George W. Norris

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George W. Norris
Portrait of George W. Norris.jpg
Portrait of George W. Norris
United States Senator
from Nebraska
In office
March 4, 1913 – January 3, 1943
Preceded by Norris Brown
Succeeded by Kenneth S. Wherry
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska's 5th district
In office
March 4, 1903 – March 4, 1913
Preceded by Ashton C. Shallenberger
Succeeded by Silas Reynolds Barton
Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary
In office
August 1926 – March 4, 1933
Preceded by Albert B. Cummins
Succeeded by Henry F. Ashurst
Personal details
Born George William Norris
(1861-07-11)July 11, 1861
York Township, Sandusky County, Ohio
Died September 2, 1944(1944-09-02) (aged 83)
McCook, Nebraska
Political party Republican (until 1936)
Independent
Spouse(s) Pluma Lashley (m. 1889, dec. 1901
Ellie Leonard (m. 1903)
Children 3
Alma mater Baldwin University
Northern Indiana Normal School
Profession Lawyer

George William Norris (July 11, 1861 – September 2, 1944) was a U.S. politician from the state of Nebraska and a leader of progressive and liberal causes in Congress. He served five terms in the United States House of Representatives as a Republican from 1903 until 1913 and five terms in the United States Senate from 1913 until 1943, four terms as a Republican and the final term as an independent. Norris was defeated for reelection in 1942.

Norris is best known for his intense crusades against what he characterized as "wrong and evil",[1] his liberalism, his insurgency against party leaders, his isolationist foreign policy, his support for labor unions, and especially for creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. President Franklin Roosevelt called him "the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals," and this has been the theme of all of his biographers.[2]

Early life[edit]

Norris was born in 1861 in York Township, Sandusky County, Ohio and was the eleventh child of poor, uneducated, farmers of Scots-Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. He graduated from Baldwin University and earned his LL.B. degree in 1883 at the law school of Valparaiso University. He moved to Beaver City, Nebraska to practice law. In 1889 he married Pluma Lashley; the couple had three daughters (Gertrude, Hazel, and Marian) before her 1901 death. Norris then married Ellie Leonard in 1903; they had no children.

Political career[edit]

House insurgent[edit]

Norris relocated to the larger town of McCook in 1900, where he became active in local politics. In 1902, running as a Republican, he was elected to the House of Representatives for Nebraska's 5th congressional district. In that election, he was supported by the railroads; however, in 1906 he broke with them, supporting Theodore Roosevelt's plans to regulate rates for the benefit of shippers, such as the merchants who lived in his district. A prominent insurgent after 1908, he led the revolt against Speaker Joseph G. Cannon in 1910. By a vote of 191 to 156, the House created a new system in which seniority would automatically move members ahead, even against the wishes of the leadership.

In January 1911, he helped create the National Progressive Republican League and was its vice president. He originally supported Robert M. La Follette, Sr. for the 1912 presidential nomination but then switched to Roosevelt. However, he refused to bolt the convention and join Roosevelt's Progressive Party. He instead ran for the Senate as a Republican.

Senator[edit]

As a leading Progressive Republican, Norris supported the direct election of senators. He also promoted the conversion of all state legislatures to the unicameral system. This was implemented in 1934 only in the Nebraska Legislature; all other states have retained a two-house system.

Norris supported some of President Woodrow Wilson's programs but became a firm isolationist, fearing that bankers were manipulating the country into war. In the face of enormous pressure from the media and the administration, Norris was one of only six senators to vote against the declaration of war on Germany in 1917.

George W. Norris, US Representative from Nebraska.

Looking at the war in Europe he said, "Many instances of cruelty and inhumanity can be found on both sides." Norris believed that the government wanted to take part in this war only because the wealthy had already aided the British financially in the war. He told Congress that the only people who would benefit from the war were "munition manufacturers, stockbrokers, and bond dealers" and added that "war brings no prosperity to the great mass of common and patriotic citizens.... War brings prosperity to the stock gambler on Wall Street–to those who are already in possession of more wealth than can be realized or enjoyed."[3]

He joined the "irreconcilables" who vehemently opposed and defeated the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in 1919.

Seniority brought him the chairmanship of the Agriculture and Forestry and the Judiciary committees. Norris was a leader of the Farm Bloc, advocated the rights of labor, sponsored the ("Lame Duck") Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution,[4] and proposed to abolish the Electoral College. He failed on these issues in the 1920s, but blocked Henry Ford's proposals to modernize the Tennessee Valley, insisting that it was a project the government should handle. Although a nominal Republican (which was essential to his seniority), he routinely attacked and voted against the Republican administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Norris supported Democrats Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1928 and 1932, respectively. Republican regulars called him one of the "sons of the wild jackass."

Norris was a staunch "dry," battling against alcohol even when the crusade lost favor in the Great Depression. He told voters that prohibition means "this greatest evil of all mankind is driven from the homes of the American people," even if it means "we are giving up some of our personal rights and personal privileges."[5]

In 1932, along with Fiorello H. La Guardia, then a Republican Representative from New York City, Norris secured passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which outlawed the practice of requiring prospective employees not to join a labor union as a condition of employment (the so-called yellow-dog contract) and greatly limited the use of court injunctions against strikes.

FDR (center) signs the Rural Electrification Act with Congressman John E. Rankin (left) and Norris (right)

New Dealer[edit]

A staunch supporter of President Roosevelt's New Deal programs, Norris sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. In appreciation, the Norris Dam [1] and Norris, Tennessee, a new planned city in Tennessee, were named after him.[6][7] Norris was also the prime Senate mover behind the Rural Electrification Act, which brought electrical service to underserved and unserved rural areas across the United States. It is also a testament to Norris' belief in "public power" that there have been no privately owned electric utilities operating in Nebraska since the late 1940s.

Norris believed in the wisdom of the common people and in the progress of civilization.[8] "To get good government and to retain it, it is necessary that a liberty-loving, educated, intelligent people should be ever watchful, to carefully guard and protect their rights and liberties," Norris said in a 1934 speech, "The Model Legislature." The people were capable of being the government, he said, affirming his populist/progressive credentials.[9] To alert the people, he called for transparency in government. "Publicity," he proclaimed, "is the greatest cure for evils which may exist in government." [10]

Norris left the Republicans in 1936 since seniority in the minority party was useless, and the Democrats offered him chairmanships. He was re-elected to the Senate as an Independent with some Democratic Party support in 1936. Norris won with 43.8% of the vote against Republican former congressman Robert G. Simmons (who came in second) and Democratic former congressman Terry Carpenter (who came in a distant third).

Norris opposed Roosevelt's Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 to pack the Supreme Court and railed against corrupt patronage. In late 1937, when Norris saw the famous photograph "Bloody Saturday" (showing a burned Chinese baby crying in a bombed-out train station), he shifted his stance on isolationism and non-interventionism. Siding against Japanese violence in China, he called the Japanese "disgraceful, ignoble, barbarous, and cruel, even beyond the power of language to describe."[11]

Unable to secure Democratic support in the state in 1942, he was defeated by Republican Kenneth S. Wherry. He parted from office saying, "I have done my best to repudiate wrong and evil in government affairs."[1]

Memorials[edit]

Norris is one of eight senators profiled in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, included for opposing Speaker Cannon's autocratic power in the House, for speaking out against arming U.S. merchant ships during the United States' neutral period in World War I, and for supporting the presidential campaign of Democrat Al Smith.

The principal north-south street through downtown McCook, Nebraska is named George Norris Avenue. Norris's house in McCook is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is operated as a museum by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

George W. Norris Middle School in Omaha, Nebraska, the George W. Norris K - 12 school system near Firth, Nebraska, and George W. Norris Elementary School in Millard Public Schools stand as a memorial to the late Senator. When several public power districts in southeastern Nebraska merged into one in 1941, the new utility was named the Norris Public Power District in Senator Norris' honor.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Fred Greenbaum (2000). Men Against Myths: The Progressive Response. Greenwood. p. 7. 
  2. ^ Robert Muccigrosso, ed., Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 3:1165
  3. ^ ["Opposition to Wilson's War Message" http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/doc19.htm]
  4. ^ "More about Senator George Norris". Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved April 18, 2010. 
  5. ^ Burton W. Folsom (1999). No More Free Markets Or Free Beer: The Progressive Era in Nebraska, 1900-1924. Lexington Books. p. 72. 
  6. ^ TVA: An American Ideal
  7. ^ TVA: Norris Reservoir
  8. ^ Charlyne Berens, One House, The unicameral's Progressive Vision for Nebraska (2005, University of Nebraska Press)
  9. ^ Robert F. Wesser, "George W. Norris, The Unicameral Legislature and the Progressive Ideal," Nebraska History (December 1964)
  10. ^ Mark H. Leff (2003). The Limits of Symbolic Reform: The New Deal and Taxation, 1933-1939. Cambridge U.P. p. 69. 
  11. ^ Paterson, Thomas G.; Clifford, John Garry; Hagan, Kenneth J. (1999). American Foreign Relations: A history since 1895. American Foreign Relations 2 (5 ed.). Houghton Mifflin. p. 151. ISBN 0-395-93887-2. 

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Ashton C. Shallenberger
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Nebraska's 5th congressional district

1903–1913
Succeeded by
Silas Reynolds Barton
United States Senate
Preceded by
Norris Brown
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Nebraska
1913–1943
Served alongside: Gilbert M. Hitchcock, Robert B. Howell,
William H. Thompson, Richard C. Hunter, Edward R. Burke, Hugh A. Butler
Succeeded by
Kenneth S. Wherry
Political offices
Preceded by
Albert B. Cummins
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee
1926–1933
Succeeded by
Henry F. Ashurst