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Omnibusted.

February 22, 2008, 4:15 pm

On this day in 1889, Grover Cleveland signed into law the omnibus admissions bill that brought the Dakotas, Montana, and Washington into the union as states—which might seem unremarkable enough on the face of it, but in fact poses one of the few Genuine Historical Mysteries I have lying around. This is a dissertation waiting to happen, people. Or at least an article. Or else one of you is going to email me to say that someone has already done it, and I will feel I have been ignorant (which is an unpleasant if familiar feeling, trust me, but I’d rather feel I have been ignorant than go on being ignorant).

Before I get into this, if you’re from the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona or Nevada and especially sensitive about how your state became a state, why don’t you accept my happy stativersary wishes and not click on the rest of the post? Mormons, Mormon-haters, racists, Democrats, and Republicans may also be offended. Also, proponents of plural marriage and opponents of polygamy. Probably, also, everyone else. This is a pretty obnoxious blog, isn’t it?

Those of you who venture below the fold have been warned.

As I get it, this is a story about corruption in the late nineteenth-century. Not the penny-ante, vote-stealing kind of corruption, but the grand, manipulation-of-the-electorate-in-broad-daylight kind of corruption.

On the eve of the omnibus bill, Dakota is the most Republican-voting territory: in territorial elections Democrats garner on average only about 27% of the vote. Washington state is also pretty reliably Republican—maybe 43% Democratic—so there’s no surprise that Congressional Republicans support its admission, too.

As it happens, Dakota and Washington are also the two most populous territories out there, so there’s some logic in admitting them to the Union as states.

The next three most populous territories are Utah, New Mexico, and Montana, in that order. They’re also Democratic territories: in territorial elections Montana goes 57% Democratic, New Mexico 51%, and Utah a whopping 86% Democratic on average. So it’s not surprising that Congressional Democrats back the admission of New Mexico and Montana as states, to balance Dakota and Washington. And if you think about Utah for, oh, five seconds <cough>Big Love</cough> you know why, despite that overwhelming electoral support in the territorial canvasses, Democrats don’t push too hard to give the Utahans statehood.

Now, in the fiftieth Congress (which sat 1887-1889), Democrats have the House, Republicans the Senate, and Cleveland, the President, is a Democrat. So there’s room for partisan compromise: statehood for Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, and Montana. Partisan balance, as far as Senators go: four apiece.

Except: Republicans figure that if you’re gonna have a state that’s as reliably as Republican as Dakota looks, you ought to have two of it. So they put a bill before the Senate to split it. Democrats know what’s up: “The effect … will be to seat upon this floor two [extra] Republican Senators, and settle, perhaps, for some time to come, the question of political supremacy in this body,” says Senator Matthew Butler of South Carolina. Other D’s agree. The bill goes through the Senate on a party-line vote. In the Democratic-controlled House, the committee on territories reports the bill unfavorably, and it’s dead.

In the 1888 elections, both parties run on presidential platforms supporting some manner of statehood. The Democrats say:

the Territories of Washington, Dakota, Montana and New Mexico are, by virtue of population and development, entitled to admission into the Union as States, and we unqualifiedly condemn the course of the Republican party in refusing Statehood and self-government to their people.

And the Republicans say in similar wise but with the opposite partisan slant:

The pending bills in the Senate to enable the people of Washington, North Dakota and Montana Territories to form constitutions and establish State governments, should be passed without unnecessary delay.

They also weasel thusly:

The Republican party pledges itself to do all in its power to facilitate the admission of the Territories of New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho and Arizona to the enjoyment of self-government as States, such of them as are now qualified, as soon as possible, and the others as soon as they may become so.

And for good measure, they add:

The political power of the Mormon Church in the Territories as exercised in the past is a menace to free institutions too dangerous to be longer suffered.

So forget it, Big Love.

In the ever-so-close 1888 elections, Cleveland wins the popular vote but loses the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison, and in addition the Republicans take the House and keep the Senate.

So facing two years in which the R’s will enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress and hold the presidency, what do the lame-duck Democrats do? You got it, they pass a bill that dumps New Mexico, admits two Dakotas, Washington, and Montana—which is to say, they add six presumptively Republican senators and two presumptively Democratic senators. And the Democratic president signs it.

For the love of Mike, why? As Charles Dougherty (Democrat of Florida) says, “I am unable to understand why a bill which is characterized as an ‘omnibus bill,’ coming from the Democratic side of the House, should undertake to bring in all the Republican Territories of the United States and exclude the Democratic Territories. [Laughter and applause.]… Let in Arizona, and Utah; they will both be Democratic States. New Mexico will also be Democratic.”

Nope. As Francis Spinola (Democrat of New York) complained, “we on this side are to concede everything here….” And they did.

Why? Explanations tend to be exceeding sketchy, of the nature of, well, the Republicans had won Congress and the presidency and were going to do as they pleased anyway…. But preemptively rolling over didn’t help; in the next year, the Republicans gave the legislative finger to New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, and instead admitted reliably GOP Idaho and Wyoming even though nobody1 lived there.

Nerves about the Spanish language and culture in New Mexico were assuredly part of the story, but not the whole thing. Many Democratic Congressmen didn’t even bother to vote on the omnibus bill, and twenty joined the Republicans in putting it through.

Did it matter? Yes: suppose after the Civil War western territories had instead been admitted at around the time their populations reached the size of the average Congressional district. The Democrats would have controlled Congress, and presumably policy, for large chunks of the late nineteenth century. (Idaho wouldn’t have been a state till 1904, Nevada till 19712, and Wyoming still wouldn’t qualify.)

I wonder also what the effect was on the disfranchisement campaigns that began in the South in 1889. For if Republicans, immediately after the awfully close 1888 election, were admitting western states to buttress their hold on the West, Democrats were depriving blacks of the vote to buttress their hold on the South. Mere weeks after Cleveland signed the omnibus statehood bill, the Tennessee state legislature passed its pioneering disfranchisement laws, inspiring the Memphis Appeal to run headlines reading “Safe at Last” and “Good-bye, Republicanism, Good-bye.” And in the long run, the Democratic effort to manipulate the electorate worked better than the Republican effort. But that’s another story.


1In the statistical, technical sense of “nobody.”
2There’s a whole other set of shenanigans around Nevada statehood, but that’s not till October.

See:

McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. “Congress and the Territorial Expansion of the United States.” In Party, Process, and Political Change in Congress: New Perspectives on the History of Congress, edited by David W. Brady and Mathew D. McCubbins, 392-451. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Perman, Michael. Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Stewart, Charles, III, and Barry R. Weingast. “Stacking the Senate, Changing the Nation: Republican Rotten Boroughs, Statehood Politics, and American Politica Development.” Studies in American Political Development 6 (1992): 223-71.

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