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George Norris: Accomplished Congressman

George Norris: Accomplished Congressman

George Norris: Accomplished Congressman

George William Norris was a Congressman from the American West and one of the leading progressives of his time. He was a remarkable man in many respects, one of which was that throughout his career in politics, his popularity continually rose, unlike that of other politicians, and a majority of his major achievements in the Senate he accomplished after the age of seventy (Lowitt 561). “. . . he believed firmly that it was his duty to act and vote according to his conscience, and not on the basis of his party affiliation. His fierce independence set him apart from many of his contemporaries and his uncommon integrity continues to inspire us today” (Nebraska State Historical Society). Much of his success may be attributed to the fact that his personality was engaging and amiable, coupled with the fact that “few surpassed him in parliamentary skill” (Lowitt 561). George will long be remembered as a dominant figure in the political world.

George was born July 11, 1861, in Sandusky County, Ohio, to Chauncey and Mary Magdalene (Mook) Norris. George was one of twelve children, ten girls and two boys. His family called him “Willie.” Both of his parents were uneducated and could barely write their names. George’s father caught pneumonia and died when George was only three, and his only brother died serving in the army. When George’s father died,

this left Mary to raise her twelve children by herself. She instilled in them such values as compassion for the poor and trust in God. (Lowitt 557)

In 1879 George entered the Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute, now Valparaiso University. While there, he excelled in debate and rhetoric, and in 1883, he graduated with the LL.B degree. That same year, he was admitted to the bar (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress). In 1885 he moved to the prosperous Beaver City, Nebraska, opened a law office, and established a reputation of prosperity as an attorney as well as in the mortgage-loan and milling businesses. In 1889, he married Pluma Lashley, daughter of the town’s most esteemed banker and businessman, and they had three daughters. (Lowitt 557)

George’s career in politics began in 1892 when he was elected prosecuting attorney in his county. A loyal Republican, in 1895 he defeated the Populist incumbent in a prominent Populist area and served eight years as judge of the fourteenth judicial district. In 1900, he moved the family from Beaver City to McCook, Nebraska. In 1901, while there, his wife Pluma died after the birth of their third daughter, and soon after, in 1903, George married Ellie Leonard, a McCook schoolteacher. (Lowitt 558)

George was elected to his first term in the House of Representatives in 1902. Although he agreed with many Populist beliefs and liberal domestic policies, he identified with the Old Guard Republicans until he supported federal intervention of the railroads. This alienated the conservative Republicans who had earlier endorsed him. With this, he openly sided with House insurgents and became an advocate for progressive legislation. (Lowitt 558)

In 1910 George was the main figure in arguable the most important procedural reform in the history of the House of Representatives. He supported a revolution against the power of the Speaker of the House, and after a heated, thirty-six hour debate, Norris’s proposal was adopted, creating a Rules Committee on which the Speaker was not allowed to sit. This greatly curbed the power of the Speaker. Because of this role in the House revolution, George was catapulted to the scene as a prominent progressive figure. He was easily elected to a fifth term in the House in 1910 and decided to turn his attention instead to the Senate. (Lowitt 558)

George became a Senator of Nebraska in 1913, and throughout his thirty years in the Senate, he increasingly gained in stature. During the Woodrow Wilson administration, he was one of only three non-Democratic Senators to vote in support of the nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. In the area of foreign affairs, George strongly disagreed with Wilson’s policies and was one of only six Senators to vote against United States entrance into World War I in April 1917. However, George supported the Wilson administration during the war and even volunteered to serve in the military at the age of fifty-seven. Rejected because of his age, in 1918 he ran and was elected to a second term in the Senate. (Lowitt 559)

He was an active voice against ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, and so became a member of the Senate “Irreconcilables.” His views seemed to inevitably be out of sync with those dominant of his party. Because of this, “he was one of those labeled ‘sons of the wild jackass’” by a fellow Senator (Lowitt 559). When Robert LaFollette died in 1925, George became the leader of the Congressional liberals. He was the

principle man responsible for the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, which changed the date of presidential inaugurations from March to January. For most of the 1920s, George engaged in an important battle to prevent hydroelectric power plants developed during the war from being purchased by private businessmen. (Lowitt 559) This would later be a key in his accomplishment of establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s.

George’s identity with the Republican Party continued to deteriorate, and in 1928, he openly denounced his party and even endorsed Alfred Smith, the Democratic candidate for Senator. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, he endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and became personally close to him. He supported most New Deal measures, but regardless of opposition or influence managed to maintain his independence and beliefs. (Lowitt 560)

During the Roosevelt administration, George proposed a new resolution for the gigantic Tennessee Valley experiment Roosevelt had begun in order to decrease unemployment, supply inexpensive power to area farms, stop damage from floods, and “restore forests”, all of which the project accomplished (Lief 411). George had long been a supporter of full development of the Tennessee River and its tributaries, and he praised Roosevelt’s Tennessee plan, labeling it “one of the most reassuring programs that ever came from a president along the line of preserving our natural resources” (Lief 411). On the eleventh of April, 1933, Norris introduced his bill to the Senate after discussing it with President Roosevelt. Norris’s proposal included creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority to oversee construction of Cove Creek Dam. Little more than a month after

introducing his bill, the Senate, the House, and President Roosevelt approved George’s bill. The Tennessee Valley Resolution would not have been possible without George’s key role of salvaging the main site of construction from large holding companies throughout the 1920s. It was also to George’s credit that the Norris-Rayburn Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was passed. This act “made permanent the Rural Electrification Administration” (Lowitt 560), which for the first time made electricity available to thousands of rural farmers.

George was also a leading figure in the establishment of a unicameral legislature in his home state of Nebraska. When the United States entered the Second World War, George opposed compulsory military service but supported declaration of war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942, George ran for a sixth term in the Senate but was defeated. He returned to his hometown of McCook, Nebraska, where he wrote his autobiography, Fighting Liberal, and died at the age of 83 after suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage. (Lowitt 560) Laid to rest in his town’s Memorial Park Cemetery, George W. Norris was highly regarded as a man of integrity and certainly one of the most “outstanding legislators in American political history” (Lowitt 561). He was described by F.D.R. “as the very perfect, gentle knight of progressive ideals” (Lowitt 561).

Works Cited

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. 17 November 2002.
Lief, Alfred. Democracy’s Norris. New York: Stackpole Sons, 1939.
Lowitt, Richard. “George William Norris.” Dictionary of American Biography. Ed.
Edward T. James. Supp. Three. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.
Nebraska State Historical Society. 27 March 2002. 17 November 2002.

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