The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) was a watchdog group created in 1917. Its purpose was to mobilize the state's resources during World War I. During a two-year reign its members enacted policies intended to protect the state from foreign threats. They also used broad political power and a sweeping definition of disloyalty to thwart those who disagreed with them.
In the spring of 1917, the U.S. government created new programs and agencies to support an imminent war effort. State governments looked for ways to manage that effort on a local level.
The MCPS was Minnesota's solution. On March 31, 1917, State Senator George H. Sullivan of Stillwater called for the formation of a seven-member commission to be led by Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist. The group was to be given broad powers to act to ensure public safety in wartime. Only the laws specified in both the state and federal constitutions limited it.
The U.S. entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Minnesota legislators worked quickly to pass war-related laws before the end of their spring session. As a result, the Sullivan bill saw very little debate. It passed both houses and was signed into law by Burnquist on April 16, 1917. The MCPS took control of many of the state's regulatory, public safety, and military functions.
Throughout its tenure the MCPS provided useful services. It distributed food, controlled the prices of goods, and conserved fuel. However, it is best known for its use of secret surveillance, intimidation, and other extreme tactics in the name of protecting Minnesota's citizens.
Ensuring clear-cut loyalty to America eventually overtook the MCPS's other efforts. Commissioners regarded any lack of patriotism as rebellion. Political beliefs were irrelevant. Governor Burnquist maintained that there were only two parties during the war: "loyal" and "disloyal". He and the MCPS praised the former and tried to eliminate the latter.
The MCPS scrutinized the state's immigrant population. It targeted German Americans, considering them suspicious. Loyalty to the Kaiser, the MCPS claimed, could inspire those with German heritage to sabotage the U.S. war effort. They issued orders in 1917 obligating Minnesota schoolteachers to instruct their students exclusively in English. In 1918 they required non-citizens to register their property and report family data.
The Nonpartisan League (NPL) established offices in Minnesota in 1917. The populist advocacy group sought to give farmers better financial control over the products they needed to do business. In the eyes of the MCPS, this made them a "menace" bent on toppling the state's political and industrial status quo. Rather than engage NPL members on the merits of their views, the MCPS instead tried to silence them.
Lacking the legal power to stop the NPL outright, the MCPS denounced them as un-patriotic. They tacitly encouraged communities to shut down local NPL meetings. In the 1918 Republican gubernatorial primary, the MCPS promoted Burnquist's reelection campaign. NPL candidate Charles Lindbergh Sr. faced resistance and even violence from MCPS-allied protesters at many of his campaign stops.
The primary Minnesota chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was based in downtown Minneapolis during this time. Trying to take advantage of a labor shortage during the war, they pushed for higher wages, shorter hours, and union recognition. Their actions drew the suspicion of the MCPS, which worked to end labor disturbances across the state. The Commission worked to keep the IWW from assembling. They closed many Minneapolis saloons—key IWW meeting spaces—and passed vagrancy ordinances for other meeting areas.
In the summer of 1917, the MCPS and other groups pushed the Justice Department to take action. On September 5, federal officials raided IWW offices in Minneapolis, Duluth, and Iron Range towns. This led to the arrest of many of the group's leaders. Soon after, the MCPS advanced a status-quo resolution that denied employees statewide the right to unionize for the length of the war.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918. The MCPS voided its orders in mid-January and waited for instructions from the legislature. On April 14, 1919, a House bill calling for the abolition of the MCPS passed 107-12. The Senate voted to keep the Commission. However, while officially still in force until December of 1920, the MCPS never returned to power.
Blegen, Theodore Christian. Minnesota, a History of the State. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Chrislock, Carl Henry. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety during World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.
Jenson, Carol E. "Loyalty as a Political Weapon: The 1918 Campaign in Minnesota." Minnesota History 43, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 42–57.
Millikan, William. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903–1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. Report of Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. [St. Paul: L. F. Dow, 1919].
——— . "Defenders of Business: The Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association Versus Labor During WWI." Minnesota History 50, no. 1, (Spring 1986): 2–17.
Morlan, Robert. Political Prairie Fire the Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.
Post, Louis F., and Alice T. Post. "Patrioteering and Hysteria." The Public: A Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1031 (1918): 526.
Ward, Charles Shandrew. "The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety in World War One: Its Formation and Activities." Master's thesis, University of Minnesota, 1965.
On April 16, 1917, Minnesota Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist signs a bill creating the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety.
State Senator George H. Sullivan proposes a bill authorizing a Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS).
The United States enters World War I.
Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist signs the Public Safety Commission bill into law.
MCPS commissioners hire a detective agency to monitor suspected draft resistors.
The MCPS calls for the expulsion of Senator Robert M. La Follette on charges of disloyalty and sedition.
MCPS commissioner Charles W. Ames begins investigating the activities of the Nonpartisan League.
The MCPS issues an order forbidding the display of union buttons by striking Twin Cities streetcar workers.
The MCPS engineers the removal of two New Ulm city councilmen from office for sponsoring an allegedly unpatriotic (and anti-draft) public meeting.
An MCPS order prohibits public and private schools from employing aliens (non-citizens) as teachers.
World War I ends.
The MCPS declares all in-force orders inoperative as of February 5 until instructed otherwise by the State Legislature.
The MCPS goes back on their January 14 plan, electing to keep some programs running.
The Minnesota House votes 107-12 to abolish the MCPS. Though the Senate later votes to keep them in power, the Commission ceases its activities.
On December 15, the MCPS meets for the last time and officially dissolves.