The Tools of Democracy and
the Woolly Rhinoceros Eaters
"In government, the
common trade of all men and the basis of all social life, men
worked still with old tools, and with old laws, with
constitutions and charters which hindered more than they helped.
Men suffered from this. There were lawyers enough; many of our
ablest men were lawyers. Why didn't some of them invent
legislative implements to help the people govern themselves? Why
had we no toolmakers for democracy?" -William S. U'ren
"As regards the
essential principles of government, the advocates of initiative
and recall are in hearty sympathy with their remote skinclad
ancestors who lived in caves and fought one another with
stoneheaded axes and ate the woolly rhinoceros."
"The initiative does
not promise either progress or enlightenment, leading rather to
doubtful experiments and to reactionary displays of prejudice
than to really useful legislation. The Referendum has dulled the
sense of responsibility among legislators without in fact
quickening the people to the exercise of any real control in
affairs." -Woodrow Wilson
House Speaker Tom Swayze explained recently that he is against
annual general elections because they might encourage greater use
of the Initiative and Referendum and thus weaken representative
government, he joined a debate that has been going on since Tom
Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton crossed philosophies in
Philadelphia but one with special significance for the Pacific
Northwest. It was here that the mechanism for direct legislation
was laid on the American system of government.
people think that the rights of Referendum, Initiative and Recall
are explicitly guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Not
so. They are comparatively modern and, indeed, are still sometimes
called The Oregon System, for the state which first adopted them.
founding fathers knew well what had happened in Greece when all
citizens voted on all things. But they knew too the evils of rule
by a self-perpetuating elite. They tried to create a system
whereby the citizens could choose men to represent them; the
representatives could inform themselves and determine which
policies would best serve the public interest.
government never worked perfectly and at times seemed not to work
at all. A century after the adoption of the Constitution, the
electorate learned of high-level hanky-panky in the financing of
the transcontinental railroads, low-level peddling of influence in
the state legislatures. They sought ways to make their
representatives more representative. Somebody noticed that, in
Switzerland, the people could veto laws passed by the legislature
and initiate laws which legislators ignored or pigeonholed.
man who gave this right to American voters was a frail, pale,
tubercular (but long-lived) ex-blacksmith named William S. U'ren.
His father was a blacksmith as were his father's seven brothers;
their father was a blacksmith, their father's father, and his
father, and his.
far back as the family could trace itself from Cornwell, which was
back into Holland, it was blacksmiths end to end. With preachers
added. Five of William S. U'ren's seven uncles preached, as had
predecessors innumerable but articulate, as did, in his own way,
combination of technology and teaching, Lincoln Steffans noted in
a profile, was built-in. He quotes U'ren as explaining in this
fashion how he became interested in the Initiative and the
Blacksmithing is my trade,
and it has always given color to my view of things. When I was
young, I saw some of the evils in the conditions of life, and I
wanted to fix them. I couldn't. There were no tools. We had
tools to do almost anything in the shop. Beautiful tools.
Wonderful. And so in other trades, arts and professions; in
everything but government.
In government, the common
trade of all men and the basis of all social life, men worked
still with old tools, and with old laws, with constitutions and
charters which hindered more than they helped. Men suffered from
this. There were lawyers enough: many of our ablest men are
lawyers. Why didn't some of them invent legislative implements
to help the people govern themselves? Why had we no tool makers
Thus William U'ren as reported by
Lincoln Steffens. Here let us note that U'ren was a tried and true
Believer: spiritualist, vegetarian, editor, lawyer and Populist
had been born in Wisconsin, worked west, was told he would soon
die of a weak chest, went to Hawaii where dying was said to be
easy, decided against it, returned to California, found it
overpopulated, and headed north. On the train platform in Oakland
he accepted a pamphlet handed him by an activist and arrived in
Oregon with his earlier interest in Henry George and the Single
Tax (a proposal to pay all the cost of government by siphoning off
in taxes the rising worth of property) rekindled.
Oregon, spiritualism rather than the single tax brought him into
contact with the Lewelling brothers, cherry farmers who tended an
orchard which traced its antecedents back to seedlings brought
west in covered wagons. The Lewellings were as political as they
were agricultural (they patented a cherry known as the Black
Republican, except in the South where it is the Lewelling), and
they involved U'ren with the newfound Farmers' Alliance and
Industrial Union. Its thesis was:
The power of trusts and
corporations has become an intolerable tyranny; the
encroachments of the landgrabbers have almost exhausted the
public domain; and the corruption of the ballot has rendered our
elections little less than a disgraceful farce.
U'ren agreed. But he was no man to
believe agreement enough. He arranged for a convention of people
of similar mental set his invitations ranged from the Chamber of
Commerce to the Knights of Labor and after they'd compromised
their differences they chose as secretary of what became the
Oregon People's Party (Populist), William S. U'ren.
was not happenstance. U'ren later told a friendly reporter that he
acted on the advise of an old-time political activist: "Never
be president. Never be conspicuous. Get a president and a
committee and let them go to the front. The worker must work
behind them, out of sight. Be secretary."
his interior location, U'ren worked to turn Oregon's third party
into an instrument for constitutional reform. He wasn't interested
in the Populists as people. He wanted to see the Populist make
available the Initiative process to the people. He believed they'd
use it to put across tax reform.
1897 the Oregon legislature was split three ways: Republican,
Democratic, Populist. The Populists were the smallest segment, but
they held the balance. U'ren, as boss, froze the balance. He
created a deadlock. He blocked the legislature from even getting
organized to start to get to work. The tactic created a scandal:
the Holdup Legislature. The notoriety served U'ren's purpose of
demonstrating what a little power could do. Everybody was talking
about the legislative process. Most of the comment was hostile to
U'ren. He didn't mind.
Professor Woodrow Wilson and, later, vice-president Theodore
Roosevelt came out against U'ren's idea of an initiative and a
referendum, he merely cited failures of representative government
failures more immediate and thus more calling to the voters than
theoretic long-range dangers. He was a superb tactician.
a small but disciplined block of votes in the Oregon legislature,
U'ren traded support with Republicans and Democrats on other
issues. He pushed constitutional amendments for initiative and
referendum votes through two successive sessions of the
legislature a superb bit of politicking and onto the ballot in
voters approved the initiative and referendum amendments by the
incredible margin of sixty-two thousand to fifty-six hundred.
set out to exploit his new advantage. He organized a direct
primary league designed to remove from the party conventions the
power of nominating candidates (it did), and a Power to the People
League designed to put on the ballot initiatives the legislature
was afraid to consider. Somehow U'ren was elected secretary of
Oregon, the Beaver State, was a laboratory for political reform,
gnawing at the heartwood of indirect government. The initiative
and referendum (and soon, the recall) became known as the Oregon
System. The first two initiatives advanced by U'ren's people's
power, people passed. They established the direct primary election
and local option prohibition.
years later, 1906, eleven measures went to the Oregon voters.
Among the eight adopted were home rule for the cities, the right
to recall officials, and the extension of the initiative and
referendum beyond state law to city ordinances. One that failed
was female suffrage.
Oregon System caught on. Most other western and some midwestern
states adopted the devices. Washington accepted the initiative,
referendum and recall in 1912 (and Seattle and Tacoma immediately
recalled Mayors Hiram Gill and Angelo Fawcett). By 1920, eighteen
states had given voters the right to initiate laws, twenty the
right to by the state legislatures.
then the movement faded. The Oregon System of direct legislation
led to many quick and beneficial reforms which might otherwise
have been long delayed. But it also created problems. Special
interests could use the process as they had used the legislatures.
And voters confronted with increasingly complicated proposed or
passed laws, protested that the ballot was "like voting a bed
quilt." It has been half a century since any state
constitution was changed or created to include the initiative, the
referendum or recall.
the new tools of democracy in hand, U'ren finally set out to
reform the tax structure. He tried but failed to get a single tax
initiative on the ballot. So, at long last, the eternal secretary
emerged from behind the committees and ran for Governor. He ran
third. But the instruments he created remain in the hands of the
people. And the debate about their utility goes on, loud if not