Home > Elwyn Robinson's Autobiography, North Dakotiana > Themes of North Dakota History: Looking Back Over 50 Years

Themes of North Dakota History: Looking Back Over 50 Years

50 years ago today the University of North Dakota celebrated its 75th Anniversary with an elaborate Convocation.  The President of the University, George Startcher, invited Elwyn B. Robinson to give the Convocation Address that day.  He delivered a paper entitled “Themes of North Dakota History”, and this paper was destined to become one of the most influential statement on the history of the state.  The Themes that Robinson identified echoed through his major work, The History of North Dakota, and continue to appear even today in the way in which the public, the media, and scholars think about the development of the state over time.

A link to a version of this speech is here.  I’ve also included an excerpt from Robinson’s Autobiography that places this important text is a more personal context.

“In 1957 or early in 1958, I believe, the committee planning the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Convocation to celebrate the university’s seventy-fifth birthday, invited me to give an address at the convocation in November 1958.  Dr. Christopher Hamre,  dean of the Graduate School, and Dr. William Koenher, then chairman of the Department of Economics, were on the committee. They suggested my topic, “The Themes of North Dakota History”.  Because of the early invitation, I had a long time to think about the topic.  The invitation was one of the great good fortunes of my life because it made me think for a long time about the meaning of North Dakota history.  As a result I worked out six themes that ran through the state’s history.  I talked a great deal with Robert P. Wilkins about the themes as I was working on my essay.  He may or probably did suggest some of the ideas as we talked as well as confirming my ideas.    I wanted to give names to the six themes.  The most happy invention was the name the “Too-Much Mistake” for the persistent tendency to over expand.  I read my essay on the evening of November 6 in the Field House to a great concourse of people.  Before Robert Wilkins introduced me there was special music, “The Towering Vision”, composed for the anniversary.  That evening was the first event of the three-day convocation with many leaders in higher education from throughout the nation.  I believe that there were several university presidents.  I remember especially the president of Columbia University. 

    For a month or so before the event, I was concerned that I should not be understood.  Very frequently speakers in the Field House were not heard very clearly.    I talked to John Penn of the Speech Department and possibly to Myron Curry, seeking ways of avoiding the common problem.  They told me that the problem arose from the fact that the speaker did not keep his mouth close to the microphone, but would sometimes turn away.  So as I read my essay I took great pains to keep close to the microphone and to enunciate very clearly.  I expect that it took me forty-five minutes to an hour to read my essay.

    I worked hard on it.  On October 2 I wrote to my mother that I was busy with it.  On November 14 I wrote her that my lecture had gone extremely well – “a triumph of the first magnitude”.  The audience had given me prolonged applause, and a great many people came to the platform to congratulate me.  Later, some people told me that my address was the best one at the convocation.  Dean Theodore Harwood said that it was a “classic”.  President Starcher sent me “a letter of warm praise”.  A reporter for the Fargo Forum, Roy Johnson, called it “a great document”.  The comments at the time I read the essay and later showed that many people believed that my themes were true and significant ones, that I had illuminated the history of the state.  My interpretation has become the accepted interpretation of North Dakota history.  The Forum  for November 16 carried a report on my essay and an editorial that day said that it “should be required for every resident of North Dakota”.  The editorial continued:

“Dr. Robinson’s observations about the ‘typical’ North Dakotan make interesting reading but there is far deeper significance in his ‘six great themes’ which he says have been the primary influences on the state.
    “Of particular import is his conclusion that one of the main influences upon our economy has been what he calls the ‘too much mistake’ of our pioneers.  He outlines these as too many farms, railroads, roads, towns, banks, schools, churches, and governmental institutions, ‘a supply that history has shown has been far beyond the ability of the state to maintain’ with its sparse population.
    “Accepting this premise requires a different approach to the changes that are taking place in North Dakota today.  If Dr. Robinson’s conclusions are correct, the declining numbers of farmers mean only that steps are being taken to correct an original mistake. 
    “Likewise, efforts of railroads to abandon uneconomical facilities are only an attempt to adjust to changing times.  Extended branch line trackage once was necessary when grain was hauled by team and wagon, when passenger trains were the only fast means of travel, but trucks, passenger cars, and highways have made much of the trackage and other facilities obsolete.
    “Dr. Robinson cites many thought-provoking arguments to prove his point, and he offers many startling statistics such as “in 1958 government work on all levels is the second largest class of non-agricultural employment, standing just behind retail.”
    “Full judgment of Dr. Robinson’s research and conclusions must await publication of his book, but even the brief report in today’s edition heralds his work as an important contribution to North Dakota history.
    “Whether North Dakotans today will profit from the study of the past remains for future historians to record, but at the very least Dr. Robinson should inspire searching thinking in us all.”

   On November 30 I wrote to my mother that President Starcher wanted my essay published so that he could send copies to every member of the legislature.    I went to work on revision which was mostly a matter of putting in footnotes.  I had not had time for them before I read it to the convocation on November 6.  I wrote to Russell Reid, superintendent of the State Historical Society and editor of its quarterly North Dakota History about its publication.  As I remember his reply, he was critical of my interpretation of North Dakota history and hesitant about publishing it.”

In the end, North Dakota History did publish a version of the speech appeared in the Winter 1959 volume of the journal.  It was republished in the Centennial Anthology of the North Dakota History which can be downloaded for free here.

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