Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
History and Michigan's Government
Michigan wants to give you a high-five. Just look at the way the state is shaped. Why is Michigan always so excited? Maybe it has something to do with its history. Throughout its existence, Michigan has found itself time and again at the center of national events. It's been an industrial center, a destination for rural pioneers, and home to great music. For this lesson, we're going to look at Michigan's history before 1945, break it into two eras, and see how each set precedents that impacted the way the state's government functions. Ready? Okay, up high, down low, let's go.
The Antebellum Period
Let's start at the beginning. What is now Michigan entered into the United States as part of the Northwest Territory (the first one created by the government of the newly independent USA) in 1787. By 1805, the Northwest Territory had gained enough population to be divided into a number of territories, and the Michigan Territory was created out of Indiana. The territory really started gaining attention in the War of 1812, when the Great Lakes became the center of naval battles against the British.
After the war, the Michigan Territory immediately became both an agricultural and industrial destination. Farmers moved to the interior, while steamships started appearing along the coastline. With its access to the Great Lakes, Michigan quickly became a central location for shipping goods from the Midwest back east, especially after the Erie Canal was opened in 1825. Finally, in 1835 the territory got together and drafted its first constitution (although actual statehood was delayed for two years).
A lot happened in Michigan in between the War of 1812 and Civil War in 1861. This period is known as the Antebellum era in American history, and Michigan's development in this time is significant. The Antebellum era included America's first Industrial Revolution, the religious revival movement of the Second Great Awakening, and the start of the abolition movement.
Each of these had major impacts on the how Michigan was formed and developed. Steamships from the Industrial Revolution filled the Great Lakes and made Michigan a viable shipping center. Other industries quickly started appearing in Michigan as well, and the state government was established already knowing that the state would need to rely on both industry and agriculture to survive. Emerging during the Second Great Awakening meant that Michigan was built upon the ideals of reform, leading the government to become one of the nation's earliest advocates of extensive social programs. This reform also attracted abolitionists and anti-slavery activists to Michigan, and the state became a major destination on the Underground Railroad. From early on, Michigan had to deal with questions of racism and equality more than most Midwestern states.
From the Civil War to World War II
A number of Michigan citizens served in the Civil War, and the state became a Republican bastion after the conflict ended. For the remainder of the 19th-century, as America entered into its Second Industrial Revolution, Michigan remained an epicenter of shipping and industry. Iron ore, lumber, and copper were all sourced in Michigan and then transported across the Great Lakes or down the Mississippi River. The wealth of trade brought new opportunities to Michigan, which maintained its reform-minded commitment to education and virtuous activities by opening new schools and museums in all the major cities. Michigan's African American population also increased after the Civil War, as former slaves sought new opportunities in northern industrial centers.
The 20th-century brought with it unexpected changes. Michigan's industrial centers proved to be pretty important during World War I and the future looked bright. There were labor disputes that occasionally rocked the state, but overall Michigan's government had every reason to be optimistic.
Then, in 1929, the stock market plummeted and the Great Depression began. Being a state supported by rural farmers and urban industrial workers, Michigan was hit hard and unemployment rose. This had a few major impacts on state politics. For one, for the first time since the Civil War, Republicans lost control of Michigan. It became a swing state, one in which the large labor force was willing to switch political loyalties to the candidate that promised the best deal for workers. To this day, Michigan is considered one of the most critical swing states in American elections, and an indicator of how workers are likely to vote across the entire nation.
The other major impact of this time came in the form of unions. Unions had appeared in Michigan since the mid-19th-century but (as in many places) were often politically marginalized. Nevertheless, as Michigan's industries grew, the unions grew too. The Great Depression and the political shifting of Michigan offered unions a new chance to take a direct role in politics, and they did. In particular, the United Automobile Workers union became one of the most active players in Michigan politics after 1937. The trends set in Michigan, still one of the most unionized states in the country today, were so significant that Michigan is recognized by many as the birthplace of the modern labor movement. That's got to be worth a high-five, right?
Michigan is an important US state and has been involved in major events throughout American history. It was founded during the Antebellum era and was fundamentally shaped by the Industrial Revolution and the Second Great Awakening of that period. As an industrial center, agricultural destination, and an early champion of social programs, Michigan quickly gained attention. After the Civil War, the state continued to grow during the nation's Second Industrial Revolution but was hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s. This did, however, give unions a chance to assume greater control in Michigan politics, a role they maintain to this day. It's a reminder that if politicians aren't careful, that friendly high-five could turn into a fist of resistance.
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