Wyoming Becomes a State: The Constitutional Convention and Statehood Debates of 1889 and 1890 — and Their Aftermath

Democrats and Republicans alike in Wyoming Territory agreed by the late 1880s that it was time their territory became a state. Statehood was attractive to the territory’s businessmen and politicians, as it offered them much more local control over land and water issues. Statehood would also mean the federal government would no longer pay the salaries of the top officials — but that savings mattered less as time went on.

One big obstacle loomed, however: were there enough people? Population had grown only slowly since the Territory was established in 1869. Congress used a general rule of thumb, dating back before the U.S. Constitution to the Northwest Ordinance, that a territory had to show a population of 60,000 people to qualify for statehood. Territorial Gov. Thomas Moonlight, a Democrat, reported in December 1888 that Wyoming had only 55,500 people.

Most people lived on ranches and in small towns. The major employers, however, were the railroads (by 1890, these were the Union Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy and the Chicago and Northwestern) and the coal mines (many owned by the railroads). But the population remained small and scattered over the territory’s 98,000 square miles.

Territorial governor Francis E. Warren understood the Constitutional delegates would have to work quickly. (WSA photo)Cheyenne businessman and rancher Francis E. Warren, was appointed to a second stint as territorial governor in 1889, replacing Moonlight. Warren strongly supported statehood. The only officer elected territory-wide, Delegate to Congress Joseph M. Carey, also backed statehood. (Territorial governors and other top officials were appointed by the president. Territorial delegates to Congress could introduce legislation, but could not vote.)  Carey argued that it was not unprecedented for territories with fewer than 60,000 people to be granted statehood. Warren, Carey and the others knew that, though Wyoming's 20-year-old experiment with votes for women would be controversial when the statehood question reached Congress, the population issue was more likely to cause problems.

When Congress did not act on Carey’s proposal for calling a Wyoming constitutional convention in 1889, presumably because of questions of population, Warren went ahead and set a date anyway for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention in Cheyenne. The election was called for July 8, 1889. Though women had full voting rights and rights to seek and hold office, not one ran for a delegate slot. The future state that had prided itself for being the first government to grant women equal political rights was to have a state constitution that was drafted, debated and passed entirely by men.

Constitutional Convention

Forty-nine of the 55 elected members assembled in Cheyenne in September 1889 to draft the Constitution. Four of the 49 did not sign the Constitution and attended only occasionally. Of those who did attend, 31 were Republicans and 18 were Democrats.

Warren emphasized the necessity for haste. In order for Wyoming’s request to be considered by Congress along with admission requests from neighboring states, a Wyoming statehood proposal would have to be introduced before the Congress ended its current session.  That meant Wyoming citizens would have to vote on the Constitution at the November general election. Warren wanted their work done by the end of September—just 25 working days away.

Knowing their time was short, the delegates assembled a  "scissors-and-paste” recapitulation of sections pulled from many other states. There were two major exceptions to that process, however—water and irrigation, and women’s rights.

Executive and judicial branches

Especially in fiscal matters, the delegates reflected the 19th century distrust of legislative power, and many of the 37 sections in the Declaration of Rights article likewise limited legislative power.

Likewise, the constitution explicitly states that the "executive power" of the state "shall be vested" in the governor, who "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed." These seemingly broad powers, however, were limited. Most notable was creation of numerous boards, made up of the governor acting with the other four statewide elected officials, to administer many important state functions. (Other states had already adopted similar systems.) The constitution also provided that appointments to some other boards of citizen volunteers be made for terms longer than the governor’s. University of Wyoming trustees, for example, are appointed for six-year terms.  The Constitution also allowed various boards and commissions to govern specific state agencies and even appoint the directors, taking that appointment power out of the governor's hands. Only government reorganization in the 1990s, more than 100 years later, finally made many of these formerly governing boards advisory only.

The Constitution provided for a four-year term for the governor with no restrictions on the number of terms a governor could serve.  The legislature would need a 2/3 vote to override a gubernatorial veto. During the 16th day of the convention, delegate A. C. Campbell introduced an amendment attempting to make an override require only a simple majority, but his proposal failed.

Constitutional delegates and friends gathered on the capitol steps in 1889. (WSA photo)Some of the main debates were over what levels of population and assessed valuation should be sufficient to establish new counties. Some delegates argued it ought to be easy to create new counties, so that people wouldn’t have to travel great distances to do business at county seats. Others, however, saw danger in allowing new county formation too easily. New counties could drain off essential resources from older, established ones.  Delegates compromised, allowing a relatively low threshold for county formation, but with the requirement that the old county from which the new one was carved would have to meet a specific threshold for assessed valuation, so that it would have sufficient financial resources to keep functioning.

On the very eve of adjournment, the question of county officers’ salaries consumed the session. Some delegates believed county officials would be more diligent if their pay was gained from a percentage of tax collected, from fees or other similar measure. The majority, however, favored salaries, set by the legislature. 

Sorting out the judicial branch, delegates debated whether or not to have a supreme court separate from district courts. The three territorial justices "rode circuit” individually, sitting as trial judges and returning to Cheyenne to hear appeals as the supreme court.  Many delegates, particularly non-lawyers, believed making two separate courts would be wasteful. In the opinion of several delegates, the district judges would conduct most of the work while the Supreme Court justices would be left with little to do. Lawyers, however, favored separate courts and managed to defeat an effort to retain the territorial system, but barely — 21 to 17.

Judges at all levels were to be elected to their offices. In 1972, the Constitution was amended to change that system dramatically, when the state adopted the "Missouri plan" of selection.  A judicial nominating committee now accepts applications from Wyoming lawyers who have an interest in serving as a judge. The committee selects three names and forwards the names to the governor who then selects one to serve on the court until the next general election, when voters are given the option of voting to retain or not retain the judge for the entire term.

Legislative branch

HoytBaxterMorganLegislative apportionment also consumed substantial delegate debate. The disagreements came with apportionment in the Senate. Delegates from the older established counties, along the southern tier on the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad, fought efforts by delegates from the smaller northern counties to follow a plan like the U.S. Constitution’s, with each county given an equal number of senators. Delegates from the Union Pacific-dominated southern Wyoming counties, led by Charles Potter and E. S. N. Morgan, both from Cheyenne, argued that the federal analogy was flawed. Counties have no independence; they are creations of the state — not at all like the states' relationship to the federal government. George Baxter, also from Cheyenne, pointed out that it would be as unfair to give each county a senator as it would be to demand that each county give the same contribution to the state's general fund.

If delegates from the southern counties had been uniformly in agreement, the issue would have been settled very quickly. But former Territorial Gov. John Hoyt and M. C. Brown, the president of the Constitutional Convention, broke with their southern colleagues. Both argued that a smaller Senate, constructed along federal lines, could serve as a check on the popular will in the lower house. Brown called the idea "the happiest compromise that ever came to man."

All along, the delegates opted for apportionment in the House to be based on population. Elections were to be at large in each county.  Even the least populated county, therefore, would have at least one representative.  (Not until the legislative reapportionment after the 1990 census — and a legal challenge — were legislators in Wyoming elected from single-member districts). On the 19th day of deliberations, the convention rejected the federal analogy by allocating more than one senator to more populous counties. The delegates, however, gave a sop to several northern counties in the form of one additional House member each. While the more populous counties gained greater representation in the Senate, arguably, a modified "federal" plan prevailed because at least one senator still was granted to each county — even to the least populated one.

The delegates seemed comfortable with retaining women’s suffrage by incorporating it into a provision of the Constitution, which flatly stated that equality would exist without reference to gender. For the majority of delegates, more specific language was not needed.  The delegates did argue, however, about including literacy as a requirement for voting.  One member argued that if a voter had to read in order to vote, most newcomers would be able to vote while old established ranchers, many of them war veterans who had been voting for many years, would be stripped of their voting rights. The entire article, incorporating equal rights and the much more debated requirement for literacy, passed by a vote of 30-12. Only one delegate, Louis J. Palmer, an Illinois-born lawyer and Democrat from Sweetwater County, flatly stated opposition to women’s suffrage.

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