George Norris

George Norris

George William Norris was born in Sandusky, Ohio, on 11th July, 1861. His father, a small farmer, died in 1864 and the family lived in near poverty.

After graduating from Baldwin University he became a school teacher while continuing to study law. Norris was admitted to the bar in 1883 and practiced law in Furnas County before being elected district judge (1895-1902).

His first wife, Pluma Lashley died giving birth to her third child (Hazel, Marian and Gertrude). In 1903 Norris married Ellie Leonard, a schoolteacher from San Jose, California. In 1906 Ellie Norris gave birth to twin boys but they both died soon afterwards.

A member of the Republican Party, Norris was a member of the House of Representatives (1903-13) and the Senate (1913-43). An independent thinker he opposed United States entry into the First World War.

During the war the government built a hydro-electric plant and two munitions factories on the Tennessee River. After the war, Norris and John Rankin of Mississippi drafted a bill that would enable these facilities to be converted for peacetime purposes. Norris twice persuaded Congress to pass this legislation, but both times it was vetoed by the president, first by Calvin Coolidge, and then by Herbert Hoover. They both argued that as the plant would be government owned, it would be an example of socialist planning. Something that both men were strongly against.

Norris gradually emerged as the leader of the progressive wing of the party. Others with similar views to Norris in the Senate included William Borah, Henrik Shipstead, Bronson Cutting, Lynn Frazier, Robert LaFollette Jr., John Elmer Thomas and Burton K. Wheeler. Norris was also friendly with Huey P. Long.

Norris became disillusioned with the Republican Party and in 1928 he supported Alfred Smith, the democratic candidate for president, instead of Herbert Hoover. In 1932 presidential elections Norris campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt agreed with what Norris was trying to do and believing it would stimulate the economy of one of the poorest regions in the United States, gave it his full support. On 10th April, 1933, Roosevelt asked Congress to set up the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The munitions factory became a chemical plant manufacturing fertilizers and the hydroelectric plant now generated power for parts of seven states (Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi). The first of the TVA's dams was named Norris Dam.

The support he gave to Franklin D. Roosevelt upset the Republican Party and in 1936 Norris was forced to stand as an independent in Nebraska. He won but was defeated in his attempt to get elected in 1942. George William Norris died in McCook, Nebraska, on 2nd September, 1944. His autobiography, Fighting Liberal, was published in 1945.

Primary Sources

(1) (1)George Norris, Fighting Liberal (1945)

President Harding was one of the most kindly and amiable of men. It seemed to me that instinctively he reposed too much confidence in his friends, and that he shrank from giving hurt. That generous judgment did not account for the developments of the following months which shocked the American people.

In the Senate he had been a dependable conservative in all of his thought and his votes.

In the White House he symbolized Ohio political machine politics. There came to Washington on the heels of this new administration a curious crew, with an amazingly blunted, repulsive conception of public service and the responsibilities of public office.

Even more significant, the currents of national thought reversed themselves. Great wealth took possession of the government. It was reflected in Mr. Harding's selection of a cabinet. It characterized all political utterances. The stock phrase, "Less government in business, and more business in government" was, I recognize, a natural reaction against the necessary regimentation of people in wartime. But it brought into the places of high responsibility men who could

not be expected to have a far-sighted view of public service, combining qualities of unselfishness and high devotion to public trust.

It was not long before Washington, the most sensitive of all American cities to scandal, buzzed with gossip.

(2) (2)George Norris, speech (4th April, 1917)

While I am most emphatically and sincerely opposed to taking any step that will force our country into the useless and senseless war now being waged in Europe, yet, if this resolution passes, I shall not permit my feeling of opposition to its passage to interfere in any way with" my duty either as a senator or as a citizen in bringing success and victory to American arms. I am bitterly opposed to my country entering the war, but if, notwithstanding my opposition, we do enter it, all of my energy and all of my power will be behind our flag in carrying it on to victory.

The resolution now before the Senate is a declaration of war. Before taking this momentous step, and while standing on the brink of this terrible vortex, we ought to pause and calmly and judiciously consider the terrible consequences of the step we are about to take. We ought to consider likewise the route we have recently traveled and ascertain whether we have reached our present position in a way that is compatible with the neutral position which we claimed to occupy at the beginning and through the various stages of this unholy and unrighteous war.

No close student of recent history will deny that both Great Britain and Germany have, on numerous occasions since the beginning of the war, flagrantly violated in the most serious manner the rights of neutral vessels and neutral nations under existing international law, as recognized up to the beginning of this war by the civilized world.

The reason given by the President in asking Congress to declare war against Germany is that the German government has declared certain war zones, within which, by the use of submarines, she sinks, without notice, American ships and destroys American lives. The first war zone was declared by Great Britain. She gave us and the world notice of it on the 4th day of November, 1914. The zone became effective Nov. 5, 1914. This zone so declared by Great Britain covered the whole of the North Sea. The first German war zone was declared on the 4th day of February, 1915, just three months after the British war zone was declared. Germany gave fifteen days' notice of the establishment of her zone, which became effective on the 18th day of February, 1915. The German war zone covered the English Channel and the high seawaters around the British Isles.

It is unnecessary to cite authority to show that both of these orders declaring military zones were illegal and contrary to international law. It is sufficient to say that our government has officially declared both of them to be illegal and has officially protested against both of them. The only difference is that in the case of Germany we have persisted in our protest, while in the case of England we have submitted.

What was our duty as a government and what were our rights when we were confronted with these extraordinary orders declaring these military zones? First, we could have defied both of them and could have gone to war against both of these nations for this violation of international law and interference with our neutral rights. Second, we had the technical right to defy one and to acquiesce in the other. Third, we could, while denouncing them both as illegal, have acquiesced in them both and thus remained neutral with both sides, although not agreeing with either as to the righteousness of their respective orders. We could have said to American shipowners that, while these orders are both contrary to international law and are both unjust, we do not believe that the provocation is sufficient to cause us to go to war for the defense of our rights as a neutral nation, and, therefore, American ships and American citizens will go into these zones at their own peril and risk.

Fourth, we might have declared an embargo against the shipping from American ports of any merchandise to either one of these governments that persisted in maintaining its military zone. We might have refused to permit the sailing of any ship from any American port to either of these military zones. In my judgment, if we had pursued this course, the zones would have been of short duration. England would have been compelled to take her mines out of the North Sea in order to get any supplies from our country. When her mines were taken out of the North Sea then the German ports upon the North Sea would have been accessible to American shipping and Germany would have been compelled to cease her submarine warfare in order to get any supplies from our nation into German North Sea ports.

There are a great many American citizens who feel that we owe it as a duty to humanity to take part in this war. Many instances of cruelty and inhumanity can be found on both sides. Men are often biased in their judgment on account of their sympathy and their interests. To my mind, what we ought to have maintained from the beginning was the strictest neutrality. If we had done this, I do not believe we would have been on the verge of war at the present time. We had a right as a nation, if we desired, to cease at any time to be neutral. We had a technical right to respect the English war zone and to disregard the German war zone, but we could not do that and be neutral.

(3) George Norris, letter to Walter Locke, editor of the Nebraska State Journal, about the formation of the League of Nations (18th March, 1918)

During practically all of my public life, I have been a sincere advocate of an agreement between the leading nations of the world to set up all the necessary international machinery that would bring about a practical abolition of war between civilized nations. I advocated it long before the great world war commenced, and to keep the American government in a position to lead in such a movement, I used it as one of the arguments against our entering into the war. I thought we should be better able to lead if we stayed out. I may have been mistaken in this because subsequent events have determined that we are now in such a position that if we unite upon a fair and honorable plan, the entire civilized world will be disposed to follow. I realize that no such thing can be brought about unless every man and every nation approaches the subject with a willingness to compromise, with a willingness even to sacrifice some of his own cherished opinions, in order to bring the nations together. Nothing has ever happened in my life in which I felt a deeper interest or for which I would make a greater sacrifice. I am willing that somebody else shall get all the honor and all the praise if this cherished thing can be realized.

I think we ought to take the world as it is and not as we would like to have it. It seems, therefore, inadvisable to me to enter into any agreement that would make it necessary for us or, for that matter, for any other nation to maintain standing armies for the support of new and independent governments that it is intended to establish among semi-civilized people. Such a course not only is dangerous and will in my judgment bring failure to that part of the enterprise, but it is in no sense necessary to maintain the peace of the world. The right kind of a league between nations that can be numbered on the fingers of one hand will insure a permanent peace.

Our activities would not be confined to Europe and Asia, but we would have on that theory ample reasons to go into Mexico and other countries located in the western hemisphere. There is not much danger of the smaller nations if the big nations will behave.

We ought to disarm Germany completely. We ought to disarm Turkey completely. We ought to disarm Austria. We ought to destroy every fort along every international boundary line in Europe. This would be an easy thing to do if we and our allies would announce that it must be done. And when it is done, we ought to follow the example by disarming ourselves. No nation ought to keep a navy larger than is necessary to do police duty. If the world is disarmed, and remains disarmed, there will be no more world wars. If these leading nations would agree, in addition to this, that an international court of arbitration should be set up, that no nation should engage in conquest, that no secret treaty would be entered into or recognized, the danger of war would be as completely averted as it is possible for human beings to avert it. The constitution ought to specifically state that every nation is left entirely independent and supreme in its internal affairs, such as regulating emigration and all other similar matters.

(4) George Norris wrote about the Teapot Dome Scandal in his autobiography, Fighting Liberal (1945)

Still another impressive bit of evidence of national apathy presented itself in the Teapot Dome scandal. It had its origin in the early months of the Harding administration. It became the subject of common gossip in Washington, and yet no betrayal of public trust resisted exposure and punishment more tenaciously.

Teapot Dome involved the conservation of the oil resources of the United States, especially those situated upon the public lands. The investigation of alleged irregularities had been in progress for some time, under the auspices of the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys, when the decision was reached to institute court action to cancel the leases granted to private interests at Teapot Dome and Elk Hills.

My old friend Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, always alert and vigilant, had introduced and procured passage of the two resolutions - Senate Resolution 282, and Senate Resolution 294 - authorizing the Public Lands Committee to make the inquiry. Out of it came the evidence supporting the inescapable conviction that immense combinations of wealth, large corporations, under leases fraudulently obtained, were systematically robbing the government of the oil stored in the public lands by Nature. The evidence pointed straight to the guilt of a former colleague, A. B. Fall of New Mexico, who had become Secretary of the Interior.

(5) George Norris, statement on the financial policies of Andrew Mellon (December, 1925)

The revenue bill as passed in the House is indefensible. In a nutshell it is a millionaires' bill. Practically all the reductions made are on the taxes of the incomes of those who are immensely wealthy Mr. Mellon himself gets a larger personal reduction than the aggregate of practically all the taxpayers in the state of Nebraska. The reduction of inheritance taxes on big fortunes contained in this bill is a greater step backward than has been taken by Congress since the war. It was passed by the House without fair consideration, without reasonable opportunity for debate, and is a demonstration of the working of the new rules just adopted by that body, enabling a few men who are alleged leaders to dominate the House and handle it as completely as the master controls his servant.

(6) George Norris wrote about the Tennessee Valley Authority in his autobiography, Fighting Liberal (1945)

Norris Dam, provided for under the original TVA act, is about twenty miles to the northwest of Knoxville on the Clinch River, a Tennessee tributary. It holds back the largest amount of flood waters except that which will be impounded by Kentucky Dam. Norris Dam has had a very material effect upon the navigability of the Tennessee River itself and upon the floods of the Tennessee, Ohio, and the Mississippi. It holds back the surplus waters of a number of Tennessee tributaries which otherwise would discharge a huge volume of water into the main river at a time when flood conditions are aggravated.

In 1937 one of the most damaging floods east of the Mississippi that have ever been recorded would have been intensified had it not been for the effect of Norris Dam upon the flow of the Ohio and the Mississippi.

The city of Cairo, located on the Ohio River, between the mouth of the Ohio and the mouth of the Tennessee, often has been damaged greatly by floods. There is no doubt but the city would have been engulfed and possibly destroyed in this particular case had it not been for Norris Dam.

It may seem impossible that Norris Dam, roughly seven hundred miles distant from Cairo by river, should have saved that city from destruction. Yet the waters of the Ohio at Cairo had risen to the danger point and then above, the levees for the city's protection were in danger of being washed out. At the critical hour, eminent engineers, making careful computations, reached the conclusion that the huge volume of flood waters stored back of Norris Dam had saved Cairo and had greatly diminished the floods along the entire Ohio and Mississippi.

(7) Harold L. Ickes, The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon (1943)

I have attempted to sketch briefly PWA's direct contribution to national defense. Because of the leeway that it had under the law to make grants to cover the entire cost of Federal projects, PWA was able to undertake some others that, while useful in peacetime, are just as important for war purposes as are munitions themselves.

I particularly have in mind hydroelectric power developments. Where would we be today with a scarcity of power already making itself felt, and a greater lack facing us during the next few years, if we had not gone in for the most stupendous program of power development in history?

We claim no credit for the conception of Boulder Dam or of the TVA. But we hurried Boulder Dam to completion after we came in in 1933 and finished it two years ahead of schedule. The power now being generated there is indispensable to the war. And while the main credit for the TVA must gratefully go to that really fine elder statesman, George W. Norris, the records will show that it was PWA encouragement - encouragement in the form of coin of the realm - that gave it not only the means but the opportunity to expand into the vitally important project that it is.

(8) George Norris wrote about Lend Lease in his autobiography, Fighting Liberal (1945)

No single piece of legislation attracted my attention more than the program of Lend-Lease. I took a great interest in its passage by Congress; and I believe that it not only has shortened the war, perhaps by years, but may have saved the free peoples of the world.

In the Senate the Lend-Lease bill produced one of the bitterest struggles of a bitter period. I never could understand from the arguments developed in the debate why any member of the Senate objected to the passage of the act. In all of the discussion, it seemed to me, the opposition to Lend-Lease closed its eyes and refused to recognize the circumstances responsible for the proposal.

Hitler's triumphs had simplified America's choice. Either this country could accept him and try to get along with him, or it had to stem the march of his armies in his plan of world conquest. I place no faith in his protestation of a peaceful attitude toward the countries of the western hemisphere. His every deed and utterance established that once he had made himself supreme in Europe, Africa, and Asia the next step would be conquest of the Americas.

When I voted for Lend-Lease, under which the President was authorized to make contracts with the governments of nations opposing the Axis powers for weapons and supplies of war, it was a very minor consideration to me whether the beneficiaries of Lend-Lease made repayment for the material furnished them. I felt strongly that the United States should be glad to furnish this assistance, even if it never was repaid, because the sacrifice of human life which our ultimate allies made was infinitely greater than the financial sacrifice involved.