On March 1, we celebrate Nebraska’s 152nd birthday — and we have a lot to be cheerful about. Our state continually ranks as one of the happiest, our agriculture continues to feed nations around the world and our school systems consistently rank among the best in the country.
It’s also worth pausing to appreciate a man whose democratic legacy endures today. McCook’s George Norris fundamentally changed the ways we pass laws in Nebraska and continuously worked to better the lives of people across our nation.
In Nebraska history circles, Norris is perhaps best known as the man who brought unicameralism to our state. Children and adults touring the State Capitol are told about how he ventured to Australia, saw the virtues of a one-house government and brought the gospel of a unicameral system back to Nebraska. But Norris’ legacy is so much more than just creating a unique state legislature. He helped bring electricity to the most rural parts of the country and moved the United States to more democratically elect its leaders.
It was not always obvious that Norris would accomplish so much. He was the 11th child of a family of poor farmers. His father died when he was four. In college, he would take semesters off to farm and teach so he could pay his way. Moving to Nebraska after he had received his law degree, Norris was a judge and saw firsthand how farmers were suffering from their inability to pay back loans. In his concern for their well-being, he found a legal method for preventing farmers from losing their land.
When he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Norris took his spirit of looking out for the little guy to Washington. When Congress was firmly under the control of Speaker Joseph G. Gannon of Illinois, Norris led a revolt with other House members to break up the Speaker’s power so that more voices could be heard and different bills brought to the floor.
Because he was a Republican acting against a Republican, his actions drew criticism from his own party. However, Norris’ career would show that what was more important to him was what he thought was right, not what was best for his party or his re-election. “I would rather go down to my political grave with a clear conscience than ride in the chariot of victory,” Norris once said.
As a U.S. senator, Norris would work on some of his most far-reaching achievements. First, through sponsoring the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, Norris worked to make sure that new jobs, as well as electricity, reached the basin of the Tennessee River — an area heavily hurt by the Great Depression. Secondly, by sponsoring the Rural Electrification Act, Norris ensured almost every place in America would have access to electric power.
Through the rest of his tenure, Norris would advocate for direct election of U.S. Senators, oppose President Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack the court” with supporters, and trumpet government transparency. Eventually, after failing to gain support from either the Democratic or Republican parties in 1942, he lost re-election.
On Nebraska’s birthday, Norris’ actions are an inspiration to every Nebraskan — and every American — to do everything we can to help our communities, to better the lives of our fellow citizens and to be active in our government. Norris believed good government relied upon citizens who regularly engaged with it: “to get good government and to retain it, it is necessary that a liberty-loving, educated, intelligent people should be ever watchful, to carefully guard and protect their rights and liberties,” he said. These words are echoed in the quote that welcomes visitors into our Capitol: The Salvation of the State is the Watchfulness of the Citizen.
Today, let’s remember Nebraska’s George Norris, the 11th child of poor farmers, who advocated for open government, efficient legislating, and electricity for every American. Let’s do our part to keep on that wonderful legacy.