George William Norris

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George William Norris

George William Norris (1861-1944), U.S. congressman and senator, authored the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and sponsored numerous pieces of Progressive legislation.

George W. Norris was born on July 11, 1861, in Sandusky County, Ohio. He attended Northern Indiana Normal School (now Valparaiso University), where he received his bachelor of arts and law degrees. Returning to the family farm in 1883, he clerked in a local law office and taught school. He settled in Nebraska and in 1899 opened a law office in McCook, which remained his home until his death.

In 1892 Norris was elected Furnas County prosecutor and 3 years later, district judge. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1902, where he aligned himself with the Progressive wing of the Republican party. His most noteworthy achievement was his leadership of the 1910 rules fight which clipped the autocratic powers of the reactionary Speaker, Joseph G. Cannon.

In 1913 Norris was elected to the Senate. He voted against most of the Woodrow Wilson administration's domestic legislative program on the grounds that it was not sufficiently Progressive, and he bitterly opposed Wilson's foreign policy, even voting against the declaration of war against Germany. He was against American membership in the League of Nations and later opposed United States adherence to the World Court.

In the 1920s Norris was a leading supporter of farm relief legislation. He successfully blocked the sale to private interests of the hydroelectric facilities at Muscle Shoals, Ala., and in 1928 and 1931 he pushed through Congress legislation providing for government operation of the facilities. Although presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover vetoed the bills, Norris saw his dream realized with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority under the New Deal.

Norris was the cosponsor of the Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932), which outlawed labor contracts that made union membership a condition of employment and drastically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes; and the Norris-Rayburn Act (1936), which made the Rural Electrification Administration permanent. He was the father of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution (which eliminated the "lame-duck" Congress and changed the date for the president's inauguration) and was instrumental in Nebraska's adoption (1934) of a unique non-partisan, unicameral legislature.

Unlike most Progressives, Norris was a loyal supporter of the New Deal. Alarmed by the Nazi threat, he favored limited American intervention in Europe and backed Franklin Roosevelt's third-term bid in 1940. In 1936 he had formally renounced the Republican label and won reelection, with Roosevelt's endorsement, as an independent. In 1942 Norris again ran as an independent but was defeated. He died in McCook on Sept. 2, 1944.

Further Reading

Norris's autobiography is Fighting Liberal (1945). Richard Lowitt's George W. Norris: The Making of a Progressive, 1861-1912 (1963) and George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive, 1913-1933 (1971) are two volumes of a projected three-volume biography. Norman L. Zucker, George W. Norris: Gentle Knight of American Democracy (1966), analyzes Norris's political thought.

Additional Sources

Lief, Alfred, Democracy's Norris: the biography of a lonely crusade, New York: Octagon Books, 1977, 1939.

Lowitt, Richard, George W. Norris: the triumph of a progressive, 1933-1944, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Norris, George W. (George William), Fighting liberal: the autobiography of George W. Norris, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. □

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George William Norris was born July 11, 1861, in Sandusky County, Ohio. He graduated from Indiana Normal College in 1881 and pursued a career in law and politics.

After admission to the Ohio and Indiana bars in 1883, Norris established a law practice in Nebraska, where he also served as prosecuting attorney. He presided as a Nebraska district court judge from 1895 to 1902.

In 1903, Norris was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1910, he was instrumental in modifying the House rules so as to diminish the excessive powers of House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon.

In 1913, Norris was elected to the Senate, where he would serve for the next 30 years. He opposed the entry of the United States into world war i but generally supported the policies of President franklin delano roosevelt. During Roosevelt's administrations, Norris was involved in several important activities. In 1932, he drafted the twentieth amendment to the Constitution, which designated January 20 as the date of a presidential inauguration instead of the traditional March 4, thus eliminating the need for a "lame duck" congressional session. During that same year, he was instrumental in the passage of the norris-laguardia act (29 U.S.C.A. § 101 et seq.), which restricted the use of injunctions in labor disagreements. He also helped to draft measures for the establishment of the tennessee valley authority in 1933 and advocated programs for farm relief.

Norris died September 2, 1944, in McCook, Nebraska.

further readings

Norris, George William. 1992. Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris. Reprint. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.