Who was “Colfax?”
During the pandemic, my daughter was inspired by Font Love Studio’s “New Day” letterpress newspaper; the following story was published last week in my daughter’s neighborhood newspaper, for which I am officially the “Assistant to the Publisher.” I wrote this article with a younger audience in mind.
Across the country — and here in Minnesota — elected officials and individual citizens are taking a new look at the “namesakes” of streets, holidays, lakes and rivers and even entire cities.
Here in Minneapolis, my mom’s family grew up near what they knew as “Lake Calhoun.”
Over the past few years, many citizens pointed out that “Calhoun” was former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was a proponent of slavery and of removing Native Americans from their native lands as the United States expanded its territory westward, including here in Minnesota. This year, the Lake has officially been returned to the name used by the Dakota people — “Bde Make Ska.” The name “Lake Calhoun” will be left for history books now.
These changes led me to ask: “Who was ‘Colfax,’ after whom our street is named?”
I learned some interesting things about our City along my journey to learn more about “Colfax.” First, Minneapolis as we know it today was actually formed by the merger of two cities in 1872: Minneapolis and St. Anthony. The new City of Minneapolis faced a challenge. In many areas of the new city, different stretches of road were named exactly the same. Imagine how confusing it would be to have two houses at 110 Water Street in totally different parts of the same city!
So, in 1873, the Minneapolis City Council passed a 10-page law that renamed most of the streets in what was then the core area of the city. Andy Sturdevant wrote a great article about this process in MinnPost:
1873: In one fell swoop, legions of Minneapolis' streets get new names - or numbers | MinnPost
Buried beneath all of the numbered streets and avenues, there is another, less orderly Minneapolis, one that shares…
The alphabetical streets — starting with Aldrich and including Colfax for the “C” was named soon after, though I have not yet found the specific year that the City Council named these streets south and west of downtown.
Several sources all point to the “Colfax” namesake as U.S. Vice President Schuyler Colfax. Vice President Colfax was elected with President Ulysses Grant in 1869, in the shadow of the end of the Civil War and during the difficult process of reconstruction.
Curiously, for a Vice President and a 6-year Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, I found it difficult to find many articles or books about Mr. Colfax. For instance, a Hennepin County Library search found zero relevant items. However, the two best resources I found were: 1) an article on the U.S. Senate’s website, profiling Colfax since as Vice President he served as the presiding officer of the Senate, and 2) an authorized biography “The Life of Schuyler Colfax,” published in 1868 during Colfax’s campaign for Vice President.
Schuyler Colfax was born in New York City in 1823, and moved to Indiana as a teenager. Introduced to politics by his stepfather, Colfax soon became engaged in policy as a newspaperman. In 1849, Colfax was elected to the convention responsible for writing Indiana’s state constitution. At that convention, Colfax was an outspoken opponent of laws that made it illegal for African-Americans to move to Indiana or to purchase land in the state. These laws were overturned within 2 years.
(“Bonus Colfax history”, cont…)
Colfax lost his first election for a seat in the U.S. Congress, but became widely known for his opposition to slavery. I am looking forward to reading copies of his early speeches from the mid-1850s — especially since there was no clear “anti-slavery” political party until 1856. Colfax himself helped a single party unify around the opposition to slavery during the 1860 election — resulting in Abraham Lincoln’s election as President in 1860 under the new Republican party, but also resulting in Southern pro-slavery states leaving the United States and sparking the ugly and bloody Civil War.
During the Civil War, Colfax maintained close ties to Abraham Lincoln while also working to end slavery. In 1863, Congressman Colfax’s colleagues elected him to the highest office in Congress. As the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Colfax played a significant role in abolishing slavery.
Speaker Colfax was in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives as Congress debated the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment is most well known for making slavery illegal in every state, including the southern states that would be welcomed back to the Union after the Civil War. Though tradition of the U.S. House at the time was that the Speaker of the House did not vote on issues, Speaker Schuyler Colfax dramatically stepped down from the podium and cast his vote in favor of the 13th Amendment. I look forward to watching the movie “Lincoln” one more time, to see how the filmmaker portrayed Colfax during this debate.
As we live through history ourselves — including the coronavirus pandemic and the renewed energy to take more big steps as a nation toward justice for African-Americans and other indigenous Americans and people of color — I have been imagining Colfax’s experiences in Congress during the Civil War and as Vice President during the aftermath of the Civil War.
Colfax also may have never become Vice President, had he accepted President Abraham Lincoln’s personal invitation to join him for a play at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. That night, slavery-loving John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Lincoln while Lincoln watched the play from his Presidential seats. Perhaps Colfax would have been killed himself — or perhaps Colfax might have saved Lincoln’s life somehow?
After serving as Vice President from 1869–1873, Colfax never achieved his goal to be elected President. Colfax was caught up in a bribery scandal in the 1870s that led him to never again run for office. For a decade, Colfax traveled by railroad from his Indiana home to places all over the country to speak about his personal experiences with President Abraham Lincoln, and together helping to end slavery in the United States.
It was on one of those trips that Colfax suffered a heart attack at a Mankato Minnesota train station in January 1885, in temperatures down to -30º F. The former Vice President of the United States and a key player to the abolition of slavery was now unrecognizable to any of his fellow travelers, except by his papers found in his pocket upon his death.
Just as Schuyler Colfax was not well known at his death, I don’t know many Minneapolis residents who know the important work of the “Colfax” namesake. As we work to address racism in every part of Minneapolis, I am even more proud to live on Colfax Avenue.