Constitutional Convention Adjourns; New State Ready to Operate
August 17, 1889
It all began with a gala parade on July Fourth. Banners and flags waved in the summer breeze; five hundred Sioux from Standing Rock marched with Sitting Bull in the lead, carrying the American flag. The town was filled with people who celebrated the nation’s birthday and the advent of the constitutional convention.
Now the convention is over and North Dakota has its constitution. The forty-five days of debate—sometimes violent argument—has come to an end.
Erastus A. Williams, a Bismarck lawyer, introduced a draft constitution on the first day of the gathering. Where did a completed constitution come from? Speculation and rumor ran rampant. Was it the handiwork of Boss Alexander McKenzie who controls the state’s politics? Did the powerful railroads, which have hired McKenzie as their lobbyist, have one drawn up so the convention would favor them in their deliberations? Williams refused to divulge the origin of his draft. It has become common knowledge, however, that Henry Villard, the chairman of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s board, had asked Professor James Thayer of the Harvard Law School to prepare a model constitution. Was this a dishonest attempt to favor the railroads? Most argue that it was an honest effort to give the delegates a place to begin their deliberations. Many changes were made in the Thayer draft.
Distrust of large corporations and their influence dominated much of the debate and actions. Judge Thomas M. Cooley in his address to the convention told the assembly that it must trust government, concluding, “Don’t in your constitution legislate too much.” The delegates did not take the Judge’s advice. They produced a very long and detailed document in which the distrust of corporate influence took the form of limiting the powers of the legislature and the governor. For example, schools, railroads, and school lands were placed under independent boards.
The delegates have argued many questions: the shape of the legislature, capital punishment, child labor, women’s right to vote, voter registration — to name a few. But no issue was argued more vehemently than or as long as the establishment and placement of state institutions. Delegates knew that those who sent them to Bismarck expected to gain an institution for their town or region. This was a dollar and cents issue. A state institution could make or break a town.
Four institutions already existed when the convention opened: the penitentiary and capital in Bismarck, the “insane asylum” in Jamestown, and the University in Grand Forks. After days of hidden struggles and deal-making, the delegates accepted Article XIX which provided ten new institutions and assured most towns with any population of a piece of the pie.
Bismarck held the capital; Grand Forks, the University; and Jamestown, the Asylum. An agricultural college went to Fargo; normal (teacher-training) schools to Mayville and Valley City; a reform school to Mandan; and a school of science to Wahpeton. Ellendale received an industrial school and Devils Lake got a school for the “deaf and dumb.” An old-soldiers’ home went to Lisbon. Some institutional placements were less specific: a school for the blind in Pembina County; a school of forestry to be located somewhere in Rolette, Ward, McHenry, or Bottineau Counties.
The delegates avoided the question of prohibition. That issue will be soon submitted to a vote of the people when they vote on the Constitution.
“We came here to do a job,” commented Erastus Williams, “and we have done it. Now let the people ratify our work.”
Bulletin — Constitution, Prohibition Approved
Bismarck, October 5, 1889
Voters ratified the new constitution by a wide majority, 27,441 to 8,107. The prohibition article narrowly passed, 18,552 to 17,393. It took four days to count the ballots. North Dakota will become a state.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.