A brilliant malcontent leaves his mark on the world
Over the course of his long, colorful life, Ignatius Donnelly was known as the Sage of Nininger, the Prince of Cranks, and the Apostle of Discontent. And that's just for starters--at various times he assumed such roles as lieutenant governor (1859 to 1863), U.S. congressman (1863 to 1869), Populist Party vice presidential candidate (in 1900), and best-selling author. Possessed of a lively mind and a penchant for attracting controversy, Donnelly was one of Minnesota's first national celebrities--or instigators of causes célèbres, depending on your point of view.
Born in Philadelphia, Donnelly was admitted to the bar in 1852. Five years later, he moved to Minnesota, where he and several partners founded the community of Nininger City on the Mississippi River, seventeen miles south of St. Paul. Hoping to attract immigrants who shared his vision of cooperative living, Donnelly instead found himself deeply in debt after the country was swept into a depression in 1857.
His next step was to enter politics. He served as Minnesota's lieutenant governor from 1859 to 1863, was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Republican in 1863, and then served several terms in the Minnesota legislature between 1874 and 1898. As time went on, he found himself increasingly at odds with the political establishment. He became involved in the National Grange movement, which was then in its infancy, and was an organizer of the Minnesota Farmers' Alliance, which advocated the organization of farmers to ensure fair prices for their crops. The Populist Party, which grew out of the national Farmers' Alliance movement, nominated Donnelly as its vice presidential candidate in 1900. He ran unsuccessfully on a platform that called for, among other things, the abandonment of the gold standard, the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, and an eight-hour workday.
During his years on the national political scene, Donnelly was also well known as the author of a number of best-selling, if controversial, books. In Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, published in 1882, he advanced his theories that the lost city of Atlantis had existed and was the antecedent for all known ancient civilizations. Six years later, he published The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in Shakespeare's Plays, in which he wrote that the true author of some of the Bard's plays was actually Francis Bacon. In 1890, he published Caesar's Column, a futuristic science-fiction novel in which a workers' revolt results in the formation of a utopian society. Always one to look ahead and never content with the status quo, it is fitting that Ignatius Donnelly died on January 1, 1901, the first day of the twentieth century.
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