Donnelly, Ignatius (1831–1901)

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, also known as the “The Sage of Nininger,” was a congressman from Minnesota, the People's Party's vice-presidential candidate in the 1900 election, a science fiction writer, a novelist, and a fringe scientist.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1831 to Philip Donnelly, an Irish American medical doctor, and his wife, Catherine, a pawnbroker. After graduating from public high school, Ignatius passed the bar exam while working for the law office of Benjamin Harris Brewster. At 19, he published his first volume of poetry. Five years later, he was nominated for the Pennsylvania legislature.

In 1856, with his new wife, Katherine McCaffrey, in tow, he moved west, first to Iowa and shortly after to Minnesota. His populist sentiments surfaced early when he discovered the outrageous interest rates charged by moneylenders in St. Paul. He swore eternal hatred toward the so-called monied class, which he dubbed “the shameless plutocracy” (Wack). Still, he bought 640 acres of land located 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis and planned the construction of what would become the town of Nininger City, and later simply Nininger. Within a year, roughly 200 houses and businesses had sprung up. With visions of a great fortune and a utopian cooperative farm community before him, it all disappeared in the Panic of 1857, which left him near bankruptcy.

After a second failed bid for the Senate, he then became the state's lieutenant governor, under Alexander Ramsey, in 1859. When the Sioux rebelled in 1862 (also known as the Dakota War, the Sioux Outbreak, or the Dakota Uprising), Donnelly joined the troops sent to quell the uprising, further establishing him as a man of the people. From that position, he moved on four years later to become the U.S. representative for the Second District, a position he held for three terms.

Known to his fellow congressmen as highly intelligent yet erratic, Donnelly envisioned himself as a champion of the common man against the corrupt business, corporate, timber, moneylending, and railroad interests that were taking advantage of ordinary people. In his speeches, in his editorials, and on the campaign trail, he often let his rhetoric get away from him and was accused by rivals, including people in his own Republican Party, of telling bald-faced lies, including such claims as that a number of southern slaves were really white and their numbers were rising. A fervent abolitionist of the Free Labor ilk, he championed the Wade-Davis Manifesto, supported the purchase of Alaska, believed in African American suffrage, and promoted the expansion of the National Bureau of Education to educate freed blacks.

It was his support of the railroads that created a minor scandal and ultimately cost him his congressional seat. While serving on the Committee for Public Lands, which made decisions regarding railroad interests, it was discovered that he had accepted stock from at least two companies. This, coupled with his over-the-top polemics and rigid attitudes, led fellow Minnesota Republicans, representing the King-Washburn ring, to put up a rival candidate in his 1868 reelection campaign, which split the GOP vote. The King-Washburn ring included Cadwallader C. Washburn and William S. King, who dabbled in land speculation, railroads, and lumber and who were known for corruption in their pursuit of commercial and political power. Washburn also battled Charles Alfred Pillsbury in the wheat and flour industries and eventually established General Mills. Like many states, Minnesota allowed several candidates from the same party to run for the same office as long as there was major-party support. The ballot thus featured two Republican candidates and one Democrat, which basically split the Republican vote. King-Washburn decided it was worth losing the seat for two years to get rid of Donnelly. Suspecting that he had little chance of winning, Donnelly also campaigned for the open Senate seat, an opportunity that never materialized because he could not get the party's nomination.

From there, Donnelly went on to organize the new Grange Party in Minnesota. Joining forces with the Democrats, Donnelly spearheaded the antimonopolist movement and was elected to the state senate from 1874 to 1878. While serving, he started and edited a new newspaper called the Anti-Monopolist. Leaving the Grange Party behind, Donnelly formed a new party called the Anti-Monopolist Party. With the Anti-Monopolists, Greenbackers, and Democrats, he formed a coalition ticket to make one more attempt to return to the House of Representatives, only to be met with defeat. Believing his failure was due to lumber company fraud, the monied interests, and Republican corruption, Donnelly decided to return to his law career and to writing.

Donnelly made his biggest impact on future generations as a writer rather than a politician. His most famous work was Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, published in 1882. He claimed that the story of Atlantis told in Plato's dialogues between Timaeus and Critias was a real event, tying it to the Great Flood in the Bible. Atlantis, located in the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, was the place where civilization and culture first took root. It was a true antediluvian world, a place of peace and happiness, and its memory inspired the legends of Asgard, Olympos, Alcinous, the Garden of Eden, the Gardens of Hesperides, Mesophalos, and the Elysian Fields. Atlantean kings and queens were remembered as the ancient gods and goddesses. The first to manufacture iron and develop an alphabet, the entire island disappeared in a terrible calamity. The few survivors were able to make their escapes to the west and east on rafts, giving rise to the various flood and deluge myths. In a sequel a year later, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, he contended that it was a massive comet that not only destroyed Atlantis but took out the mammoths as well.

In 1888, Donnelly published The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays, in which he proposed that Bacon had written most of William Shakespeare's oeuvre, a popular theory of the time. Donnelly claimed that Bacon had left ciphers in various plays proving his authorship. The book, despite a successful promotional tour of England, met mixed reviews and sold poorly.

Meanwhile, Donnelly returned to politics, this time placing his hope in a new party called the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance, and he was actively involved in the formation of its platform. The Alliance's goals fostered ideals that Donnelly had held his entire public career—to protect farmers and the common man from monopolies, monied interests, and corrupt politicians. It also sought a more equitable tax system, an income tax, congressional regulation of interstate commerce, and the establishment of local cooperative stores.

Donnelly took his concerns about his political losses and his failures to correct the national policies that oppressed the common man and wrote a successful science fiction novel, Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. Set in 1988 New York, an elite few exploit underprivileged workers, resulting in an underground movement called the Brotherhood of Terror, which seeks to bring down civilization. He followed it up with a second novel, Doctor Huguet, which detailed his concerns about racism and its lasting effects on American culture.

In 1890, Donnelly was the keynote speaker at the Minnesota Convention of the Northwest Alliance and again ran for the state senate, this time under the Alliance Labor Union banner, and won.

Donnelly then turned his attention to the People's Party, an outgrowth of the Farmers’ Alliance. He was actively involved in the formation of the platform at the St. Louis convention, at which he was a keynote speaker, and he wrote the preamble of the Omaha convention's platform, which included abolition of the national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, an eight-hour work day, civil service reform, and the abandonment of the gold standard. His concern over the gold standard was the backbone of his novel The Golden Bottle, which claimed that the only way the United States could be prosperous was to have money universally available. He made one last attempt at statewide office, running for governor as a Populist, and again went down to defeat.

Donnelly continued to write and publish throughout his later years. Stepping down from a leadership role in the Farmers’ Alliance in 1895, he was honored by a number of Minnesota politicians with a golden cane and pen, which was to be “used unhesitatingly against enemies of your cause” (Dudek). In the next year his wife died, and a few months later he married his secretary, Marion Hanson.

In poor health, it appeared that his public life was done, but in a surprise move he accepted the nomination as the People's Party's vice-presidential candidate, under Wharton Barker, in 1900. It proved to be a pivotal mistake for both the party and himself. The once great orator was a mere shadow of himself, and he suffered a stroke in the middle of a campaign speech. Donnelly never recovered. He died just after midnight on January 1, 1901, of a heart attack.

Trevor Jason Soderstrum

See also: Abolitionism ; Granger Movement


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Wack, Henry Wellington. “Ignatius Donnelly: Recollections of a Great Baconian.” Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning. . Accessed January 3, 2013.