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Framing a New State Constitution

Committees met morning and evening to begin with; later on, when the committees had their work well in hand, they met only in the mornings and Convention sessions were held both in the afternoon and evening. Toward the end of the session, three meetings were held daily; all were anxious to finish and go home, and the farmers in particular, wanted to return to their farms to harvest their crops. At a night session on August 19, 1889, the 45th day, the Constitution was completed and the Convention adjourned.

Erastus WilliamsEarly North Dakota Seal. The state seal of North Dakota used many of the elements of the old territorial seal.

In framing the Constitution, the delegates carefully reviewed the constitutions of most of the other states. Each had a copy of South Dakota's proposed constitution, and each also had a copy of a model constitution prepared by James Bradley Thayer of the Harvard Law School. It had been constructed at the request of Henry Villard, then chairman of the board of directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad and introduced by Erastus A. Williams, a Bismarck delegate, who admitted that he was not the author, but refused to disclose its origin.

In many instances, the delegates used passages from Thayer’s model. The preamble is copied from it, word for word. There are, in fact, very few original provisions in the North Dakota Constitution; the delegates borrowed freely from the documents of other states, revising them to conform to conditions in our own state. From the Illinois Constitution came the provision for county courts; from Pennsylvania, the provision relating to the Board of Pardons; from New Hampshire, those relating to amendments; from California, material on taxing railroads. The inscription on the Great Seal of North Dakota “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” came from a speech by Daniel Webster in the United States Senate.

Many of the reform provisions of the Constitution were enacted through the influence of the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance, a branch of the National Farmers’ Alliance. The Dakota organization came into being in 1884 when delegates from farm organizations throughout the Territory met in Huron, South Dakota, at the invitation of the Dakota Farmer to unite the farmers “for their protection against the encroachments of concentrated capital and the tyranny of monopoly.” The movement grew rapidly; by the end of 1886 there were 256 local Alliances; in 1888, there were 744, with a membership of 28,000.

An indication of the political power of the Alliance at the Convention was that Fred Fancher, the Convention President, was also the Vice-President of the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance. Fearful of the control which the large corporations – the railroads, the milling industries and their line elevators, and the banking institutions – might exert on North Dakota government, the Dakota Farmers’ delegates acted to limit the powers of the governor and the legislature to ward off corporation control. The very first bill filed at the Convention was directed against the railroads; it was introduced by Martin N. Johnson, a member of the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance.


Fred FancherFred Fancher was the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1889. (SHSND A3474)