This post was written by cataloger Miranda Schwartz.
Satirical takedowns and witty bon mots weren’t invented by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Our 19th-century forebears knew a thing or two about the influential effect of a little well-aimed satire, as evidenced by an 1871 broadside that the New-York Historical Society library has in its collections.
The library’s broadside is a copy of a famous speech given by J. Proctor Knott, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky who was later governor of Kentucky. His speech on January 27, 1871, instantly brought him national attention and was heralded as the epitome of wit. There are varying stories about Knott’s speech and if it was totally extemporaneous, as some claim, or if it was indeed ghostwritten, as others assert.
An excellent article by Dr. Philip D. Jordan in the Summer 1954 edition of Minnesota History gives a thorough introduction to the events leading up to Knott’s speech. Knott obviously knew of previous land grants to railroads in the Northwest but at this time he wanted to oppose authorizing a land grant from Hudson to Superior (both cities in Wisconsin) to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad, because of increasing public dissatisfaction with the grant of public lands to the railroad companies. As Dr. Jordan puts it: “For some reason, which never has been satisfactorily explained, Knott was under the impression—or pretended to be under the impression—that the terminus of the road was to be Duluth.”
Out of Knott’s desire to quash the railroad land grant was born a hilarious Congressional speech. (Though there is only space here for excerpts, the speech is definitely worth reading in full.)
Knott opens with: “Years ago, when I first heard that there was somewhere in the vast terra incognita, somewhere in the bleak regions of the great Northwest, a stream of water known to the nomadic inhabitants of the neighborhood as the river St. Croix, I became satisfied that the construction of a railroad from that raging torrent to some point in the civilized world was essential to the happiness and prosperity of the American people.” And it only gets better: “…I was utterly at a loss to determine where the terminus of this great and indispensable road should be, until I accidentally overheard some gentleman the other day mention the name of ‘Duluth.’ Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses…. ’Twas the name for which my soul had panted for years…”
Knott goes on in this vein for hundreds of words, finally summing up by saying “it grieves my very soul to be compelled to say that I cannot vote for the grant of lands provided for in this bill…these lands, which I am asked to give away, alas, are not mine to bestow! My relation to them is simply that of trustee to an express trust.” He works himself up into a final fever pitch: “And shall I ever betray that trust? Never, sir! Rather perish Duluth! Perish the paragon of cities! Rather let the freezing cyclones of the black Northwest bury it forever beneath the eddying sands of the raging St. Croix!”
The Congressional record clearly states that Knott was interrupted numerous times during his speech by “laughter” and “great laughter.” On February 1, 1871, the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad land grant bill was defeated, likely because of Knott’s speech. The Hudson to Superior line was never built.
The residents of Duluth took the speech quite well. At the time of Knott’s mockery Duluth was, per Dr. Jordan, “a struggling and jerry-built community of a little more than three thousand inhabitants.” The city came into its own later in the 19th century and boasted a population of 59,000 by the 1895 U.S. Census. In the spirit of Minnesota good humor, the Duluth Chamber of Commerce even took to publishing the speech. In 1894 a town in Minnesota was even named after the gentleman from Kentucky: Proctorknott (later shortened to Proctor). And J. Proctor Knott himself visited Duluth in 1891—though apparently he didn’t make any speeches.
The cataloging of the N-YHS library’s collection of railroad material was part of a grant-funded initiative.