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A Free State

The legislature has gone home, prompting sighs of relief across the state, not least among the legislators themselves. Yes, I have been among those taking shots at them during the recent session, or rather, I would make the distinction, taking shots at some of their actions.

Now, in a quieter time, taking a long view, I think we need to say what we expect of our elected representatives. Not just say, this bill is good, this bill is bad, but rather--I’m going to sound a little grandiloquent here, but it’s my job--consider the foundational question, what is a state, anyway?

I am not really a state guy. I am a regionalist; I do the Great Plains--their history, their folklore, life in general in grassy places. Regions are defined according to physical and cultural considerations. The Great Plains, for instance, are defined as level, sub-humid, and grassy.

States are lines on a map, a question I addressed when commissioned to write a book chapter on the borders of one prairie state, South Dakota. Looking at their historical development, I concluded that it was good to have boring borders, rectilinear, maybe even arbitrary, lines. Attempts to make political borders correspond to cultural groupings have caused us no end of trouble around the world in the past two centuries.

A state is not a region; it is a political entity, possessing defined sovereignty--in our case, defined by the United States Constitution. A state is not merely some transactional unit, however. It is up to us, within these rectangles on the open land, to define the nature of the commonwealth by our actions and by the stories we tell.

In researching the borders of Dakota Territory and of the states created from it, I found some good guidance as to the definition of a state and how to build one. I got it from territorial governor William A. Howard, specifically his address to the legislature on 14 January 1879. I like this guy Howard. He was a Republican before Republican was cool, that is, in Michigan in 1853. He stood up to be counted among those who declared that slavery must be contained.

In 1879 Howard foresaw a state emerging from the Dakota Territory, and he asked, “What, then, is a state? What is a free state? What institutions should characterize a free state? What are its legitimate functions? What its duties and powers?”

Howard answered his own question: “A State is the people in a given territory and their institutions.” He elaborated: “A free government is simply the organized power of the good, consolidated and wielded to restrain the bad, and to protect the weak from the encroachments of the strong; or, in other words, to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty to all the people.”

The first duty of a government, then, was to establish sturdy institutions, including ones “to provide for the unfortunate.” “Humanity requires this at the hands of the State,” Howard intoned. Institutions are formative and defining.

At the outset, too, and forever, Howard declared, a free government must attend to the character of its people, do all that is possible “for the promotion of the intelligence and virtue of its people ... The liberty of a people cannot be forced beyond its intelligence; nor can it long survive the decay of public morality.”

Is anyone else feeling a little uncomfortable under the rhetorical gaze of Governor Howard? He died young, probably because he was too good for a territory often victimized by grasping graft. Howard leaves us, however, a memorable metric by which historians may measure the progress of a state, or adjudge the actions of their government.

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