William S. U'Ren

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"In Oregon the state government is divided into four departments - the executive, judicial, legislative and Mr. U’Ren.”
The Portland Oregonian (1906)[1]
William Simon U'Ren
William Simon U'Ren.png
Date of birthJanuary 10, 1859
Place of birthLancaster, Wisconsin
William Simon U'Ren (January 10, 1859 – March 5, 1949) was the father of the initiative, referendum and recall in Oregon.[2] He was a lawyer, an activist for direct democracy and a state representative.


The desire for direct democratic tools, like the ballot initiative, was simmering in Oregon before U'Ren came along. Many Oregonians perceived state government as corrupted by "special interests" in the timber, railroad, utilities and banking industries. One group calling for reforms was the Milwaukie Alliance, based in the German and Swiss-populated village of Milwaukie, Oregon, and an affiliate of the Farmers’ Alliance Party. The alliance studied the idea of direct democracy in J.W. Sullivan's Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum, a text outlining the effectiveness of direct democracy in Switzerland. Members of the alliance were inspired and determined that direct democracy could help root out government corruption. Being that Milwaukie had a predominate Swiss population, many people heard of and were receptive to direct democracy.[3]

According to David Schuman, a professor at the University of Oregon Law School:

Thus, at the close of the nineteenth century, Oregon had many of the prerequisites for progressive reform: a widely-shared belief that existing political institutions were corrupt; an organized cadre with access to well-defined radical ideas; and a population familiar with and receptive to these ideas. Only one additional ingredient was needed: a charismatic leader.[4]

—David Schuman[3]

William Simon U'Ren would come to fill the role of charismatic leader.

U'Ren's early life

William Simon U’Ren was born on January 10 1859, in Lancaster, Wisconsin, the son of immigrants from Cornwall, England. U'Ren lived in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, California and Hawaii before ending up in Oregon. In 1885, while in Denver, Colorado, he earned a law degree and worked for the Democratic Party. He was dismayed by the vote-buying, manipulation and corruption he saw. In 1889, he settled in Portland, Oregon, where he met members of the Milwaukie Alliance in 1891.[3]

Organizing change

In 1892 and 1983, the Milwaukie Alliance and U'Ren helped establish the Populist Party and the Direct Legislation League (DLL), respectively. The Populist Party was a political party focusing on electoral politics. U'Ren was elected chairman of the party in 1894. The DLL was oriented towards voter education and U'Ren was secretary. Both came to fruition as U'Ren worked to forge a coalition between the Oregon Grange, Portland Federated Trades, the Knights of Labor and other labor and farmers groups.[3]

The DLL distributed over 400,000 pieces of literature throughout the state, even though Oregon had fewer than 80,000 voters. U'Ren collected 14,000 signatures and presented them to the legislature in hopes of convincing legislators to pass a constitutional amendment. It almost passed, with the vote being tied in the senate and the amendment being defeated by one vote in the house.

In 1887, U'Ren ran for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives as a Populist and won.

In the legislature

A plaque honoring U'Ren outside the Clackamas County Courthouse.

The legislature was fragmented when U'Ren arrived. Although Republicans controlled the legislature, the party was split into two factions over who to support for the United States Senate. Of the two candidates, John Mitchell endorsed the Gold Standard and Jonathan Bourne was a "Silver Republican" supporting bimetallism. Neither faction controlled enough members to ensure its candidate would be elected.[3]

U'Ren tried to strike a deal with Mitchell, telling him the Populist Party would support his candidacy if he delivered Republican support for an initiative and referendum amendment. While the deal appeared that it would be a success, Mitchell renegaded on the deal in the house.

U'Ren wasn't finished trying, so he went to Jonathan Bourne. All of the Populists, Democrats and Silver Republicans formed a quorum, agreeing to not appear on the house floor until Mitchell promised to appoint Bourne as Speaker of the House and support U'Ren's initiative and referendum amendment. Mitchell refused and the legislature adjourned without ever formally convening.

This deal-making tactic, along with the legislature's inability to convene, hurt U'Ren and his project. He decided current party politics would not be able to achieve direct democratic reforms. He focused more of his energy on the DLL, which became the Non-Partisan Direct Legislation League.

I&R amendment

Jonathan Bourne's Republican faction, remembering U'Ren's loyalty, supported an initiative and referendum amendment. John Mitchell eventually caved as well, as public support kept growing for direct democracy. In 1899, Joint Resolution 1 was approved by the Oregon Legislature. By 1902, there was no strong opposition to the idea, with only the Prohibitionist Party opposing the amendment.[3]

On June 2, 1902, the amendment went before the voters as Measure 1. It was approved with nearly 92 percent of the vote.

Other activities

William S. U'Ren advocated for a number of initiatives in the years following, including:[5]

U'Ren also advocated for what was known as a Single Tax. The tax, originally developed by Henry George, would have been levied on all "unearned" increases in land values. According to the Oregon Historical Society, the tax "was not only to fund government, but even more to encourage development and break up the concentration of wealth in landholding, which single taxers believed was the primary cause of poverty and inequality." All other taxes would have been abolished under U'Ren's plan. Oregon voters repeatedly rejected the plan.[6]

He was a member of the American Proportional Representation League, which supported a proportional-representation system of electing legislators.[7]

In 1914, U'Ren ran for Oregon Governor, but lost. He promoted the single tax, proportional representation, a unicameral legislature, a minimum wage and additional direct democratic mechanisms.[8]

See also

Suggest a link

External links


  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Schuman
  2. The Oregon History Project, "William S. U'Ren," accessed April 6, 2015
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Schuman, David. 1994. “The Origin of State Constitutional Direct Democracy: William Simon U’Ren and “The Oregon System.” Temple Law Review 67: 947-964.
  4. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  5. The Oregonian, "William U'Ren gave Oregon system of politics by the people," March 5, 2011
  6. The Oregon Encyclopedia, "Single Tax," accessed April 13, 2015
  7. American P.R. League, Leaflet No. 5, "Membership," November 1919
  8. Edwards, G. (1986). Experiences in a Promised Land: Essays in Pacific Northwest History. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. (pages 203-204)