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George the Giant Killer

Monday, June 20, 2011

George Norris was born in Ohio in 1861, the first year of America's great Civil War. By the time he was three years old his father and only brother had died, and George was raised in a household of women. At a young age he was fascinated by politics and the workings of the law. He was an avid reader, first following the campaign of Rutherford B. Hayes in the newspaper, and observing trials at the local court house whenever he got the chance.

At the age of 16 Norris landed a job teaching a small school, for the princely salary of $150, for a five month term -- "the most money I had ever seen." He continued to teach for several more years, even while he attended college. He finished his law degree at Valparaiso in Ohio in 1883, and immediately went west, first to Washington state, and then, in the mid-1880s, to Nebraska. He continued to teach for a time, to earn the money for his law library.

In Nebraska he settled first in Beatrice, and then moved to Beaver City, where he attempted to set up a law practice for the first time. On the side he invested in land, dabbled in the Mortgage Loan business, and sold fire insurance, while growing his law practice.

In 1889 Norris married Pluma Lashley, the daughter of a prominent Beaver City business man. They became the parents of three daughters.

Almost immediately after arriving in Beaver City Norris succumbed to the political bug and ran for the office of Prosecuting Attorney. He lost that race but was subsequently appointed to the office, which he served for three terms. He was elected to the office of Judge of the 14th Judicial District in 1895. The need for better travel arrangements, via the railroad, in getting around his eight Southwest Nebraska Counties, prompted his move to McCook in 1900.

The move to McCook coincided with a period of sadness for Norris. Within just a short time Norris' mother died unexpectedly, followed by the death of his wife, Pluma, giving birth to their third daughter. Norris plunged into his work as a release from his grief.

In 1902 Norris was elected to the McCook School Board. His work on that board brought him into contact with a teacher, Ellie Leonard. They were married in 1903.

In 1902 Norris ran a successful campaign for the House of Representatives, as a Republican. With a new bride on his arm he departed for Washington and a new career as a member of the House of Representatives.

In Congress Norris immediately felt the wrath and political clout of Republican Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon. Though at that time Norris was also a Republican, he chaffed under the dictatorial powers of the Speaker of the House. "I came under is displeasure early because I would not stay hitched to his cart."

Joseph Gurney Cannon had an amazing political career. He was a profane little man, pugnacious, with an animated speaking style. He was widely lampooned in the newspapers and magazines of the day, and referred to as "Uncle Joe." He had gotten his law degree in 1859, two years before Norris was born. He got his first political appointment from Abraham Lincoln, after the Civil War. He served in the House of Representatives for a total of 46 years, and was at the height of his political power when he served as the Speaker of the House from 1903-1911.

Cannon was from Illinois, the leader of the Republican Party, and to this day is considered to be the most powerful Speaker of the House in US history. His iron rule of the House of Representatives was such that he could make (or break) an incoming member of Congress, by giving them assignments that would put them into the limelight, or relegate them to the shadows of Congressional debate. His power was built on three great weapons, all inherited from Speakers of the past. 1. He controlled all Committee assignments. 2. Only Cannon could recognize members to speak before the House. 3. He was Chairman of the Rules Committee, referring bills to committees, to rule upon them as he chose, and ruling anything in or out of order at any time. He was known as "The Iron Duke of American politics." Norris was unhappy with Cannon's power, but as a new Congressman was in no position to act.

Cannon was fearless, and did not care whom he offended. Once, when President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Republican, dared to question Cannon's authority, saying that it was contrary to the Constitution, Cannon shouted, " ... I've got no more use for the Constitution than a tom cat has for a marriage license!"

George Norris wrote in his autobiography, "Mr. Cannon was no better, nor no worse than many men in Congress. He was capable in machine politics. He was perhaps the most efficient and the most articulate representative of that blighting philosophy in America, which places loyalty to party at the top of the list of duties and responsibilities of citizenship ... the single object of the insurgents ... was to take from the Speaker of the House the vast, brutal power, which the House rules gave him to control the action of individual members."

Norris soon gained the reputation among his colleagues, and to Speaker Cannon as well, as a discontent, and then as an insurgent, a fellow to be watched. After five year in the House Norris felt that his insurgents could make their case to curb Cannon's power in the House. Norris introduced his proposed legislation to the House, but through skillful maneuvering, Cannon quickly squelched the revolt, but did not squelch Norris.

George Norris was a patient man. He folded his resolution and put it back into his pocket. He would wait for a more favorable time. That time came on St. Patrick's Day in 1910, when Norris led a delegation of 42 Republicans and 146 Democrats (progressives in both parties), to advance his 1908 resolution once more. Norris believed that his time had come.

In an unprecedented series of parliamentary procedures Norris succeeded in bringing his motion to the House as a privileged resolution, and was able to keep the House in session for some 26 hours, when, over the strenuous efforts of Cannon to adjourn, the resolution was finally passed by a majority of House members. At the end of the day, Cannon had been stripped of the three main weapons that he had used to control his colleagues.

Joseph Cannon continued to serve in the House until 1922, but the great power he had exerted as Speaker was gone. He opposed Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. entry into World War II, and was very outspoken in his opposition to the League of Nations. On his last day in Congress, in 1922 he was featured on the cover of the very first Time magazine. He died peacefully at his home in Illinois of a weakened heart in 1926. He was 90 years old.

Despite the sometimes bitterness of their clashes, Norris and Cannon remained friends. Norris had crushed Cannon's power, but was not interested in crushing Cannon, the man. "I had no personal animosity toward the Speaker." When Norris moved to the Senate in 1913, Joseph Cannon was quoted as saying, "Throughout our bitter controversy, I do not recall a single instance when you have been unfair. I cannot say this of many of your associates; and I want you to know that if any of your damned gang had to be elected to the Senate, I would prefer it to be you more than any of them." Such is the strange relationship among politicians.

Source: McCook Gazette Centennial Edition; Time Magazine Jan. 15, 1973;

Nebraska State Historical Society/George Norris


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By