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 on George William Norris
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 Biography 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.