Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

NORRIS, GEORGE W. (1861-1944)

George William Norris represented Nebraska for forty years in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, passing significant liberal legislation as a maverick Republican and Independent. Norris was born on July 11, 1861, near Clyde, Ohio. He grew up on his family farm, where he learned temperance, fear of debt, and Lincoln Republicanism from his widowed mother. After graduating from Northern Indiana Normal School (later Valparaiso University), George failed as a lawyer in Walla Walla, Washington, and Beatrice, Nebraska, before moving to Beaver City and then McCook, Nebraska, where he married the daughter of a prominent family and became county attorney and then district judge.

In 1902 he was elected as a Republican to Congress; he spent the next ten years in growing disenchantment with Republican leaders and extreme partisanship. He led a revolt of insurgents and Democrats to limit the powers of the Speaker of the House, Republican Joe Cannon, in 1910, which earned Norris a chapter in John Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. Election to the Senate in 1912, again as a Republican, gave Norris a national platform as a political and economic democrat often at odds with Republican leadership. He supported unreservedly the initiative, referendum, recall, a strong civil service, and abolishing the Electoral College and the poll tax. He opposed the excesses of partisanship.

Endorsing Franklin Roosevelt's successful candidacy in 1932 changed Norris's role from gadfly critic to architect of major legislation. Economic democracy was the recurring theme of Norris's legislation. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 curtailed federal court injunctions against labor unions. Norris introduced and enabled passage that same year of the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended lame-duck sessions of Congress, notorious for special interest influence.

Norris took his greatest satisfaction from passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933, which harnessed hydroelectric power under public ownership. Rural electric cooperatives brought light and power to American farms under the Norris-Rayburn Act of 1936. In Nebraska, Norris successfully led the 1934 petition drive for a nonpartisan unicameral to limit special interest and party boss influence. His final Senate term was as an Independent, and he lost his 1942 reelection bid. An autobiography, The Fighting Liberal, was finished eight weeks before his death at McCook on September 2, 1944.

David Landis Nebraska Legislature

Lowitt, Richard. George W. Norris: The Making of a Progressive, 1861–1912. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1963.

Lowitt, Richard. George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive, 1913–1933. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Lowitt, Richard. George W. Norris: The Triumph of a Progressive. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

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