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…

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