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George William Norris

Norris circa 1913

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 3, 1913
Preceded by Ashton C. Shallenberger
Succeeded by Silas Reynolds Barton

In office
August 1926 – March 3, 1933
Preceded by Albert B. Cummins
Succeeded by Henry F. Ashurst

Born July 11, 1861
York Township, Sandusky County, Ohio
Died September 2, 1944 (aged 83)
McCook, Nebraska
Political party Republican (until 1936)
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. leader of progressive and liberal causes in Congress. He represented the state of Nebraska in the United States Senate from 1913 until 1943.

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 a woman named Pluma Lashley, who died in 1901; they had three daughters. Then he married Ellie Leonard in 1903; they had no children.


Political career

Norris relocated to the larger town of McCook in 1900, where he became active in local politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1902, with railroad support. He broke with them in 1906 and supported 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, not 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 nomination, then switched to Roosevelt. He refused to bolt the convention and join Roosevelt's Progressive Party and instead ran for the Senate as a Republican. As a leading Progressive Republican, Norris supported the direct election of senators and also the conversion of all state legislatures to the unicameral system, which was eventually implemented in 1934 in the Nebraska Legislature.

Norris supported some of Wilson's programs but became a die-hard isolationist, who feared 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.

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 only wanted to take part in this war because the wealthy had already aided 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," adding 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."[1]

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, and proposed to abolish the Electoral College. He failed on these issues in the 1920s, but did block Henry Ford's proposals to modernize the Tennessee Valley, insisting that it be 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 Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Norris supported Democrats Al Smith in 1928 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Republicans regulars called him one of the "sons of the wild jackass."

In 1932, along with Rep. Fiorello H. La Guardia, 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)

A staunch supporter of President Roosevelt's New Deal programs, Norris sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. In appreciation, the TVA Norris Dam and a new planned city in Tennessee were named after him.[2][3] Norris was also the prime Senate mover behind the Rural Electrification Act that brought electrical service to under-served and unserved rural areas across the United States.

Norris believed in the wisdom of the common people and in the progress of civilization.[4] "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 titled, "The Model Legislature." The people were capable of being the government, he said, affirming his populist/progressive credentials. [5]

Norris left the GOP in 1936 (since seniority in the minority party was useless, and the Democrats offered him chairmanships) and 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 plan to pack the Supreme Court, and railed against corrupt patronage. He was a half-hearted isolationist from 1939 until 1941. Unable to secure Democratic support in the state in 1942, he was defeated by Republican Kenneth S. Wherry.

He is one of the 8 senators profiled in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.

Norris also introduced the Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution.


The main north south road in McCook, Nebraska, Norris Avenue, is named after George Norris. George W. Norris Junior High 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.

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
United States 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


  1. ^ ["Opposition to Wilson's War Message"]
  2. ^ TVA: An American Ideal
  3. ^ TVA: Norris Reservoir
  4. ^ Charlyne Berens, One House, The unicameral's Progressive Vision for Nebraska (2005, University of Nebraska Press)
  5. ^ Robert F. Wesser, "George W. Norris, teh Unicameral Legislature and the Progressive Ideal," Nebraska History (December 1964)


External links



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