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Washington became the forty-second state of the United States of America on November 11, 1889. After a hiatus of thirteen years when no new states were admitted to the Union, the United States Congress passed an act enabling the territories of Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana to seek statehood. Before statehood could be conferred, a state constitution had to be written and passed by the Territories.
Washington’s constitutional convention was duly convened in Olympia, the territorial capital, on July 4, in crowded and swelteringly hot conditions. The delegates were chosen by a formula devised by Congress which required the governor and chief justice of the Supreme Court to divide the territory into twenty-five voting districts of approximately equal populations. Election was apportioned by the party affiliation: of the three delegates representing each district, two were of the majority party and one of a minority affiliation, thereby ensuring the dominance, but not the dictatorship, of the Republican Party. (Ficken, pp. 206-212)
“Seventy-five men elected to the State Constitutional Convention included 21 lawyers, 13 farmers, 6 merchants, 6 doctors, 5 bankers, 4 cattlemen, 3 teachers, 2 real-estate agents, 2 editors, 2 hop farmers, 2 loggers, 2 lumbermen, 1 minister, 1 surveyor, 1 fisherman, and 1 mining engineer.” (HistoryLink)
Some of the most contentious issues under discussion involved the disposition of school and state lands and the regulation or sale of tide lands. The regulation of railroads was an especially bitterly-debated topic. The creation of a judicial system which would adequately serve the state without draining it of resources was a concern; the other branches of government, the executive and legislative, were also seen as potentially expensive for the fledgling state. Delegates debated the corrupting influences of free railway passes for elected officials and prohibited them, yet they failed to create a strong elected commission to regulate rates charged by railroads, an issue of vital importance to farmers and others. In the end, the Constitution was a patchwork made from the constitutions of other states and the original document drawn up in Walla Walla at an earlier convention, as well as resolutions and ideas submitted by citizens and groups. It reflected the issues and concerns of its day: the restrictions placed on the Legislature, the many statewide elected officials that split the responsibilities of governance, and the complex amending formula. (Avery, 186-188, 199-200, 316-321)
Nonetheless, Washington citizens approved the State Constitution by a vote of 40,152 to 11,879 in the election called by Territorial Governor Miles C. Moore on October 1, 1889. They also rejected the separate ballot issues that could not be agreed upon by the Convention on prohibition and woman suffrage. Those issues would continue to be discussed through the early decades of statehood. Another perennial issue not entirely settled in 1889 was the location of the state capital. Rival towns like Ellensburg and North Yakima challenged Olympia’s hold on the seat of government, an issue only completely laid to rest with the building of permanent Capitol buildings in the 1920s. (Nicandri and Valley)
For further analyses of the writing of the Constitution, see the following sources:
James M. Dolliver, “The Mind of the Founders: An Assessment of the Washington Constitution of 1889,” Washington Comes of Age: The State in National Experience, Washington University Press, 1992
Linda Louise Blackwelder Pall, “The Washington Constitution: Fundamental Law and Principles for the State,” Government and Politics in the Evergreen State, Washington State university Press, 1992
Cornell W. Clayton and Stephen Meyer, “Washington’s Constitution: History and the Politics of State Constitutional Jurisprudence,” Washington State Government and Politics, Washington State University Press, 2004
Not all sectors of the population were sanguine about the composition of the Constitution. Many farmers, especially in eastern Washington, were uneasy with the direction of the founding document. Grange historian Harriet Ann Crawford notes:
The State Grange was born during the same summer which saw the transition of Washington Territory into Washington State. In fact, it appears very certain that Washington farmers hurried to organize themselves into Granges during August and September, 1889, because they were filled with alarm and dismay by provisions which had been excluded from, or written into, the constitution which was proposed as the basic framework of government for the new commonwealth.” (Crawford, p.12)
Organizing too late to influence the writing of the Constitution, the newly formed Grange nonetheless adopted a resolution at their first meeting, which declared:
We are opposed to the constitution as framed by the constitutional convention which met at Olympia,” and which called upon all “farmers, laboring men and taxpayers” to unite in defeating “an instrument fraught with so much peril to the public welfare. (Crawford, p.15)
The Grangers recorded their trepidations and concerns in the Proceedings of the Washington State Grange, 1889:
First. It provides for more offices than the public service requires, and it also makes provision for the creation of offices by the courts and legislature that are uncalled for and unnecessary.
Second. The salaries are fixed too high, with no provision for a reduction of the same, but in nearly every case it provides for an increase.
Third. This being the case, the result will be an office-seeking class, the most worthless class that can exist. It will also foster machine politics of the most corrupt and offensive character.
Fourth. It is calculated to encourage extravagance in the expenses of the Legislative Assembly, and also in all its appropriations, and thus to grievously overburden an overtaxed people.
Fifth. It provides for secret sessions of the Legislature, to which we are strongly opposed.
Sixth. It invited foreign capital to come here and obtain possession of our land, and to buy up our industries, and to operate the same, and thus in time reducing our fair young state to the same conditions that Ireland occupies today. We believe that our land, our industries and our mines should be held sacred to American capital and American industry.
Seventh. It provides that it shall take a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature to submit an amendment to the constitution to a vote of the people, thus practically prohibiting any amendments thereto.
Eighth. For these and many other reasons we call upon the farmers, laboring men and taxpayers to unite with us in voting down an instrument fraught with so much peril to the public welfare. (Crawford, p16)
The Grange members then drew up a forceful resolution with which they intended to challenge potential state representatives. This list was virtually the legislative program of the Grange and other progressives for the next several decades, and as such, is worthy of close study. For a period, the groups expressing their frustration with the founding document of the state and the activities of the early legislature came together to form an alternative political party known as the populists or People’s Party.
“Be it Resolved, by the State Grange of Washington, That it shall be the duty of the Legislative Committee of this Grange to submit the following questions to each candidate for the House of Representatives or Senate of the State of Washington and request a written answer to the same:
Are you in favor of a law to fix fares and freights the same or less than those fixed in the State of Oregon?And will you forbid discrimination in freights and fares?
Are you in favor of giving the Commission power to enforce the law?
Are you in favor of taxing R.R. property as all other property is being taxed?
What is your opinion in relation to State lands, and also school lands, and upon what terms should they be sold, and in what quantities to each purchaser; or are you opposed to the sale (of public lands) at the present time?
Are you in favor of a mortgage tax law?Are you in favor of a usury law?
Are you in favor of exempting bonds of any character, or any other property from taxation?
Will you favor strict economy in all public matters?
In any legislation in which the interest of farmers and some other interest comes into conflict, which interest would you favor?
And the Committee shall have the answers printed and distribute them among Masters of Subordinate Granges throughout this jurisdiction.” (Crawford, p16)
Washington was a state at long last, but the controversies generated by its Constitution would enliven state politics throughout its history. The questions posed by the Grange and others would echo in the halls of the Legislature and be heard on every campaign stump for decades to come.
Bauemeister, Jim, “The Progressive Grange: An Examination of the Grange Movement in Washington,” Tilth, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer, 1979
Avery, Mary W. Government of Washington State. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1966
Brazier, Don. History of the Washington Legislature 1854-1963. Washington State Senate Publication, 2000
Crawford, Harriet Ann. The Washington State Grange. Binfords and Mort, Publishers, Portland, 1940
Ficken, Robert E. Washington Territory. Washington University Press, 2002
Nicandri, David and Derek Valley. Olympia Wins: Washington’s Capital Controversies. Washington State Capitol Museum, Olympia, 1980
HistoryLink Staff, “Washington is admitted as the 42nd state to the United States of America on November 11, 1889,” http://www.historylinkessays/output.cfm?file_id=5210