How History Shaped Michigan's Government Prior to 1945

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Michigan has a long and complex history, which has impacted its government in several ways. In this lesson, we'll explore this history and see how it helped make Michigan the state it is today.

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.

Steamships played a major role in the development of Michigan
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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.

Logging was a major industry in Michigan
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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.

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