Wyoming constitutional convention delegates and friends on the Capitol steps in 1889. (Wyoming State Archives)

While talking with Wyoming historian Phil Roberts about my forthcoming book on politics in the West, I was startled when he said, “I’ve been studying the Wyoming Constitution for years. Yet I’m starting to revise my opinion of it. It’s actually more progressive than we think.” 

I told Phil to stop putting Jim Beam in his coffee. 

Intrigued, I explored his premise. Not only did I agree with Roberts but discovered that like Wyoming, four other states had written or rewritten their constitutions in 1889: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Idaho. These 89ers, as I call them, infused progressive ideas into their founding documents. 

Their vision was both Republican in party and republican in philosophy, no mean feat in that era of clashing ideals and aspirations. The delegates were generally conservative; they respected tradition and free enterprise while recognizing that the Gilded Age had given too much to too few. As a result, egalitarianism and pragmatism were the bywords. 

These constitutions were modestly populist, suspicious of corporations, wildly pro-agriculture, enthusiastic about commonweal republican virtues and mostly pro-suffrage. While narrowly inclusive by modern standards — excluding American Indians, Asian Americans and Mormons — these constitutions were considered a model of amplitude by 19th-century benchmarks. They curtailed child labor and instead promoted affordable public education. They looked out for the working stiff and clamped down on railroads and irrigation companies to prevent monopolies. The secret ballot found favor shortly after statehood. Over the years, the 89ers accepted the odd duck and unconventional: Hutterites, Mennonites, syncretic New Age communes, white supremacists, doomsday cults and Jewish colonies. The five constitutions enshrined an explicitly central-planning concept significant in arid states: state ownership of running water. 

Here’s the paradox of the matter: The republicanism of the 89er constitutions bears little resemblance to present-day Republicanism, yet the two are often conflated. The 89ers all began as part of the 1861 Dakota Territory, and this new addition to the nation exuded small “r” republican ideals, necessarily differentiated from the big “R” Republican party.

The cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly depicts women voting in Wyoming. (Caldera Productions/Wyoming State Archives)

As historian Jon Lauck wrote in “Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889” (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2010), “The republicanism I find to be a powerful current in Dakota Territory relates the political ideology with roots in ancient Greece and Rome and early modern Italy and England.” If you were unfamiliar with what republicanism meant in 1861, Lauck continued, “think of the general political principles of Thomas Jefferson, not the specific platform of Ronald Reagan.” 

In short, the historical values of inclusivity in these states’ constitutions do not square with the values of the current political narrative. 

Another fallacy in the political story line is that the Great Plains and Northern Rockies have always been largely Republican (Montana excepted), pro business and “conservative.” 

When I asked retired U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, about this perceived GOP dominance, he balked. “Well, we can forget that notion. The longest-serving U.S. Senator in Wyoming history was a Democrat, Joseph O’Mahoney. He was in office for over 20 years,” Simpson said. “Look at Ed Herschler [another Democrat and the] only three-term governor we had. And he was just what we needed. We do not have a history of being a Republican-only state.” 

Historian Marshall Damgaard possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the Great Plains’ political past, particularly his native South Dakota. He summed up the state’s narrative this way: “Many people, even South Dakota residents, perceive that this state has, politically, always been a dependable (read: boring) conservative bastion. The historical record screams otherwise.” 

A 2019 Gallup poll identified all of the 89er states as “highly conservative,” with Wyoming and South Dakota among the most conservative states in the nation. In 2020, all the 89ers voted for Donald Trump, with Wyoming leading the nation at 70.4% to the incumbent. 

Irate citizens wave copies of their state’s constitutions at public meetings, declaring them ignored repositories of unerring — and selectively conservative — wisdom. Such displays are common in movement conservatism. The trend has been around since the Great Depression, gained momentum with Barry Goldwater around 1964 and took off under the neoliberal economic policies of the Reagan era. It advocated for minimal government, corporations and individualism and against welfare, regulation and unions. Later, anti-abortion, gun rights and a chauvinistic American exceptionalism became part of the platform. This version of conservatism, however, does not reflect these states’ founding documents. Nor did it find solid footing in the Great Plains and Northern Rockies until the late 20th century.

To understand this turn, we need to move beyond political labels. In 1889, liberal was a term of esteem, regardless of political affiliation. In the tradition of Edmund Burke, liberal was synonymous for generous and, up to a point, inclusive. Defending the idea of women’s suffrage, at the Wyoming constitutional convention, John Hoyt asked for the support of a body of men “so intelligent, so high minded, so liberal as those who compose this convention.” 

Conservative carried some of the same connotations as today’s meaning. It meant cautious or prudent and encouraged following historical or judicial precedent. Henry B. Blackwell, co-founder of the national Republican Party and an advocate for women’s suffrage, spoke to the Montana constitutional convention. He pitched a “very simple and conservative proposition.” Give women the vote. Why? Because it embraced the principles of equality found in the U.S. Constitution. Conservative did not mean, however, anti-government, either federal or state. It did not mean exclusivity. Unlike liberal, conservative could infer negativity. Democrat James W. Reid told his fellow delegates at the Idaho convention that the press saw him as overly conservative and thus a mossback, or in other words, a stuck-up-to-the hubs feudalist.

A celebration accompanied the May 18, 1887 laying of the cornerstone of the new Capitol of Wyoming Territory. (Wyoming State Archives)

Republicans took progressive stances on a range of issues debated at the 1889 conventions, and they did not turn away from the progressive label — an umbrella term for anyone hoping to make economic or social progress. Loyalty mattered. Party schisms notwithstanding, the GOP of the Great Plains and Northern Rockies had not drifted far from the party of Lincoln. Members were unionists, first and foremost; many of the 89er conventioneers had either served in the Union Army or had relatives who had. The GOP craved state autonomy and wanted to run its own affairs, but, given the memory of the Civil War, delegates were suspicious of extreme state sovereignty. This rejection of radical state’s rights theory made them relatively progressive by modern standards. The Republicans of the 89er era gave credence to security, especially relating to safety and stability. They were attached to the business community and wanted minimal taxation, but accepted taxes as necessary for proper governance. They subscribed to the gold standard and advocated for protective tariffs to safeguard domestic industry and investment. But they weren’t so besotted with the bottom line as to ignore the darker sides of the Gilded Age’s laissez faire economic policies. Two years before, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, subjecting rail roads to federal regulation. In 1890, Congress further restricted monopolies with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. 

The GOP of most Western territories had progressive opinions about labor, women’s rights and religion. They censured indentured servitude and child labor while protecting workers. In Montana, delegates expanded liability law in favor of injured workers. Women’s suffrage sparked some of the most passionate debate. The delegates’ attitudes were inconsistent when it came to other forms of inclusivity, especially concerning equal treatment for American Indians and religious freedom. Their take on religion seems progressive but was traditional. Chalk part of this up to the Enabling Act of 1889, the federal legislation that made these states possible. The Enabling Act mandated that a “perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured.” Freedom of worship has deep roots in American history. While faiths besides Christianity were acceptable in the abstract, Christian sects proved problematic. South Dakota wrestled with anti-Catholic prejudice. The Idaho convention had a donnybrook over Mormonism. 

If a core tenant of modern conservatism has been limited government, then these states face charges of ideological treason. The 1889 conventioneers did not subscribe to the adage that government is best when it governs least. They understood the potentials of state government and expanded its powers, passed laws that encouraged growth and beefed up their bills of rights. In 1889, a period of economic, demographic and social upheaval, change wasn’t about to be kept in a cage. Idaho Falls has had a city-owned electric utility since 1900. North Dakota has the only government-owned general service bank in the nation. The legislature in Bismarck established the Bank of North Dakota in 1919 to promote agriculture and commerce. 

If one definition of socialism is government control of the means of production, then the Bank of North Dakota is Exhibit A. In 1932, North Dakota passed an anti-corporation farm law that still stands. In 1932, voters put Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House. Out of 242 counties in the 89er states, only four voted against Roosevelt. North Dakota gave him a clean sweep. In 1980, South Dakota bought a failing railroad. 

If the Northern Rockies and Plains have always been conservative, explain this: from 1913 to 1989, Montana only elected one Republican to a seat in the U.S. Senate for a single term. At the turn of the 20th century these states, particularly in the Great Plains, voted for Republicans, Democrats, Populists, Socialists and Progressives. After World War II, the 89ers sent some of the most storied Democrats — all centrists — of the era to Washington: Mike Mansfield, Frank Church, and Gale McGee. In 1986, North Dakota sent Democrat Kent Conrad to Washington for a 26-year stint as U.S. senator. A similar pattern applies to governorships. Between 1945 and 2010, a healthy 26 out of 69 governors have been Democrats. 

Economics played an outsized role in taking us where we are today. The 89er delegates laid the foundation for a series of single-driver extractive economies. They gave agriculture and mining every political and statutory advantage. State universities offered few urban-oriented classes in subjects like architecture. By focusing on utilitarian, commodity-oriented education, the delegates etched in stone the demise of the family farmer. Large-scale farming and mining techniques, better plant genetics and abandoning the mule for a John Deere — all changes encouraged by land grant universities — did not foster what Wendell Berry calls “self-determining local economies.” It killed them.

Delegates gave cities a bad deal. Cities were associated with industrial corruption and moral decline, charges which were sometimes accurate. Conventioneers restricted urban power, especially the ability to tax. Yet they overdid it. Even in 1889 cities were revenue and job creation machines. The delegates’ reliance on rural nostalgia for public policy led to problems. If your creation story and source of revenue continues to be rooted in extractives and agriculture, you’re in for a struggle. Commodities live and die according to the forces of innovation. The folks on the producing end, whether miners, ranchers or farmers, end up victims when technological innovation dictates a smaller workforce.

Workers constructing the Wyoming Capitol ca. 1889. (Wyoming State Archives)

Subsequently, all 89ers have made some effort in addressing this state of affairs. Some are doing better than others. In 1974, Wyoming started a mineral trust fund but then used the money as a moat to keep change out. If the bills are paid, why bother diversifying the economy or examining core beliefs? South Dakota’s former Gov. Bill Janklow fundamentally altered the state’s economic landscape by changing banking laws in the 1980s. Sioux Falls became the credit card processing capital of the country. The rest of the state remains in thrall to commodity agriculture. 

North Dakota has made a three-pronged attempt to reprioritize its values. After the 1997 Grand Forks flood, the state formed a partnership with the federal government that led Grand Forks to become a leading drone research center. It monetized proceeds from Bakken oil production by sticking revenues into the Legacy Fund, now worth $8.2 billion. Finally, Doug Burgum, now governor but also founder of Great Plains software, led by example. He showed how to leverage agriculture to foster information technology. The second-largest Microsoft campus is in Fargo. Yet outside of the cities and the counties of the Bakken shale, North Dakota’s population declines. 

Despite Idaho’s conservative reputation, historic struggles between Mormon and Gentile, contention between the timber and mining economy of the north versus the agricultural south, and other areas of conflict forced the state to hammer out a form of pluralism. While commodities are still critical, Idaho recognized that cities create economic vitality. Look at Boise. It’s the only capital of the 89ers to harness its connections to the federal and state government to build an enviable economy. Boise is at the center of Idaho’s science and technology economy; semiconductors accounted for 69% of Idaho’s exports in 2019; double that of agriculture, mining, chemical and paper products exports combined. 

This brings us to the outlier: Montana. It alone took the bull by the horns. For most of its existence, extractives drove Montana’s economy and captured the legislature in Helena. The Anaconda Company didn’t just produce copper; it had hundreds of subsidiaries in related industries. By 1930, it controlled eight Montana newspapers. It became a multinational corporation and owned the world’s largest copper mine in Chile. When the Chilean government nationalized the mine in 1971, Anaconda, already unsteady from weak prices, was doomed, although it took 10 years for the swan song. Its decline cost thousands of Montana jobs. This contributed to the decision to call a constitutional convention. 

In 1972, Montana had enough confidence to rewrite its constitution, unafraid of losing its essential core. In doing so, it codified a court-ordered balancing of apportionment — even if it did favor urban districts — and eased restrictions on cities. Delegates reinforced equal protection, strengthened government transparency requirements and bolstered individual privacy rights. Yet, they were chary of extremes. While affirming the right to bear arms, the delegates refused to make gun registration or licensing unconstitutional. Nor did they declare abortion a violation of the constitution. But they were not so timid as to back away from preserving Montana’s landscape. The constitutional rewrite acknowledged the fundamental value of nature as more than its commodities, obliging the state and citizens to maintain “a clean and healthful environment.” The 1972 constitution rekindled the flame of those egalitarian ideals set forth in Helena in 1889 by crafting a constitution that reflected transformations in the state and planned for the future.

Women casting their votes in Laramie. (Provided by Wyoming Office of Tourism)

Change is coming. In many ways, it is already here. To understand what aspects of these older values fit into our present context, we need to examine key narratives in agriculture, commodities, cities and their relationship to state and federal government. 

This will not be easy, but other regions have undergone similar transitions. In 1849, Ohio produced more corn than any other state; most residents were farmers. By the early 1900s, most Ohio residents lived in urban areas and worked outside of agriculture. Realizing these changes, Ohio created multiple identities. Now it has four cities with over 250,000 people; it has 137 colleges and universities, including 14 four-year research universities and seven medical schools. It has 10 ports with access to the ocean. Its companies produced $112 billion worth of manufacturing goods in 2018. Hell, it even has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is still the 10th-largest corn producer. 

The 89ers have to let go of commodities the way Pittsburgh let go of steel. Mills still pour steel within shouting distance of the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, although none within city limits. The Steelers still pack their stadium. Yet advanced manufacturing, healthcare and information technology drive the economy. Many people in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains are reluctant to see this happen, largely because they know nothing else. We have to invent our future. In the end, it is about the dignity of meaningful and rewarding employment. 

This author champions a fundamentally conservative ideal: If people want economically viable, small to medium-sized communities, if they want stability and a societal model that permits the inclusion of responsible citizens of all stripes — the values embodied in all these state constitutions — then extractive industries must be seen as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. When commodity extraction is perpetuated through political means as critical to the community’s existence, an economic roller coaster with social consequences, like rural population loss, is inevitable. 

These states need a realistic conversation about what constitutes acceptable partnerships with government. The region’s endorsement of Donald Trump highlights voters’ devotion to conservative values that, due to their lack of agility, are ineffective against the greater forces that threaten to topple them: technology, climate change, a pandemic and foreign economic competition to name a few. 

Instead of Democrat or Republican, think about the values of 1889. Circa 2021, Republicans in these states embrace a scorched-earth policy toward government oversight. The 89er constitutional delegates were no fans of Washington, but they understood banishing it would lead to fiscal calamity. The current GOP stance on the role of government would be utterly alien to the signers of these state constitutions. 

Lastly, integrity was a central 89er value. Its ultimate expression is in freedom of conscience. This ideal permitted people of all faiths and beliefs to live amid mountains and plains. There have been a few sorry exceptions, like Montana’s 1918 Sedition Law. It criminalized any negative statement about the government. Repeal came three years later. Yet freedom of conscience has fallen out of favor. Trending to the apex is loyalty, which is morphing into its ugly stepchild, obedience. Whoever packaged loyalty and obedience and sold it as freedom may be a marketing genius, but it is authoritarianism — the ultimate anti-89ers value — in disguise. The 89er states remain unable to reckon their cultural identity, a rural exceptionalism linked to commodity production, rooted in republicanism, with the multicultural, pluralistic society of our future. This seemingly unreconcilable split must be resolved. 

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Montana The Magazine of Western History. Thank you to the magazine for allowing WyoFile to reprint here.

Samuel Western

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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  1. First I’d like to commend and thank Sam for this reminder of Wyoming’s history. I only hope those currently in power will also read and reflect on themselves to see if they are living up to these standards.
    Secondly, as a former trustee, I am saddened by the deep cuts being made to the university budgets and I sympathize with the stress it places on both the administration and trustees.
    For well over 50 years I heard politicians “talk” about getting away from the reliance upon the fossil fuel industry as our almost exclusive source of revenue and unfortunately nothing was done, and appears still nothing is being done. And unfortunately, the flagship of our state, the university, is paying the price, and I’m afraid The long term damage this will do to our state cannot be overstated.

  2. 2020 deaths were much higher than average, while annual birth rate continued it’s steady decline in this state. Objectively that is not surprising . Both trends will likely continue in the coming years.
    .

  3. I am s-o-o-o-o looking forward to Sam’s new book.

    However, I’ll take this open opportunity to once again suggest he issue an update to his 2002 landmark book ” Pushed off the mountain , Sold down the river … (subtitle ‘ Wyoming’s search for its soul ) ” . It’s the political history of early territorial to mid-20th century Wyoming. That little orange book should be required reading for all Wyoming legislators, with a pop quiz to follow.

    If YOU haven’t read it, you should. QED.

  4. Well done! Very refreshing to have real facts and an informed historical perspective to help us understand today’s problems.

    I agree that today’s GOP has completely lost its way. A bunch of damn liars and terrible statisticians. As Mr. Western as demonstrated, they are lying (or delusional) when they claim connection to historic republican/Republican ideals. They are all about weird obsessions, personalities, and blind obedience to authority. The only connection today’s GOP has to ANY Constitution is their First Amendment right to lie.

    Should there be a Constitutional Convention in Wyoming’s near future? Maybe so. But, to do one right now with our current powers-that-be will likely make it much worse. Yet, to change nothing seems to prove our collective insanity.

    It saddens me that a state that prides itself for its independent-thinking residents lacks the spine to call out lies. We are tolerating crazy lies TODAY as our economy crashes to the ground, and as our kids continue to flee. Governor Gordon is talking about sending aid to protect our nation’s border as though it were a natural disaster relief program.

    I have had enough. Have you?

  5. Wow. Just wow.
    Republicans bad.
    The party that was founded to free the slaves from the democrats.
    The party that laid down their lives to free the slaves from the democrats.
    The party that founded the NRA to teach free families to protect themselves from democrats.
    The party that fought to give women the vote against democrats.
    The party that fought to eliminate Jim Crow laws from democrats.
    The party that trys to protect people from monopolies run by democrats.
    But that’s ok.
    Democrats gave us the KKK, the IRS, the Federal Reserve (which lead to 2 world wars and a great depression and a great recession), concentration camps for Japanese Americans, the Tuskegee experiments, and the first use of atomic weapons on civilians, Vietnam, and violation of the entire Nuremberg code defining crimes against humanity.
    But who’s counting?
    It’s all good. Have an ice cream.

    1. Bob-
      Your ignorance of the history of the two major political parties is dangerous.
      The Republican Party of 1861 and Abaraham Lincoln bears no resemblance whatsoever to our GOP today some 150 years later. It was cobbled together from the ruins of the Whig and the Know Nothing Parties.
      The Democratic Party was more or less created much earlier , in the 1820’s. At one time it was known as the Democratic Republican Party. See if you can get your head around that.

      NEITHER party today should ever be compared to their great grandparents. The Civil War Dems were rooted in the Deep South and defended slavery and opposed civil rights. It was the party of states’ rights then. Whereas the upstart Republican Party of the Civil War era were northerners having the overwhelming majority in today’s liberal Dem blue states… think New England.

      Point being, the two major parties may have kept their names, but in nearly all other respects they utterly exchanged their belief systems and party platforms . Your Civil War Republican is my 21st century Democrat , and vice versa. Example: Which party is currently trying to correct the Jim Crow laws once and for all and keep heinous new Jim Crow version 2.0 voter suppression laws from being enacted ? The Dems , because today’s Republican hegemony is doing exactly what the ancient arcane Democrats did in the 19th century. For starters. How can you not see any of that ?

      Those who do not learn from history … yada yada.

  6. Sam has done it again. Few Wyomingites can tie history to current issues as eloquently and enjoyably as our Sam Western. Can’t wait for the book and I pray that every citizen who cares about our future will read this.

  7. This is a fantastic read, thank Wyofile for getting permission to reprint it. The standout passage for me is this one:

    “This author champions a fundamentally conservative ideal: If people want economically viable, small to medium-sized communities, if they want stability and a societal model that permits the inclusion of responsible citizens of all stripes — the values embodied in all these state constitutions — then extractive industries must be seen as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. When commodity extraction is perpetuated through political means as critical to the community’s existence, an economic roller coaster with social consequences, like rural population loss, is inevitable.”

    Until our state government decides to finally care about citizens in our state instead of extractive industry (and I would posit that agriculture is extractive by nature as much as mining) we will stay on the losing end of economic growth and innovation.

  8. Thanks Sam for a great political history lesson.

    We should note that Wyoming did show early signs of current Republican ideals. Three of the signers Wyoming’s Constitution did, three years later in 1892, ignore Wyoming’s Constitution Article. I, §25 forbidding private militias by hiring gunmen from Texas and Idaho and invading Johnson County. This invasion’s intent was to take out the Civil Authority in Johnson County along with exterminating other private citizens. In the end, after committing two murders, they were bailed out by Federal and State authorities and never were held to account by the State of Wyoming.

    This beats Montana’s 1918 Sedition Law hands down.

  9. Thank you for the enlightening column by Sam Western on a subject relating to economic history, a subject little understood and seldom taught. I look forward to Western’s upcoming book, “A Reckoning in August.”

  10. Thanks for historical perspective as I would love to spend hours discussing each paragraph, but it seems the overarching idea is to show that we in the west kind of lost our way or relationship with government itself. When I read this piece I was thinking in my mind that much of what was contemplated or enacted by these 89ers reflected the concept of the General Welfare clause of the US Constitution. However, based on what I hear discussed and expected by the current citizens of the west, is that government should do nothing for the General Welfare and we should only come together for the Common Defense.

    I think that many of the forces the Mr. Western describes of the past are still present in our society today but appear different. Religion, racism and reigning in the excesses of Capitalism seem to be the same problems but we are less inclined to try to moderate or understand those issues.. It is also apparent that 89ers gave Ag and Extractors an advantage that some of the 89ers were able to address over time to a degree while others did not, which is reflected in their State Legislatures and elected officials today.

    As I said I could parse forever, but I think there are some things that happened in the last 100 years that brought us to this place.

    While the gilded age barons were being reined in they still had power to put in place some things that would appear to benefit them going forward and one of those was the passage of the 17th Amendment – The Popular Election of Senators. It is my contention; this Amendment gets very little historical discussion but in the end reduced the connection between the citizens of a State and its Federal representation, by making it easier for outside money to “buy” a Senator.

    The other gilded age amendment that was passed was Prohibition, as the industrialists could not abide drunken workers with large families. Instead of being honest about alcohol, family violence or birth control, this amendment resulted in the largest crime wave in American history.

    I also think the average American citizen in 1889 really understood our unique form of government and how it operated for the good of the citizens than our society does today. I wonder if the loss of knowledge about the power to use government for good was overridden by two world wars and the rise of the large multinational corporations whose combined interests outweighed the power of US or State governments. Eisenhower seemed to see it, but by the time of Reagan the deal was done as government does nothing good and while simultaneously arguing our government run military is great.

    I would hope that we could work these issues out, but seemingly corporations like a hobbled and divided America and so its citizens do too.

  11. Great, unformative, insightful article. As an Old School Al Simpson Republican, I thank you. As you can imagine, my political identity is in a real muddle at the moment. WyoFile is a Life Line to me now.

  12. Whoever packaged loyalty and obedience and sold it as freedom may be a marketing genius, but it is authoritarianism — the ultimate anti-89ers value — in disguise.

    A thought worth repetition.

  13. Well written and spot on article that sums up key components of political change in Wyoming’s political culture.