Writings and observations

‘Sovereignty’ in 1890


As the seemingly endless chatter about how “sovereign” Idaho is continues, and another anniversary of statehood approaches, let’s look back on how it looked leading up to the moment of statehood.

You could say that Territorial Delegate Fred T. Dubois’ wire back to Boise, upon approval, to “Turn the Eagle loose!”, was more emblematic of his emotions than of what he had experienced along the way.

Idaho territory had already gone through, and narrowly evaded, a number of proposals to break it up and combine it with other jurisdictions. Idaho activists wanted to establish some legitimacy for their request, so they called for a constitutional convention to write a state constitution – which met, and drafted the constitution (albeit amended) Idaho still has. The convention had no legal authority to meet,not only because – unlike the four previous states to be admitted – Congress had not approved any such convention but also because the territorial legislature hadn’t done so either.

The convention did take care to say, in the third section of the first article, that “The state of Idaho is an inseparable part of the American Union, and the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.”

The legitimacy of the convention was only a minor problem in Congress, where a resolution approving statehood had to pass both the House and Senate. Democrats, though in the minority, were not eager to admit Idaho, since that would mean yet another Republican state (as everyone knew Idaho would be), especially after recently admitting the Republican Dakotas, Montana and Washington (as it was then).

The Idaho bills – more than one of them – reached consideration point early in 1890, at a critical juncture. Congress’ action was sure to turn on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Davis v. Beason. Samuel Davis was a Mormon who had voted after taking the “test oath” – a territorial law requirement that the voter not adhere to certain principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – and was charged and convicted of perjury. Davis’ case before the Supreme Court was based on the idea that the test oath was unconstitutional.

Dubois, the Idaho territorial delegation who spearheaded the statehood effort, wrote to an ally in Idaho that “If their decision is adverse, of course we are done . . . I shall not ask for statehood unless we can keep the Mormons out of our politics.”

When the Supreme Court ruled against Davis, in favor of the Test Oath, the bills began to move through Congress, but amid raucous debate, a lot of it having to do with Mormons. Then a fierce debate erupted over “free silver” (a coinage question that would become much more intense in the coming decade). After anti-climactic floor votes, the admission bill was signed by President Benjamin Harrison on July 3.

Conditions were attached. For example, 3.5 million acres of the new state specifically were set aside to be used as an education endowment, and the use of them was closely regulated. The subject of how to use those Idaho lands has been back in Congress from time to time, notably in 1998 when then-Representative Mike Crapo proposed a loosening of the rules.

If it’s an immaculate sovereign conception anyone is looking for, Idaho’s isn’t it.

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