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A Progressive Hero

George W. Norris: The Making of a Progressive, 1861-1912

by Richard Lowitt
Syracuse, 341 pp., $7.95

For my generation, coming of age politically in the 1930s, Senator George W. Norris was unquestionably the hero in the Senate, doubtless with reason. He stood for all the good causes—consistently, discriminatingly, and without regard to partisan affiliation. He showed a kind of dogged integrity that was all but irresistible, and in his austere passion for the general welfare he seemed to represent the best in American progressivism.

One of the problems posed for this, the first volume of a projected two-volume biography, is to explain why it is, then, that Norris, at least for the first fifty-one years of his life culminating in his election to the Senate in 1912, seems so uninteresting. Another is how one of the noble figures of our senatorial history emerged from his unlikely background. At the time of Norris’s election to the Senate, one might easily have predicted for him an honorable and at least moderately progressive career, but very little in the first two-thirds of his life offered any promise that he would become the ideal senator of American liberals for well over two decades.

Norris was born in 1861 in Sandusky County, Ohio, and raised in a large farm family. His father died when he was three, and he was raised by a God-fearing mother who disliked dancing and card playing, who could scarcely write, but who did read the Bible. He had what Professor Lowitt describes as a “sparse small-town education” which was “somewhat scant in cultural content, but stressed rhetoric and debate.” He was, as Lowitt makes clear, not a reflective thinker on politics and government, not a wide reader in history or biography. He did enjoy Dickens, and his favorite humorist was Petroleum V. Nasby. At a relatively early age he broke with formal religion, reading among other skeptical works John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. Perhaps, being thus far secularized, he put much of the moral urgency of his religious rearing into his civic life, but in his early years there was no sign that this would end by making any more of him than a reasonably scrupulous small-town lawyer and business man.

Norris’s formal education ended with graduation from Valparaiso Institute in Indiana, and his professional career in law began in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his mother happened to own eighty acres. His practice there started during the land boom of the 1880s, and Professor Lowitt points out in an illuminating and freshly researched sequence that a large part of his livelihood came from land speculation and his services as a collection agent and lawyer for various mortgage and loan companies—including one with a delightfully Brechtian ring to it, The Vigilant Wholesale Creditors’ Agency of Omaha, whose motto was: “The Race Is to the Swift.” In politics Norris was a firm Republican, and, as one might expect of an agent of such usurious outfits, a vigorous opponent of the Populists. In his first campaign for a place on the state bench, he narrowly edged out a Populist opponent amid cries (quite unjustified) of election fraud. To all outward appearances, he was well on his way to being a pillar of midwestern conservatism—a man, let us say, like the ineffable Kenneth Wherry, who ultimately unseated him from the Senate.

Norris lived in the comparative obscurity of Nebraska politics until he was forty-two, when he was first elected to Congress as a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. For a long time he concentrated on serving his constituents and staying in the good graces of the same Speaker Joseph Cannon whom he was later to depose. His first serious break with the safe and sound came in 1905 when, in supporting railroad regulation, he defied the Burlington Railroad, which was a power in Nebraska. From this moment onward, his personal independence grew to the point at which he was at last prepared to lead the insurgents in their fight against Cannon. By now he was a major figure in the Progressive camp. He supported LaFollette for the Republican nomination in 1912, but threaded his way between the Roosevelt and LaFollette forces with such caution that he kept the good will of both sides. He must have kept the good will even of the Democrats in his own state, for when he was chosen for the Senate in 1912—in an unprecedented unanimous action—it was by a Democratic legislature. His subsequent progressive career was built from a position of strength.

Norris was anything but a happy warrior. His carefully fashioned political career took place against a background of family disaster and oppressive personal melancholy. When he first went to Nebraska he accidentally shot himself in the face while hunting and was temporarily blinded. His friends found him on his knees groping for his gun to kill himself. In 1901, his first wife died, leaving him with three little girls. His second wife gave birth to twin boys who died. In 1911 one of his intermittent seizures of melancholy brought him to the brink of nervous collapse. He suffered terribly at times from a sense of his political isolation. In his autobiography, written in 1944 at the close of what so many of us thought a triumphantly constructive career, Norris remarked that he had been reluctant to write about “the struggling and somewhat discouraging life that I have lived from boyhood.”

Philosophically, Lowitt regards Norris as a figure out of the Jeffersonian tradition, though he seems certain that Norris never read Jefferson and did not look to him as a source of inspiration. In his first speech in Congress Norris declared: “It is at the rural fireside that virtue, morality, and patriotism have reached their highest state.” Throughout his career in the House he seems to have held to the view of the world, once characterized as “agrarian fundamentalism.” As late as 1911 he observed that it was “in the city that we have the slum and the breeding places of anarchy, ignorance, and crime. It is there we have the mob,” while “upon the farms are located the conservative, patriotic, and thinking voters of our country.” Professor Lowitt may well devote some of his second volume to showing how Norris got from this parochial, if standard, nineteenth-century view of the world to the enlarged views of his senatorial period, and how it was that a man who had expressed these notions should ever have come to sponsor such a pro-labor measure as the Norris-LaGuardia Act.

Lowitt conjectures, plausibly enough, that Norris saw what industrialism did to small-town America and that he became convinced that only centralized national authority could cope with the attendant evils. Something can be said too in defense of the potential political virtues of Christian rectitude and folkish democracy, which have produced other admirable political leaders in the United States. The difficulty is that the same reaction to industrialism and the same small-town virtues have often produced the most mean-spirited tendencies in our political life. Norris’s remarkable political growth remains more than a little enigmatic.

The fact that Norris lived half his life before the first sure signs of his progressivism became apparent is also in need of explanation—though a late-blooming sense of political commitment is not by any means unusual in our politics: witness the careers of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives; in some of our most significant lives what seems to be missing is an adequate first act.

One must leave the Norris puzzle to those who can unravel it. This is in fact basically what Professor Lowitt has done. His research is exemplary and at points strikingly original, and his findings, despite his admiration for Norris, are given with candor and detachment. But his book is too heavily freighted with undigested detail to make it palatable for the general reader, and he has left what the Germans would call das Norris-problem wide open.

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