reform, a unicameral legislature, the prohibition of railroad passes for public officials and union. None of the above were adopted. However, what did come from the discussions was a relatively moderate document with reformist ideas. Based in considerable distrust of corporations, the conventioneers determined to limit the power of the governor and the legislature by placing the power for decision-making in those realms into the hands of independent boards, as well as putting considerable legislation into the actual constitution. Citizens themselves carried considerable responsibility. Covering the vital issues took time and ink. The constitution of North Dakota is six times longer than the federal constitution.

As an example of legislating, the state constitution of North Dakota includes fourteen institutions and their geographical placement. Grand Forks, for example, is the mandated site for the state university, while Bismarck is delegated the capital, and Valley City and Mayville normal (teaching) schools. Not only were the vast number of institutions placed in the eastern portion of North Dakota, as befits the homes of the conventioneers, but their mention in the constitution ensures closing or moving any state institution to be exceptionally problematic.

An issue of considerable importance at the time of statehood was whether the manufacturing, sales and consumption of alcohol should be prohibited. After contentious debate, it was determined that the future-state’s citizens would have the opportunity to vote on the constitution, and whether to ban alcohol from the state. After 45 days, the assembly adjourned on August 17, 1889.

On October 1, voters ratified the constitution, 27,441 to 8,107.  Opposition to the constitution came primarily from those areas of North Dakota that felt cheated by the distribution of governmental institutions. The ban on alcohol was close.  Prohibition came to North Dakota by a vote of 18,552 to 17,393.  North Dakota was the first state to enter the Union as a “dry” state.

On November 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison had before him the constitutions of North and South Dakota. In a rare moment of levity for the president, he declared that neither state should have the pride of being the first or the last of the Dakotas to become a part of the Union. Accordingly, he stirred them a bit and signed his name, twice. The luck of the alphabet has given North Dakota the rank of 39th state and South Dakota 40th.

The constitution created in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, is essentially the one that the residents of North Dakota are called upon to abide to this very day. The Constitution lays forth the powers of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches, as well as the checks upon those branches. The legislature is permitted to meet only 60 days each biennium, unless an emergency calls them together. This check is to limit the development of a professional class of politicians in the state, and to ensure that the officials elected to the legislature maintain a connection with their electors.

The governor is specifically prohibited from influencing the vote of any member of the legislature via promises to sign or veto legislation, or to provide or deny an appointive office. The numerous independent boards of control, as well as a listing of 35 subjects on which the legislature is expressly forbidden to interest itself, keeps the state’s electoral structure somewhat weak.

The weaknesses of North Dakota’s constitution are deliberate as they reflect a population fearful of outside control, excessive debt, and professional politicians.

Kimberly K. Porter is a professor of history at the University of North Dakota. She focuses her efforts on United States history, particularly the 1877-1945 era, with an eye to agricultural and rural issues, including the history of North Dakota. Dr. Porter is engaged in writing a monograph exploring radio in pre-1945 rural America.  

Dr. Donna K. Pearson is Associate Dean of Student Services and Assessment, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of North Dakota ( and teaches Social Studies Methods in the Department of Teaching, Leadership and Professional Practices. Her research interests include inter- and cross-cultural competencies, international/comparative education, civic and international professional development. Additionally, she co-authored Interculturalization and Teacher Education: From Theory to Practice published by Routledge of Taylor and Francis.


Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.