The year is 1902 and the United States is exiting the “Gilded Age” and entering the “Progressive Era”. Although Nebraska is a historically Republican state, its most well-known politician is a Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, who ran on a left populist platform both in 1896 and in 1900 for president. Although George Norris (1861-1944), just elected to Congress from the state, is not at this time receptive to Bryan and his ideals, he will be more and more so as time goes on and will become one of the most accomplished progressives in American history.
Contending With Cannon
Norris could be thought of as a fairly regular if independent-minded Republican at the start. Although initially elected with the support of railroad companies as a conservative, he would come to support regulation of railroad rates proposed by President Roosevelt and after his first term his voting record would grow increasingly progressive.
Norris would become increasingly unhappy with Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) Cannon was too conservative and autocratic in his iron-fisted rule of the House. So powerful he was that he was both Speaker and chairman of the Rules Committee, meaning that he got to set the terms of debate for legislation in the House. Cannon and his top two lieutenants were called “the most powerful triumvirate known to parliamentary history” (House of Representatives). Cannon regarded the young Norris as “nominally a Republican”, an early way of calling him a RINO. However, he wasn’t alone in his opposition to Cannon and the numbers of dissatisfied Republicans were growing. This all came to a head on St. Patrick’s Day 1910. Many of Cannon’s supporters were at home in their districts attending the day’s events when Norris motioned to bar the Speaker from sitting on the Rules Committee and expanding the committee’s membership. He won this battle against Cannon and in 1912, he supported Theodore Roosevelt over President Taft in the presidential election, supporting his moderate progressivism. Like numerous other progressives of his day, Norris saw political issues in the frame of black and white, right and wrong. In 1912, he won election to the Senate.
Support and Opposition to Wilson
Norris was one of the Republicans more open to Wilson’s progressive measures, including voting for the Federal Reserve Act and anti-trust legislation. However, he would, as most Republicans did, vote against the Underwood Tariff in 1913, which reduced tariffs and enacted an income tax. Norris by contrast would butt heads with Wilson repeatedly on foreign affairs.
George W. Norris was one of only six senators to vote against American involvement in World War I and also defended civil liberties during wartime. He voted against both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Norris would also stand as one of the “irreconcilables”, a group of around fifteen senators who would not agree to the Versailles Treaty under any circumstances. Their view prevailed in the Senate at the time and no treaty was ratified.
Amending the Constitution
George W. Norris supported multiple efforts to amend the Constitution. Successful efforts he supported included women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, Prohibition, repeal of Prohibition, and the income tax. Norris defended his stand on Prohibition in 1930, stating, “I speak as one who believes in…prohibition…For more than forty years, both as a public official and as a private citizen[,] I have favored prohibition in all the contests and battles which have taken place on that subject during that time… [The wets] believe it is a wrongful intrusion upon their personal rights. I do not agree with these men…It seems to me they should be broad enough and fair enough, even if they feel we are giving up some of our personal rights and personal privileges, to see that this greatest evil of all mankind is driven from the homes of the American people” (Folsom, 72). He also supported unsuccessful efforts at ending the Electoral College and an amendment banning child labor. He also has to his name the 20th Amendment, which he authored and sponsored, that abolished the “lame duck” session of Congress, in which legislators had four months to legislate after an election.
Norris and The Three Republican Presidents
The 1920s were not a good time for Norris politically. He was often critical of key policies of these presidents, including on taxes and tariffs. Norris supported aid for farmers in the form of the McNary-Haugen Act, which was opposed by both Coolidge and Hoover. He also supported veterans bonuses, opposed by the Republican presidents for cutting into their income tax reduction agenda. Norris opposed a proposal to have Henry Ford purchase Wilson Dam from the government for $5 million to generate power for the Muscle Shoals area. He and other progressives put up enough of a fight against it for Ford to withdraw the offer. Norris would be vilified by some in the South and would receive death threats over his opposition. However, his plan was for the government to not only power the Wilson Dam but build other dams to generate power. This one was opposed by conservative Republicans who regarded it as socialist. However, such an act of socialism would be embraced by the people of Muscle Shoals as well as the government in the following decade.
In 1928, Norris did not endorse his party’s nominee, Herbert Hoover, instead backing Democrat Al Smith. In retaliation, Republican regulars tried to sabotage his renomination bid in 1930 by attempting to place a grocer named George W. Norris on the ballot to split the vote. However, Norris’s position in Nebraska was solid at the time and he prevailed.
The Golden Years: Norris and the New Deal, 1933-1939
The first six years of the Roosevelt Administration would arguably be the time in which the direction of the nation best fit with Norris’s views. Norris had endorsed Roosevelt for president, and Roosevelt took special care to court progressive Republicans like him. This contributed to the idea that Roosevelt was in essence a continuation of the greatness of his fifth cousin, Theodore. Norris would support most New Deal legislation and sponsor the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. He had gone from a figure condemned in the region for his blocking of Henry Ford’s purchase bid to one of the most celebrated. To this day one of the dams built by the TVA is named the Norris Dam. Roosevelt would call him “the very perfect gentle knight of American progressive ideals” (U.S. Senate). In 1934, he campaigned for the state of Nebraska to have a unicameral and non-partisan legislature, which passed. To this day, Nebraska is the only state to have such a legislature. However, Norris maintained a degree of independence and in 1935 voted against the United States joining the World Court. Although President Roosevelt supported this proposal, he didn’t push hard for it and it ultimately died. In 1936, Norris decided to run for reelection as an Independent rather than a Republican, as he was already solidly tied with the Roosevelt Administration, Republicans weren’t going to get back their majority any time soon, and he was also officially endorsed by the Nebraska Democratic Party, which chose to ignore their own candidate, former Congressman Terry Carpenter. He won his three-way race by six points. Although numerous sources I’ve found have claimed that Norris opposed FDR’s court packing plan, he was one of 20 votes against shelving the measure on July 22, 1937.
Civil Rights: A Mixed Legacy
Although Norris was known as one of the most liberal people in the Republican Party, he time and again opposed anti-lynching legislation, like his colleague William Borah of Idaho. He feared that such a bill passing would result in a second War of the Rebellion (Barnes, 6). However, towards the end of his career he supported the first legislative proposal to ban the poll tax in 1942. Norris’s view of how the South dealt with black people was that they did well under the circumstances. And although it is true Southern whites could have done much, much worse, a system of second-class citizenship and informal social terror is hardly what I would call doing well.
A Changing Nebraska and the End
By 1940, Nebraska was one of the least friendly states for FDR and progressivism as a whole. Norris had become thoroughly identified with the Roosevelt Administration, even changing his longstanding non-interventonism in 1937. This was in response to seeing the famous “Bloody Saturday” photograph of a burned Chinese baby crying in the aftermath of a Japanese bombing of a train station. Norris voted for the end of the arms embargo under the Neutrality Acts in 1939 and for Lend-Lease in 1941. However, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for the peacetime draft. Norris was getting up there in age and he was increasingly out of step with the trends. An exception to this was Norris’s new willingness to accept some restrictions on the power of organized labor, but he was the foremost figure in the state identified with the Roosevelt Administration, and unpopular the Administration was. Although he wanted another term in 1942 after being persuaded to run again by some of his loyal supporters, the Democrats decided to pick their own candidate, splitting the liberal vote and dooming his reelection effort. Norris lost to a former acolyte of his, Kenneth Wherry, who had moved to the right. He stated in defeat, “I have done my best to repudiate wrong and evil in government affairs” (Greenbaum, 7). Norris’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 31%. On August 29, 1944, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving him partially paralyzed and died on September 2nd. Norris had, however, completed his autobiography, Fighting Liberal, which was posthumously published.
Official Recognition Denied!
In the 1950s, a committee of senators took it upon themselves to name the greatest senators in American history. The list they came up with reflected regional and ideological inclinations and prides: Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Robert Taft of Ohio, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Robert La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin were in the top five. However, one figure who historians repeatedly named was Norris. The trouble? The senators from Nebraska at the time were Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska. Both men were hardcore conservatives and had been foes of Norris when he was a senator. They hinted they would cause a long debate in the Senate regarding the top five if Norris were to be considered. Many historians regardless think of him as one of the greats.
Barnes, H.W. (1969). Voices of Protest: W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Smith College.
Death of a “Gentle Knight”. United States Senate.
Folsom, B.W. (1999). No more free markets or free beer: the progressive era in Nebraska, 1900-1924. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Greenbaum, F. (2000). Men against myths: the progressive response. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Hill, R. Father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Knoxville Focus.
Kazek, K. (2013, January 17). Could Muscle Shoals have been a hub rivaling Detroit? Henry Ford thought so. AL.com.
The “Famous Five”. United States Senate.
To Recommit to the Committee on the Judicial Branch of Government. S. 1392, A Bill to Reorganize the Judiciary Branch. Govtrack.
Too Fast Too Furious: Uncle Joe Gets Driven Out. (2021, March 19). United States House of Representatives.
2 thoughts on “George W. Norris: The “Gentle Knight” of Progressivism”
Awesome article, Mike! I read a bit about Norris and the Muscle Shoals Bill a while back when heavily researching B. Carroll Reece; the Norris Bill was denounced by some conservatives like Reece as a communist conspiracy with roots from the Soviet Union.
In addition, it seems that Norris’ old-school progressivism and antipathy towards anti-lynching legislation, in spite of what contemporary mainstream academic narratives would have us come to believe, were not quite polar opposites. People nowadays tend to believe in the “pro-civil rights = liberal, anti-civil rights = conservative” line and think it applies throughout basically all of U.S. history, although it was more often the other way around in the pre-WWII era; the strongest support for anti-lynching bills came from the GOP bloc, which was generally conservative, while the Southern bloc were considerably left-wing until ideological shifts towards the right increased drastically in the mid- to late 1930s. Within the GOP, significant antipathy towards major civil rights measures often came from the progressives like Norris and Borah. A slightly similar example (arguably) would be George Aiken (who denounced the Taft wing as “Old Guard reactionaries”), who later in the CRA 1957 debate played a leading role in crafting the Anderson-Aiken Amendment which removed Title III. Of course, the old brand of progressive Republicanism died during the 1930s and 40s as some of its chief leaders like Norris and La Follette, Jr., were ousted by intraparty conservatives, and the new brand of moderate/liberal Republicans that would later flourish under Eisenhower proved to be somewhat better on civil rights as a bloc in general compared to their conservative counterparts.
A perfect example of the Southern change was none other than Norris’s partner on sponsoring the TVA, Mississippi’s John Rankin. He could be counted among the progressives for at least his first decade in Congress, and before his 1920 election even appeared to look favorably on the Bolshevik Revolution by including a favorable article on it in his newspaper without editorial comment. However, by FDR’s second term he was beginning to shift and by his third term he could be counted as among the foes of the Roosevelt Administration. While Rankin never changed his view on public power, he sided with the right on many other questions of government power, particularly price controls, and was one of the most outspoken anti-communists (although how he viewed Stalin is downright bizarre and attributable to his anti-Semitism).