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The McGaughey who might have been Governor of Minnesota

by William McGaughey


The McGaughey name is not common in Minnesota. Only two persons with this name are listed in the St. Paul telephone directory. But for the twists and turns of political history, however, residents of St. Paul might be living in McGaughey County.

The story goes back to the opening months of 1849. Zachary Taylor was inaugurated the 12th President of the United States on March 5, 1849. Two days earlier, the U.S. Congress had voted to organize the Minnesota territory. One of President Taylor’s first chores was to appoint a territorial governor. His first choice was Edward W. McGaughey, a Whig Congressman from Indiana. However, the U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, declined to approve McGaughey’s appointment.

A man named William Pennington, newly elected Speaker of the House in the 31st Congress, was next offered the appointment, but he declined. President Taylor’s third choice was a Congressman from Pennsylvania, Alexander Ramsey, who did accept the appointment and receive Senate confirmation. Ramsey County is named after him.

Zachary Taylor may have been the only U.S. President who lived in Minnesota. A career soldier, he commanded the forces stationed at Fort Snelling between May 1828 and July 1829. Taylor was depressed much of the time due to personal losses. He characterized Minnesota as “a most miserable and uninteresting place” which was in an “out of the way part of the world.”

Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready”, was the least educated of all our Presidents. He never voted in any U.S. election except for the one in 1848 when he was elected President. Zachary Taylor was a war hero, having won the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. He won the Whig Party’s nomination and beat the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, and a former President, Martin Van Buren. However, Taylor died in office on July 9, 1850, of gastroenteritis - some think he was poisoned - and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore.

Edward McGaughey received President Taylor’s appointment as territorial governor of Minnesota because another Indiana Congressman, Caleb B. Smith, had wanted to be appointed Postmaster General by Taylor but did not receive that appointment. The Indiana Congressional delegation then pressed the incoming president to appoint McGaughey to the other office. Caleb Smith later became Abraham Lincoln’s first Secretary of the Interior.

Before that, two New York politicians had sought the Minnesota appointment. John C. Clark was supported by Senator William Seward and Whig Party boss Thurlow Weed. However, the anti-Seward faction of New York’s Whig Party, led by Taylor’s own Vice President Millard Fillmore, wanted Fillmore’s law partner, Nathan K. Hall, to receive the appointment. The two New Yorkers canceled each other out, clearing the way for the Hoosier Congressman, Edward McGaughey, who was close friends with Thomas Corwin, an influential U.S. Senator from Ohio.

Congressman McGaughey was Zachary Taylor’s nomination to the post of Minnesota Territorial Governor but the U.S. Senate refused to confirm him. The stated reason was that McGaughey had voted against an appropriation for sending essential supplies to U.S. troops fighting in Mexico. However, other Whigs had done that, too. The real reason may have been that the Democrats, who then controlled both houses of Congress, wanted to show President Taylor, a Whig, who was boss.

Who was Edward W. McGaughey? Not much is known of him because his claim to fame is having served two terms in Congress. McGaughey represented Indiana’s seventh district as a Whig in the 29th Congress (1845-1847) and in the 31st Congress (1849-1851).

Edward McGaughey lived in Greencastle, Indiana, my mother’s home town. He was considered “one of the promising young Whigs” in national politics at that time. McGaughey died in 1852 - barely three years after he might have moved to St. Paul - in San Francisco, California.

For a time, Edward McGaughey’s career paralleled that of another “promising young Whig”, Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln. McGaughey served in the 29th and 31st Congresses; Lincoln served in the 30th Congress. Edward McGaughey was the only Whig in Indiana’s ten-man Congressional delegation in the 31st Congress. Abraham Lincoln was the only Whig in Illinois’ seven-man delegation in the 30th Congress. Both were House members serving in the 7th district of their respective, neighboring states.

Like McGaughey, Abraham Lincoln was offered an appointment to become a territorial governor by Zachary Taylor. He might have been Governor of the Oregon territory, but Lincoln turned it down, he said, because of his wife’s concerns about living so far away from civilized society. Lincoln had wanted instead to be appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office. Although he had the political muscle in Congress to gain the appointment, Lincoln decided against pursuing it because he knew that Edward McGaughey and three other prominent Whigs were also interested.

Back to the Minnesota office and what might have been: If President Taylor had instead appointed Abraham Lincoln to be first territorial governor of Minnesota, we might have had a Lincoln County encompassing St. Paul instead of one in the western part of the state. And, if Bob Carney had won the 2008 Republican gubernatorial primary, I as his Lieutenant Governor running mate might have had a shot at being second in line for the post-statehood position that Edward McGaughey once sought.


To: More information about Edward W. McGaughey


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