Thursday, May 11, 2017

Territorial Governor George Shoup Calls for Idaho Constitutional Convention [otd 05/11]

On May 11, 1889, George L. Shoup, Governor of Idaho Territory, issued a proclamation calling for a convention to draw up a constitution for the proposed state of Idaho. His proclamation contained features we would consider unorthodox, and might be thought technically illegal.
George L. Shoup.
National Archives.

Idaho’s status as “just” a Territory had frustrated locals almost from the start. The issue was kept alive by on-going friction between the elected legislature and the officers appointed to the executive and judicial branches, most of whom were outsiders. Of course, the Territory’s population was really too low for statehood, but the supposed minimum had been ignored before.

Hard-nosed politics presented the real roadblock. In 1874, Democrats had wrested political control of Colorado Territory from the Republicans, and thought they could retain it.
Two years later, Congressional Democrats agreed to statehood for the Territory. But they were wrong about keeping control of the new state. In the Presidential election that fall, Colorado’s electoral votes for the Republican candidate ultimately cost the Democrats the White House. The lesson was not lost on either party.

Thus, for over a decade afterwards, Congress admitted no new states to the Union. Finally, elections across the country in 1888 seemed to open the door again. Proponents began to encourage the notion of statehood for Idaho.

But first, Territorial legislators had to resolved two issues: the “Mormon question,” and secession advocacy in North Idaho. They addressed the first by passing legislation – almost certainly unconstitutional – that disenfranchised most members of the LDS church. They blunted the second point by agreeing to give North Idaho the state university, in Moscow.

With those issues out of the way, in early April Governor Edward A. Stevenson issued a proclamation calling for a constitutional convention. Because of the rush, it quickly became apparent that nothing could be accomplished in the way of a convention. Then, at the end of the month, Shoup began his term as Governor [blog, Apr 1].

The difficulty for both proclamations was that the U.S. Congress had not passed “enabling” legislation, authorizing the Territory to write a constitution. That meant the Territorial government could not legally fund any action related to such a document: election of delegates, expenses during the convention, or a ratification ballot.

Precedent suggested Idaho could go ahead and write the document. Many territories had previously ignored the “enabling Act” technicality. The lack of legislative funding authority, however, meant that local governments had to cover all expenses. Unfortunately, many counties could not afford that. Thus, they did not act on Stevenson’s call.

Governor Shoup’s proclamation cleverly circumvented that problem. “If,” he wrote, “… the citizens of any county prefer to elect their delegates by some other equitable method, I am satisfied that the delegates so chosen will be recognized and admitted to seats in the convention.”

In the end, only a handful of counties actually ran elections. In most, the political party organizations – either directly or in local conventions – selected the slates. Each major party picked half; if there was an odd number, the party winning the most recent election received the extra spot. Individuals or the party organizations also paid convention expenses.

Once leaders had a document in hand, the people had to vote on it. Again, local cash funding simply did not exist, so volunteers performed much of the work. The referendum easily passed, setting the stage for the favorable Congressional vote on Idaho statehood in 1890.
                                                                                 
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
“Constitutional Convention and Ratification,” Reference Series No. 476, Idaho State Historical Society (1974).

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