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MATTERS AT HAND: Reconsidering presidential impact on N.D.

In Washington, D.C., last week, I popped into the National Portrait Gallery, one my favorite indoor places. I was there to apologize to James Monroe.

In Washington, D.C., last week, I popped into the National Portrait Gallery, one my favorite indoor places. I was there to apologize to James Monroe.

I left Monroe off my Top 10 list of U.S. presidents who've had an impact on North Dakota.

Monroe, the fifth president, deserves a place.

Were it not for Monroe, we might all be Canadians.

In 1818, he signed a treaty with Great Britain that established the international boundary at 49 degrees north latitude -- a bit more than one degree of latitude north of Grand Forks.


The treaty gave the United States about half of the territory that became the state of North Dakota. The nation acquired the other half when Thomas Jefferson, the third president, bought Louisiana Territory.

Jefferson ranked high on my list for two other contributions, sending Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River and creating the Northwest Ordinance, which contained the ground rules for the land survey that produced our rectilinear landscape.

UND historian Al Berger correctly chided me for leaving out the purchase of Louisiana, a necessary forerunner of the expedition and the actual survey of the land that is now North Dakota.

Adding Monroe, of course, makes this a Top 11 list.

Or make that 12.

I stopped by the portrait of Chester Allen Arthur, too.

As it happened, he was the first president to visit what is now North Dakota. I attributed that status to Ulysses Grant.

In his history of Medora, published last year, Bismarck attorney Rolf Sletten established that Arthur reached the state four days ahead of Grant.


Arthur was responsible for an appointment that had an impact on the state's history, too. He named Gilbert A. Pierce as governor of Dakota Territory. When the northern part of the territory became a state, the first legislature sent Pierce to the U.S. Senate.

Pierce and the president had been buddies. Apparently they were what an earlier generation would have called "dandies," young men out for a good time.

Arthur headed the New York Customs Authority, a political appointment, and wielded considerable clout there. Republicans put him on their national ticket in 1880, when James Garfield was the presidential candidate. Garfield was shot soon after his inauguration, and died after months of suffering.

Arthur was unexpectedly president.

Pierce himself had an unusual career.

He was a literary figure, the author of a number of plays and a dictionary of the works of Charles Dickens.

He joined the Ninth Indiana Volunteers and served in the Civil War, apparently with distinction. He entered a lieutenant and left a colonel, then became inspector for the War Department.

That led to a stint in government service, first as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives and later as a clerk in the U.S. House.


From there, he reversed the usual pattern and entered journalism, becoming the editor of the Inter Ocean, published in Chicago. This was a journal staunchly loyal to the Arthur administration.

That brought him the appointment as governor of Dakota Territory. He proved popular, overcoming early suspicion caused by the apparent partisanship of his appointment -- a reminder of the Spoils System. Arthur himself was an architect of the system, but he repudiated it when he became president and oversaw important reforms.

As territorial governor, Pierce used his veto power in a couple of interesting ways. When the territorial legislature approved women's suffrage, he vetoed the bill. He also vetoed a bill that would have moved the territorial capital from Bismarck to Pierre.

Pierce supported dividing the territory and admitting two states. When North Dakota was admitted in 1889, the first Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate.

Pierce didn't last long, however. The second legislature replaced him with Henry C. Hansborough, who served for 18 years -- establishing a pattern of longevity in office that has continued to this day.

Pierce returned to journalism, briefly owning a half interest in the Minneapolis Tribune.

Pierce County, N.D., is named for him, not for Franklin Pierce, the president whose appointment of Isaac I. Stevens to lead the northern transcontinental railroad survey landed him on the list of presidents most influential in the state's history.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Call him at (701) 780-1103, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1103 or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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