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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 241

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This is the grave of George Norris.

Born in 1861 in Sandusky County, Ohio into a very poor family, Norris worked hard, graduated from from Baldwin University, and then got a law degree from Valparaiso University. Seeking opportunities on the frontier, the young man moved to Nebraska. A promising career grew in 1900 when he moved to the large town of McCook, in southwestern Nebraska. A town like this does not seem too prosperous today, but in the context of that time, when many areas of the western Plains had as many or more people than they do today (McCook itself, better off than some places, still had more people in 1950 than 2018), growing county seats were places for promising opportunities.

Like many enterprising young northerners, Norris was a Republican. Showing talent in local politics, he won a seat to Congress in 1902 from Nebraska’s 5th district. He won with railroad support. But he almost immediately turned on the railroads and became one of the only Republicans in Congress to embrace Progressive ideas. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt’s railroad regulation plan came to Congress and when Norris realized how helpful it would be to local farmers and merchants, he turned his back on the railroads and became a leader of the insurgent Republicans, outraging the old guard. He helped engineer the coup against the dictatorial Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon in 1910. Cannon had done more than any other single person to ensure that progressive legislation did not pass Congress and it took a lot of bravery to take him on. Now a national reform leader, he supported Robert LaFollette’s initial attempt to win the 1912 Republican nomination and when that failed, fell behind Theodore Roosevelt’s run. But he maintained his party membership that fall and won a seat for the Senate from Nebraska.

Simply put, George Norris was one of the greatest senators in American history. He worked for decades, often in the political wilderness and against the heated opposition of his own political party, to push for just policies for Americans. Norris supported the 17th Amendment and was a big player in the creation of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, which he believed every state should adopt. He was one of the few Republicans to support much of Wilson’s domestic program; despite people such as Theodore Roosevelt that redefines our understanding of the Progressive Era, the majority of elected Republicans in DC really hated the era’s reform impulse. He opposed American entry into World War I, believing it was a war of the capitalists that would serve only to make the Wall Street rich even more wealthy and was a strong isolationist in the aftermath. I don’t particularly think opposing the League of Nations was good foreign policy, but it certainly fit well within the American mainstream at the time.

In the 1920s, a deeply conservative decade, Norris consistently took politically progressive positions. He advocated eliminating the electoral college, something that more senators need to lead on today. He supported the rights of labor, putting him in sharp opposition to the presidents of his own party. In 1932, he cosponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which finally ended the yellow-dog contract (making not joining a union a condition of employment) and severely restricting the use of the injunction against strikes, labor’s top political goal for a long time. Norris’ biggest crusade was public power. With electrification happening at this point, the question was who would control these power resources. Of course, the nation’s capitalists wanted to control them. The most contentious spot for water control was at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on the Tennessee River. It was going to be dammed, but who would own that power? Henry Ford pushed his own plan to dam the river and of course profit off it. George Norris believed that was outrageous. He thought the water resources of the nation should be used to serve the people as a whole, not the capitalists. As a senator from a rural farm state, where people still did not have electricity, he wanted the government to spread that power to everyone. Corporate interests, uninterested in spending the money to run lines out to remote farms and wanting to horde profits, believed that was socialism. It was indeed socialism.

Norris was powerful enough to kill Ford’s plan. And he was powerful enough to shepherd bills through even a Republican Congress to develop the Muscle Shoals resources federally. But he was not powerful enough to get the revanchist presidents of the era to sign the bill. First Coolidge vetoed such a bill, then Hoover. But then a new day dawned with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although still nominally a Republican, and holding some Republican views such as his strong support of Prohibition, Norris was thrilled by Roosevelt’s rise to power. Norris knew he would now get his public power bill made into law. This became the Tennessee Valley Authority. The agency built Norris Dam on the Clinch River in east Tennessee, named in honor of its patron. He also sponsored the Rural Electrification Act, which committed the federal government to getting power to those remote farms. This is really important. Urban and rural people might as well have lived in different nations by 1933. Cities were electrified marvels of modernity. Farms lacked power and running water, forcing endless drudgery by women to haul water for cooking and doing laundry over open flames, as they had forever. Electrification completely transformed their lives.

The only reason Norris remained a Republican all these years was because he had seniority and thus committee chairmanships. His own work created this situation–a big reason for overthrowing Cannon in the House all those years ago was to institute a seniority system for committees instead of giving the Speaker full power to name their chairs. Once Democrats took power, Norris had no reason to remain a Republican. He left the party in 1936. He didn’t become a Democrat but he caucused with them and they offered him committee chairmanships. He won reelection as an independent in 1936. He didn’t like everything about the New Deal, including the repeal of the 18th Amendment and Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, but overall, his goals were significantly advanced.

As World War II approached, Norris shifted his position on foreign affairs. He moved away from his previous isolationism, outraged by the threat Germany and Japan posed to democracy. Norris didn’t have the chance to use his power during most of the war though. Like a lot of indepedents, especially in a fundamentally conservative state, he didn’t have a great relationship with either state party. For Republicans he was a traitor. For the Nebraska Democrats, he was untrustworthy and they were largely more conservative than he was anyway. In 1942, Democrats decided to run their own candidate for his seat instead of supporting his reelection. This split the anti-Republican vote and he lost the seat to Kenneth Wherry, who would later rise to be Minority Leader. Norris was pretty old anyway and died in 1944.

George Norris is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, McCook, Nebraska.

If you would like to see this series cover the greatest senators in American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Daniel Webster is a-callin’! And that’s my little 2010 Focus in the background, which has seen no small amount of miles put on it to make this series happen. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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