Harmon’s Histories: Montana’s 1st territorial legislature required ‘iron-clad’ oath of allegiance

Jim Harmon

“On Monday noon, the two houses of the Legislative Assembly convened,” and the fireworks began immediately.

No, this is not about the 2019 session in Helena. It’s a look back at Montana’s very first territorial legislature, which convened in Bannack on December 12, 1864.

According to the “special correspondent” for the Montana Post (the Territory’s only newspaper at the time), Governor Sidney Edgerton greeted the newly minted lawmakers with a demand.

Before anything could happen, they would have to “take the oath of allegiance to the United States, prescribed by Act of Congress for all officers holding office under the United States.”

Now these days, that would seem reasonable enough, but this was 1864.

The Civil War was being waged in the “States,” and for more than a few Montanans, taking a so-called “iron-clad” version of the oath presented a problem. The oath-taker had to “swear that he had never borne arms against the government.”

One young Montana legislator named John Rogers had come to the Territory from Missouri, where as a state militia captain he had fought against Union Army occupation of the state. But when his commander moved to make the militia part of the Confederate Army, he resigned.

Rogers, knowing he couldn’t swear an oath containing the “arms against the government” provision, called on Governor Edgerton to see if he might compromise.

According to research done later by Herbert M. Peet (and stored at the Montana Historical Society), Edgerton was very aware that his proposed “iron-clad” oath was simply a tool of “the abolitionist Congress to capture for themselves all political offices.”

For some time, Edgerton and others had painted a picture of Montana being settled by Confederates, even naming Rogers as an example, “skulking in the gulches of Montana inciting treason.” The viewpoint was repeated so often by the Montana Post, it became legend.

In Peet’s account of the meeting with Edgerton, “Rogers told the governor why he would not sign the iron-clad oath. He would not perjure himself.

“The governor had known in the campaign, as had all Madison County voters, that Rogers had been an officer in General Price’s army. Rogers never denied it. Edgerton had sent him a certificate of election. Therefore, said Rogers, the insistence that he now sign the ‘iron-clad oath’ was nothing but partisan politics.”

But Edgerton didn’t want to hear it. The governor continually “interrupted him to crack jokes (and) when this didn’t squelch the younger man, the governor tried to confuse him by humming and whistling tunes, and being as insulting as possible.”

Rogers finally just gave up and resigned his seat over the matter.

Meantime, the Montana Post’s unnamed “special correspondent” delighted in chronicling the events in the legislature as members were confronted with an insinuation they may not be paid until they took the “iron-clad” oath.

He described the Madison County delegation (Democrats) having “such wry faces as a patient makes who takes distasteful purgatives, and such contortions as one would make after overeating turkey buzzards, (as) they swallowed the ‘iron clad’ ‘without mental reservation or evasion.’ ”

If you were to rely solely on those newspaper accounts, you might believe this partisanship was pervasive, not only throughout the session and throughout the Territory. But that really wasn’t the case.

Penelope Wagner Wilson, a University of Montana student in 1967, summed up the collective knowledge of the period in her master’s thesis, titled, “Political coverage of the Virginia City Montana Post, August 1864 to July 1867.”

She found that D. W. Tilton’s newspaper, edited at the time by Thomas Dimsdale, routinely “waved the bloody shirt” equating Democrats with Confederates, “a common Republican practice of the 1860s and 1870s.”

But Wilson also discovered that if you read the diaries of miners you find that “most Territorial settlers – except for officeholders, office-seekers and newspaper editors— were more interested in acquiring wealth and building a territory than in political controversies.

“Their consuming interests centered on gold, mail, groceries, roads, an occasional drinking spree and an evening in the hurdy-gurdy dance houses.”

As for “the general goals of both territorial parties … they wanted better roads, better mail service, protection from the Indians, lower taxes, favorable mining legislation, a territorial mint and an engineering miracle on Montana rivers to make them more navigable.”

Wilson concluded, “If the Republicans had been more tactful and had not challenged the patriotism of every Democratic act, the efforts of the territorial government might have been more productive.”

Despite the political antagonism, Montana’s first session did produce dozens of pieces of legislation, only two of which were vetoed by the governor.

John Rogers went on to be re-elected to the 1866 and 1872 legislatures, for a time serving as Speaker of the House.

As for that “special correspondent” hired by the Montana Post – there is some evidence it may have been an insider – Missoula’s Frank L. Worden, a member of the legislature. But all these years later, no one knows for sure.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.