Iowa Has a Long History of White Supremacy, Going All the Way Back to its First US Senators

Republican Steve King, who represents Iowa’s 4th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives, has made quite a name for himself as an outspoken and unapologetic White Nationalist.  His disparaging comments and fallacious statements about women, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and newly-arrived Americans have landed him in political hot water (he was stripped of his Congressional committee assignments in January 2019), but have made him a hero to the Far Right and the White Nationalist movement.[1] 

Many may be surprised that such racist vitriol and combative bigotry – most often associated with unreconstructed Confederates – are coming from an Iowan.  But the state has a long history of white supremacy and White Nationalist politicians, starting with its first two US Senators back in the 1850s.  Augustus Caesar Dodge and George Wallace Jones were both “doughfaces,” meaning Northern men who supported slavery. 

Dodge grew up in a family of enslavers in the Louisiana Territory and was raised by a “mammy” named Leah.  His father Henry was a local politician of note, who, in the 1840s, rose to the Senate from the new state of Wisconsin.  After fighting in various wars against Indigenous Americans in the 1830s, Dodge married and moved to Burlington in the Iowa Territory, which had separated from Wisconsin in 1838.  There, thanks to his father’s growing political influence, Dodge was appointed one of two Land Registers, a lucrative post.  The office brought young Dodge political clout as well, and in October 1840 he was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress.

In December 1846, Iowa entered the Union as a free state, and thirty-five year old Dodge became the political boss of the new state’s Democratic Party.  Charges of a “Dodge Dynasty,” however, thwarted his plans for election to the United States Senate until the following year, when he became the first Senator born west of the Mississippi.  In the epic legislative battles of the 1850s that led to Civil War, Dodge voted repeatedly to empower enslavers and spread the “peculiar institution.” 

In Congressional debates over the infamous “Compromise of 1850,” he condemned abolitionists, energetically defended slavery, and voted for every pro-slavery aspect of the legislative package, including the heinous Fugitive Slave Law, which would force Northerners to participate in man-hunting.  Back home in Iowa, he saw to the law’s vigorous enforcement and bragged about Iowa’s record of returning escaped slaves.  By the mid-1850s, Dodge had emerged as a leading doughface and a rabid white supremacist.  It was Dodge, in fact, who introduced to the Senate the momentous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which, in its final version, would spread slavery to previously free land.  In the battles over that bill, Dodge waxed eloquent in defense of human bondage.  Slavery, he gushed, was a blessing that rescued Africans from “a dark and heathenish land; from the worship of filthy reptiles; from cannibalism.”  Africans were meant to be slaves, and it was by the “decrees of God” that they were brought to “a land of gospel light.”  Such assertions, while pleasing to enslavers, were unacceptable to free-state Iowans.  In the fall 1854 elections, Dodge was soundly defeated for re-election.  As reward for his service to the Slave Power, however, Democratic President Franklin Pierce (another doughface) appointed him minister to Spain, where he labored to acquire Cuba as a new slave state.

The tale of George Wallace Jones is not unlike his senatorial college.  Born and raised in the Louisiana Territory to a pro-slavery family (his father advocated for the introduction of slavery to the Indiana Territory), he received legal training in Kentucky, where he befriended future pro-slavery leaders Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and David Atchison of Missouri.  After serving with Dodge in the Indian wars, he was elected to the US House from Michigan, then Wisconsin.  In 1840, he was appointed Surveyor General of the Iowa Territory, which he parlayed into election to the US Senate in 1848.  Like Dodge, Jones proved a dutiful doughface, siding with slavery and Southerners on almost every issue, including the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  But while Dodge’s term ended in 1854, Jones remained in the Senate until 1859, long enough to vote for the Lecompton Constitution, which sought to force slavery on the anti-slavery majority of Kansas settlers.  Unelectable after such a long pro-slavery record, Jones accepted the mission to New Granada (present day Colombia) from Democratic President James Buchanan.  His sons, it is worth noting, served in Confederate forces during the Civil War, and Jones remained close friends with Jefferson Davis.

In short, there is nothing new about Steve King’s Iowan white supremacy and vocal racism.  Dodge and Jones would have wholeheartedly agreed with his dim assessment of people of color and his concerns for racial integrity.  Moreover, like King, Dodge and Jones grew distasteful to their constituents yet endeared themselves to the Far Right of their day.  The fact that King recently posted a Civil War-related meme to his Facebook page (wherein he bragged that Red states could easily kill all the Blue states, reminiscent of Confederate braggadocio of 1861) is further evidence that the representative has a sense of his state’s troubled history.[2]  If he fails to win re-election in 2020, perhaps he, too, will be offered a appointed position from his party’s president.


[1] For a catalog of King’s comments, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/13/brief-guide-steve-kings-long-history-racist-statements/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.82ab9054174b

[2] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/steve-king-civil-war-graphic_n_5c8ef5b9e4b03e83bdc25c86

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