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November 2014 - The Man who Would have Been Senator

The name Alonzo J. Edgerton might have been linked with that of Richard Pettigrew or Gideon Moody’s as the first to represent South Dakota in the United States Senate.

“Edgerton was very popular throughout the state and he might have been able to secure the nomination (for U.S. senator) had he pressed hard enough to get it,” stated an article in Volume XXXIV of the “South Dakota Department of History Report and Historical Collections” compiled by the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Edgerton arrived in Dakota Territory in 1881, having been appointed chief justice of the territory’s Supreme Court by President Chester Arthur. He brought an impressive record of service with him from Minnesota, where he served as state senator, regent of the University of Minnesota, United States senator and was appointed the state’s first railroad commissioner. He organized a company of militia and served in the Civil War.

The movement for statehood was already underway when Edgerton came to Dakota Territory. Edgerton served as the president of the second constitutional convention of 1885. Voters in the southern half of Dakota Territory approved the constitution and elected a full roster of state officers. Edgerton and Gideon Moody of Deadwood were elected to the U.S. Senate and Arthur Mellette of Watertown was elected governor.

“Judges Moody and Edgerton were easily the outstanding figures in the convention, both of them slated to serve as the state’s new United States’ Senators later on,” wrote L.W. Lansing of the 1885 constitutional convention in a document contained in the South Dakota State Historical Society – State Archives.

Edgerton, Moody and Mellette went to Washington, D.C., in 1886 to plead the case for statehood before the House of Representatives, according to John R. Milton in “South Dakota: A History.” They were unsuccessful, as the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives feared that the new states would send Republicans to Congress.

The Enabling Act, also known as the Omnibus Bill, signed by President Grover Cleveland on Feb. 22, 1889, authorized constitutional conventions for Washington, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. This act cleared the way for South Dakota to become a state. Edgerton presided over this third constitutional convention in Sioux Falls. Later, the political parties held conventions to select candidates for all state offices.

Edgerton was again a candidate for U.S. Senator, under the banner of the Farmers’ Alliance party. When the time came to select senators for what would be the new state, Republicans Moody and Richard Pettigrew of Sioux Falls received the nod over Edgerton and fellow Farmers’ Alliance candidate Alonzo Wardall.

“When Edgerton refused to push his candidacy and finally withdrew from the contest, accepting the results of the caucus, he was accused by (W.H) Loucks (of Moody County) of having betrayed the Alliance,” stated the Department of History article.

Lansing wrote that Edgerton withdrew his candidacy when Mellette extracted a pledge from Moody and Pettigrew that they would secure the federal judgeship for Edgerton.

“Edgerton denied that any ‘corrupt bargain’ had been consummated, but Loucks concluded that his acceptance of the judgeship proved he was a ‘traitor,’” the Department of History article stated.
Whatever the truth, Edgerton seemed to have support for being appointed federal judge.

According to an article in the Nov. 2, 1889, Black Hills Weekly Times, published in Deadwood, “By the terms of the omnibus bill the president is required to appoint a judge for the district of South Dakota … The question, ‘Who is the man for this exalted position?’ virtually has but one answer. The answer is, Hon. A.J. Edgerton of South Dakota. The press and the people unite in their opinion that no man in the state stands higher as a jurist, nor is so well fitted for the judgeship by education, and by life-long experience at the bar, on the bench and in the senate as is Judge Edgerton.”

Edgerton served as federal judge until his death from Bright’s disease at his home in Sioux Falls on Aug. 9, 1896.

A notice about Edgerton’s death in the Sioux Falls Press stated, “It was inevitable that a man of his positiveness and with his opportunities should inspire widely diverse sentiments among those with whom he came in contact – and it is therefore not strange that in his active lifetime, while thousands were bound to him personally and politically as with hooks of steel there were those whose relations with him were not so cordial – and he never took any pains to conciliate an enemy. But in all the clash of affairs with which he was connected no one ever alleged against him anything which was an impeachment of his personal integrity. His character as a man and citizen was absolutely above reproach, and there are multitudes throughout this new empire who will experience profound and sorrowful regret at his demise.”