IGNATIUS DONNELLY: RECOLLECTIONS OF A GREAT BACONIAN
by Henry Wellington Wack
"While he lived, we might say of the author of The Great Cryptogram what Bacon said of his own life purpose, namely, that he lived "For the Glory of God, And the relief of man's estate."
When as a boy of ten, I first read Malone's Life of Shakespeare in his edition of The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, I aroused the ire and raised the rod of my English tutor, by a frank discussion of my doubts that William Shakespeare could have written the immortal works attributed to him as the "Bard of Avon." It seemed to me preposterous, even at that early age.
From that time onward I became the whipping post of my intolerant tutor, and the object of ridicule and scorn of my fellow pupils. Sometimes I argued the Baconian theory with my voice; more frequently with my fists. When, in the course of my romantic childhood, I was carried from my native State of Maryland to what seemed the last tail hold on civilization in the state of Minnesota, I had generated such a firm conviction of the fraudulent character of Shakespeare as the author of any literary work of merit, that I found it necessary, amongst the ruder boys of the West, to learn the manly art of self-defense, to prevent the dislocation of my jaws, whenever I adverted to my pet discussion. So my earliest preparatory course as a Baconian involved that preliminary physical course, by which I learned to run and to fight. Sometimes it was prudent to run; on other occasions more ennobling (and more sanguinary!) to fight. Minnesota boys of the '80's had no respect for a Southern lad, who wore white collars and made out Shakespeare to have been the mask of Bacon. Moreover, they knew nothing of, and cared less for, Francis Bacon. It was my bacon they were after. The early schools and the teachers of the West, had never deigned to question Shakespeare's authorship of the plays and poems so obstinately attributed to him. Was I not, therefore, as preposterous as my Baconian theory was puerile? So I had become the intellectual irritant of every boy in the Northwest, when in 1887 I met the most remarkable personality in the Minnesota Legislature, Ignatius Donnelly, a unique factor in the land, a man of versatile genius, infinite wit, prodigious industry and quick human sympathies. He was also a gentleman of delightful pugnacities!
To have come under Mr. Donnelly's benign interest and influence, at so formative a period of life, was exceedingly helpful to a preternaturally curious boy. Besides, I had found an idol of the mind militant, an antagonist of every sham, a scarred veteran of many fights. The author of The Great Cryptogram was just finishing the book that made him famous. It was soon to be published. His Atlantis had been rapidly gaining in public favor since its publication in 1882. The twenty-five years of hot and hateful political careering of "The Sage of Nininger" (as Donnelly was referred to in the Press), had now been merged into a literary life of originality and promise. The political storms of Mr. Donnelly's public life, beginning in 1856, had for the time being, subsided. His name and fame as a man of letters, of daring imaginative genius, had spread to many parts of the world. His home at Nininger, the village he personally founded thirty miles southwest of St. Paul, in 1856, was a singularly happy retreat, blessed by a family life of warm affections and infinite charm.
A year after the publication of Atlantis, that later book of wonderful vision, Ragnarok; The Age of Fire and Gravel appeared, and attracted the profound attention of thinking men the world over. Ignatius Donnelly was at last well on the way to a life of exceptional literary productiveness.
"The Sage of Nininger" was born in the City of Philadelphia, on the South side of Pine Street, between 9th and 10th Streets, November 3rd, 1831. His father was Dr. Philip Carroll Donnelly, a native of Fintona, in Tyron County, Ireland, and a graduate of Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia. His mother was a Gavin, also of Fintona. When she died, in 1887, a year before her son's Shakespeare cipher appeared to startle the scholarly world, the New York Freeman's Journal of June 18th, referred to her as :
"A woman of rare intellectual force and unremitting energy, joined to a solid piety. She was the mother of a family noted for talent and even genius in its members."
One of the impressive facts of
Ignatius Donnelly' s life is that which confines his education
to the public schools of Philadelphia. At ten years of age he
entered the Grammar School at the corner of Eighth and
Fitzwater Streets, and remained there three years. He then
entered the Central High School, from which he graduated in
1849, at the age of eighteen. Upon his graduation he undertook
the study of law in the office of Benjamin Harris Brewster, in
Philadelphia. At nineteen he "indiscreetly" published a volume
of youthful poems, more sentimental than significant.
Thereafter, and throughout his life, he devoted himself to the
suppression of this inglorious maiden
effort, the first born of a genius that
later made such violent gestures in the realm of politics,
thought, humor, satire, and invective.
In 1853 Mr. Donnelly was admitted to the Bar of Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter he sought his fortune in the Great West, as it was referred to by red-blooded youth and still ambitious age. His journal of the slow and tedious journey to Iowa, thence to Minnesota in 1856, is a romantic chronicle of incident, adventure, hardship and unbounded hope. Those were romantic days on the Mississippi, when Mr. and Mrs. Donnelly, voyageurs, traveled on a Mississippi steamboat for the total sum of two dollars! The times and steamboat fares have changed since the early days in the golden West.
It was Ignatius Donnelly's self-indicated distinction to have enjoyed the most violent political career of any man since the time of Robespierre. And he used to say, facetiously, that his opponent always seemed to be the Devil himself.
He was nominated for the Pennsylvania Legislature as early as 1855, when but twenty-four years of age. On his way West in the Spring of 1856, he saw Chicago for the first time and, in his journal, predicted its astounding growth. When he reached St. Paul, Minnesota, money was being lent for 36 per cent before maturity and 60 percent after. This made our militant young Irishman furious. He then and there swore eternal hatred of the moneyed class, and his life thereafter was tinged with this bitter, uncompromising attitude toward what he dubbed "the shameless plutocracy."
In the same year, (1856) he bought 640 acres of land and laid out the town of Nininger, 30 miles southwest of the City of St. Paul, then the metropolis of the Northwest and the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. This was a unique enterprise, as daring as romantic, and promoted by young Donnelly with unbounded enthusiasm. Within a single year 200 odd houses and business buildings were in course of erection in the town of Nininger! The young empire builder, foreseeing himself embarrassingly affluent, used to walk up and down the spacious porch of his own house, and exclaim:
Here I am, not yet twenty-six and on the verge of a great fortune! How shall I ever be able to dispose of it?"
Then the panic of 1857 came along and, disposing of it for him, left him a bankrupt! And thereupon his life became one of perennial ups and downs, ins and outs.
He was nominated for the Minnesota Legislature, and got in about as often as he was kept out. he became Lieutenant-Governor of Minnesota in 1859, while Alexander Ramsey was Governor. In 1862 and 1866 he was elected to Congress, and his service there was as brilliant, as it was erratic. He supported the purchase of Alaska on July 1, 1868, and hurled his witty petards at the opponents of that measure. In 1876 he was again nominated for Congress, but his honest championship of the cause of the common people against corrupt timber, wheat, money, railroad and corporation interests, caused his defeat.
Bribery was rampant in Minnesota politics from the day of the territory's admission to statehood in 1857 to the end of the century. And Donnelly was anathema to every species of corruptionist. He was at once the most hated man and the best beloved statesman on the Western plains. As a news item he excelled all other Northwestern personalities during the thirty years ending in 1890. He was magnetic in public, and a man of great human charm in private life. Orator, author, statesman, farmer, champion of the rights of the common people, and a terror to rings, trusts, snobs, and plutocratssuch were the slogans that distinguished his violent career. As an orator he was eloquent and convincing, the peerless controversialist of the great statesmen of his time. His invectives, his wit, his winning, human presence in the forum, his impressive logic and his biting sarcasm,all combined to insure him much spontaneous public acclaim. Wherever the Sage of Nininger bellowed, there the Western multitude jammed the aisles. In 1878 the farmers of Minnesota nominated him for Congress, and failing, against the corrupt power of the King-Washburn ring, to elect him, tried to make him governor of their state in 1888. But Donnelly was too genuinely human to last long in politics. Politics seldom deal in character, in conscience, or in independent personalities. Only the conformist type of limberback could get anywhere in the corrupt byways of Northwestern political life, as it operated during the last half of the nineteenth century.
But Ignatius Donnelly had other "conventional defects,"as he once put it. He said : "I am addicted to neither whiskey, tobacco, nor religion!" Yet his whole life, if the unobserving could have seen it, was an unremitting and intemperate religion. He had a passion for finding and remedying evil in the machinery of the country. Shams incensed him, and stupidity was to him the all prevalent human defect. He once told me that a horse was relatively wiser in the animal kingdom than a man in his own; that for some cussed reason, or for none, Nature had made him the stupidest and most helpless of all creatures; that but for his artificial tools, implements and clothes, the human animal could not survive in the physical world, while other animals would continue to thrive. Education, he added, is responsible for man's power and salvation. The fact that there is no limit to his educational capacity, saved man and made him the tremendous force he is in the World.
James G. Blaine, in his "Twenty Years of Congress", wrote admiringly of Donnelly as a man of prodigious intellect, quick insight and high purpose. He referred to one of Mr. Donnelly's speeches in Congress on education. "Education," Mr. Donnelly had stated,
"means the intelligent exercise of liberty, and surely without this, liberty, and surely without this, liberty is a calamity, since it means simply the unlimited right to err."
In 1866, Donnelly cried out in Congress :
"Let us eliminate that which is more dangerous than slaveryIgnorance."
On February 12, 1868, Congressman Donnelly, while beseeching the House to pass an educational bill, said :
"We cannot pay too high a price for the national safety or the national life. School houses in this generation will prevent wars in the next. Education in the long run, is always cheaper than ignorance."
On May 2, 1868, Donnelly the orator,
the satirist, the impassioned advocate, delivered, what was
competently referred to East, West, North and South, as "the
greatest speech in Congress of the time."
He had exposed the corrupt King-Washburn ring, and was flaying its individual members with merciless epigrammatic fury. Referring to Senator Washburn of the wheat group, he said :
"I have embalmed him for posteritylike a bug in amber!"
Upon his return from Congress in 1868, Donnelly was accorded a remarkable reception in Minnesota. except for four years in the Minnesota legislature (1874-8) Donnelly practically retired from national politics upon his return from Congress. But while it lasted, his political career boiled, as nothing before nor since has boiled in the Northwest.
Donnelly was the father of the greater independent political
movements in the U.S.; the People's Party; the Anti-Monopoly
Party, and other similar and subsequent crystallizations of
In 1874, Mr. Donnelly founded a paper at St. Paul, Minnesota, which gained wide circulation as "The Anti-Monopolist ." Into the columns of this remarkable journal, the Sage of Nininger unpacked himself of some of the wittiest, most trenchant editorials in American journalism. Here he castigated those he deemed the enemies of the State and Nation; here he ran a satiric column of vitriolic quality called "Recalcitrations"; and here he humanized the still rude art of journalism in the West.
Impulsive and generous to a fault; loving Nature and mankind in intemperate fashion, Mr. Donnelly had bought a farm of 1500 acres in Stevens County, Minnesota, about forty miles from the Dakota border, and set afoot plans which, if realized, would have gratified and comforted his final years. But his plans failed, and he had to abandon his farm. Money-making was not Mr. Donnelly's métier; nor his purpose in life. Like many another creative nature, he was impatient of the necessity for gaining the means to live.
Finally, in 1880-1, after he had, perforce, retired from all significant political activity, local as well as national, he wrote this pathetic paragraph in his personal journal :
"In the winter of 1880-1 there was nothing left of me but the backbone. I was pounding my heel on the rocks. The very gulls had abandoned me."
Then he wrote his book, "Caesar's Column", to depict the corruption in American politics. And privately he always accounted for his political retirement on the ground that he had never:
"Crooked the pregnant hinges of the knee,
That thrift might follow fawning."
To the scholar, and particularly to the unbiased student of the Shakespeare plays and poems, Mr. Donnelly's later years make an interesting appeal. The last, or literary phase, of his life is somewhat extraordinary in view of the turbulent political career that preceded it. The example of his deliberate dedication to the cause of letters, as that cause might be made to serve his fellow-men in their thought, if not in their material life, was peculiarly fortunate and impressive.
The story of how Mr. Donnelly came to write "Atlantis", the history of man before the deluge, shows how some of us are predestined to hidden responsibilities which are seldom divined, until some eruption in life, imposes upon us the duty, the task and the urge to perform that duty.
His journal had been forced to suspend publication, he was over his head in debt, the sheriff was at every door and window, the corrupt powers, whom he had fought for the relief of the people, had driven him to the wall.
"So there, in the midst of the artic cold and the deep snow of a severe winter, this man sat quietly down in his home in Nininger, to recreate the history of man before the deluge, to add myriads of years to the records of the human race; and to trace out the original parentage of the European alphabet."
He wrote "Atlantis", of which nearly fifty editions have appeared in many countries!
Upon the publication of "Atlantis", thinking men and women the world over, sat up and rubbed their eyes. Had this masterly theory of human origin and development come out of the Northwest wilderness, from the pen of a political agitator, mopping up old enemies with his fist, while his pungent tongue created new ones to assail him?
Men, like Gladstone, praised the achievement of Donnelly's imaginative genius. The press in America referred to him as : "An amazing man." "One of the most remarkable men of this age."
Donnelly intensified the interest in which his literary labors had been received, by his "Ragnarok", a book of remarkable vision. About this time the London Daily News referred to the author as : " A stupendous speculator in cosmogony," and the Pall Mall Gazette said: "America, the land of big things, has, in Mr. Donnelly, a son worthy of her immensity."
While these significant volumes were being written and published, his book, "Dr. Huguet," a study of negro character, was being conceived. And for many years therefore, namely, between 1870 and 1888, the tireless mind of Ignatius Donnelly labored over the surface of two tons of paper (as he once told me) deciphering the cryptography of the so-called Shakespeare playsa stupendous task, sufficient in itself to absorb the energies of a corps of scriveners, to say nothing of a multifariously occupied zealot in the sphere of journalistic controversy, political idealism, and social reform.
Just as that large tome, "The Great Cryptogram," was almost ready for the publisher, the long arm of public necessity reached out and, in 1887, insisted upon again electing its author to the Minnesota Legislature. One might regard this as unfortunate. The St. Paul Dispatch, the leading republican evening paper in the State, proceeded to read him out of the party in disgust. It did not want an unruly, unmanageable man of tremendous facility for mischief, in the republican party and its legislature. He was bound to "spill the beans", to lead and mislead the insurgents; to confuse the weak and confound the strong. The processes of legislative digestion were always disturbed, where the Sage of Nininger pitched his tent on a hill and his hat in the ring. Said the Dispatch:
"He was at once the prophet and the leader of the farming element in this State . . .
Intellectually there is no man that has appeared among us, perhaps, who can be said to be his peer. A scholar, the most profound, a debater, the most skillful; a publicist, trained and educated; still this singular man has willfully stamped upon his own character, the brand of political failure."
To this editorial brickbat, the
"Farmers Voice" of Chicago, replied that he (Donnelly) was the
"loyal tribune of the people." There never were and there never
will be two editorial opinions alike about a forceful,
independent, energetic and persuasive man of wit and wisdom in
the political arena.
Then, early in 1888, the world of culture everywhere received a jolt. "The Great Cryptogram" was on the press and its advance heralds were proclaiming its startling exposition of Shakespeare's displacement as the reputed author of the "Shakespeare" plays and poems.
(This article first appeared in American Baconiana, November 1923, Vol II.)
Ignatius Donnelly was the author of Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (a book that remains in print to this day), and The Great Cryptogram, a book that threw doubt upon the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays, hinting - but never actually claiming, in its 900-plus pages - that perhaps the true author of the plays was Francis Bacon. The authorship debate continues to rise up from time to time. Donnelly was also a politician and, as such, a member of the Populist Party.
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