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McGee, John Franklin (1861–1925)

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Black and white photograph of John McGee, 1918.

John McGee, 1918. Photograph by the Lee Brothers.

Conservative lawyer John F. McGee was the dominant personality on the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, the body that governed Minnesota during World War I. Under McGee’s leadership, the commission demanded unquestioning support for the war effort and suppressed possible German American dissent. After the war, McGee became a federal judge who was well known for the heavy sentences he imposed on bootleggers.

McGee was the son of an Irish immigrant who farmed in Illinois. He “read” law with local lawyers and was admitted to the bar in 1882. The next year, he moved to Dakota Territory, where he built a successful law practice. In 1887, he moved to Minneapolis, where he tried complex commercial cases. Ten years later, still only thirty-six years old, he was appointed judge of the district court in Minneapolis.

McGee resigned in 1902 for financial reasons (by then, he and his wife had a family of six children). He then opened a law office that handled cases involving banks and railroads. Although not involved in politics, he had close relations with conservative business leaders and Republican politicians like Senator Knute Nelson. He developed a deep hostility for the trade union movement, the Socialist Party, and the Nonpartisan League.

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. In response, the legislature created the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) and gave it sweeping powers to govern the state during the war. It was composed of Governor J. A. A. Burnquist, the attorney general, and five members selected by Burnquist, one of whom was McGee. In October 1917, the federal government appointed him the fuel administrator for the state. In this role, he had broad powers to guarantee that Minnesota had sufficient coal supplies.

McGee quickly became the leading figure in the MCPS, setting its tone of intolerance to any form of dissent, labor agitation, or German cultural expression. Under McGee’s leadership, the MCPS demanded “100 percent loyalty” and held that anyone who criticized the government was a traitor.

The Minnesota National Guard became part of the regular army when the war began. McGee took on the job of organizing the Home Guard to replace it. It eventually grew to twenty-one battalions across the state. The MCPS ordered many of these units to St. Paul to defeat a transit workers’ strike in the winter of 1917–1918. In some areas, units conducted “slacker raids,” during which hundreds of young men were arrested and required to prove that they were not avoiding conscription.

In 1916, the Nonpartisan League won the elections in North Dakota. In 1918, it tried to do the same in Minnesota. It chose Charles Lindbergh Sr. to run against Governor Burnquist in the Republican primary. The governor and the MCPS branded the NPL as disloyal and made it difficult for Lindbergh to campaign in many counties. Local sheriffs and sometimes Home Guard units were called out to ban NPL rallies. Burnquist won the primary and went on to be re-elected governor.

The MCPS was disbanded when the war in Europe ended. McGee then returned to his law practice. When Congress took up a bill to create a new federal judgeship for Minnesota, McGee campaigned for the appointment. Senator Knute Nelson supported him, but progressive senators like Robert La Follette opposed him because of his repressive record during the war. In the end, the United States Senate confirmed him, and he began hearing cases as a federal judge in 1923.

McGee became known as a judge who worked overtime to try bootleggers. He was also known for the length of the sentences he imposed. His time on the federal bench was cut short, however, when he killed himself in his office on February 15, 1925. He left a note that said that he suffered from exhaustion and depression as a result of his heavy workload.

The sitting governor and two former governors were honorary pall bearers at McGee’s funeral at St. Stephens Catholic Church, his local parish. He is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in South Minneapolis.

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Chrislock, Carl. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota, Vol. III. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1926.

Hilton, O. A. “The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety in World War I, 1917–1919.” Bulletin of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College 48, no. 14 (May 15, 1951): 1–44.

Jenson, Carol E. “Loyalty as a Political Weapon: the 1918 Campaign in Minnesota.” Minnesota History 43, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 42–57.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/43/v43i02p042-057.pdf

Shutter, Marion D.D. and J.S. Mclain, M.A., eds. “John Franklin McGee.” In Progressive Men of Minnesota, 500–501. Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Journal, 1897.
https://www.loc.gov/item/03019129/

“Judge J. F. McGee is Found Dead in Office Vault.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 16, 1925.

“Judge McGee Had Lost Mind by Hard Work.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 17, 1925.

“Judge McGee, Warned to Give Up Work of Collapse, Ends His Life.” Minneapolis Journal, February 16, 1925.

“Throng Attends Last Rites for Judge McGee.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 19, 1925.

Knute Nelson Papers, 1861–1924
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00578.xml
Description: Papers mostly concerned with political aspects of Nelson’s life, including correspondence with John McGee. Also here is an 18-page autobiographical statement which McGee wrote while seeking the federal judgeship.

Main Files, 1917–1919
Minnesota Commission on Public Safety
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00954.xml
Description: The general correspondence files of the commission, organized by subject, including many letters to and from John McGee.

Minutes, 1917–1920
Minnesota Commission of Public Safety
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00957.xml
Description: The minutes of the commission meetings, including full text of resolutions and orders.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of John McGee, 1918.
Black and white photograph of John McGee, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Commission of Public Safety members, c.1918.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Commission of Public Safety members, c.1918.

Turning Point

In April 1917, Governor J. A. A. Burnquist appoints John F. McGee to the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety.

Chronology

1861

John F. McGee, the son of an immigrant from the North of Ireland, is born in Amboy, Illinois.

1882

Having “read” law with several lawyers, McGee is admitted to practice in Illinois.

1883

McGee moves to Devils Lake in Dakota Territory and opens a law office.

1887

McGee moves to Minneapolis and joins a law firm.

1897

The governor appoints McGee a judge of the district court in Minneapolis.

1902

After five years, he returns to private practice in partnership with William A. Lancaster. His most important client is the Chicago Great Western Railroad.

1917

On April 16, just a few days after the U.S. declares war on Germany, Governor Burnquist signs a law creating the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. On that same day, Burnquist appoints John McGee to the commission.

1917

McGee becomes the dominant figure on the MCPS and takes personal responsibility for the creation of the Home Guard, which eventually grows to twenty-one battalions across the state.

1917

In June, McGee tells a statewide meeting of the MCPS county directors that a citizen who claims to be neutral about the war is traitor. It is “all one thing or the other” and a person is either a patriot or a traitor.

1918

McGee announces that he considers the Nonpartisan League a traitorous organization and that it is legal to ban the public meetings of organizations that are not “loyal.”

1918

In the summer, the Nonpartisan League nominates Charles Lindbergh Sr. to run against Governor Burnquist in the Republican primary. In many counties, sheriffs and sometimes Home Guard units act forcefully to block the NPL from campaigning.

1918

McGee testifies at a congressional hearing in Washington. A newspaper quotes him as saying that both Minnesota’s Swedish and German communities are seedbeds of sedition. In the resulting backlash, McGee denies that he mentioned the Swedish population.

1919

The mandate of the MCPS ends with the conclusion of World War I. McGee returns to private practice in Minneapolis.

1923

Nominated by President Harding to a fill a new federal judgeship in Minnesota, McGee is appointed only after a contentious struggle in the Senate. He quickly wins a reputation for the long sentences he imposes on bootleggers.

1925

McGee commits suicide in his chambers in Minneapolis. The sitting governor and two former governors are among the honorary pallbearers at his funeral at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. He was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in south Minneapolis.