Newly Rediscovered: The 1889 St. Louis Convention of States

A frequent argument against a convention for proposing constitutional amendments is that there are “no precedents” for determining the rules and procedures for such a gathering, other than the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Although opponents persist in this claim, it has long been debunked: The Constitutional Convention was far from the only meeting of its kind. On the contrary, inter-colonial conventions met over 20 times before Independence, and conventions of states met eleven times between Independence and the Constitution’s ratification. Since that ratification, conventions of states have gathered at least an additional half dozen times, most recently in 1922.

Thus, contrary to the claim that there are “no precedents,” in fact there are nearly forty. Six were “general” (national) conventions. They were held in 1754, 1765, 1774, 1780, 1787, and 1861. The rest were conclaves among states in particular regions of the country. The fundamental protocols were similar for all of these gatherings, although they also display interesting variations in detail.

Illustrative of the “convention of states” process was the meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1889. It is interesting for a number of reasons. One is that it demonstrates the solid chain of continuity that ties all these conventions together. Another is that it rebuts another unfounded claim raised by some opponents— that conventions of states serve only reactionary purposes. The St. Louis Convention was called for a Progressive purpose, and it served its cause well. The interstate convention mechanism, like the right to vote, is the inheritance of all Americans, irrespective of their political views.

The story of the St. Louis gathering, as revealed in the official convention journal, state legislative records, and contemporaneous newspaper reports, is as follows:

The Call for the St. Louis Convention of States

Like most conventions of states, the St. Louis  convention was called to propose solutions to a specific problem. At the time, many believed that four big Chicago meat packing companies had conspired together to drive down the prices paid to midwestern and western beef and pork ranchers. The conspiracy was alternatively called a “trust,” “the beef and pork combine,” and “the dressed beef monopoly.” Over the preceding five years, cattlemen and pork raisers saw their profits tumble. Their distress was a serious issue for states whose economies depended on agriculture.

A Kansas state senator named Frank E. Gillette was determined to help them. He may have become aware of the “convention of states” device from history. Not only was the Constitution itself the product of two such conventions (Annapolis in 1786 and Philadelphia in 1787), but similar assemblies had met in Nashville, Tennessee in 1850 and in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery, Alabama in 1861. Accordingly, he proposed that Kansas call a convention of states to plan a campaign against the Chicago meat packing monopolists.

Senator Gillette successfully persuaded his legislative colleagues that Kansas should issue the call. However, this call, unlike most others, was not contained in a single document. Rather, it was the product of three. The first was “Concurrent Resolution No. 9,” sponsored by Senator Gillette and adopted by the Kansas legislature in January, 1889. It authorized and requested Kansas Governor Lyman U. Humphrey to communicate with other governors to invite them to a convention of states “with a view to securing an the perfection of uniform legislation concerning such ‘trust’ or ‘combine.’” Resolution No. 9 further suggested that the convention be composed of delegations consisting of five representatives and three senators from each state. But unlike a complete convention call, it did not specify a place or time for the meeting. Instead, it authorized the governor to designate those items.

On January 28, Governor Humphrey wrote to the chief executives of those states he deemed would be most sympathetic to the cause: Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan, Arkansas, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Governor Humphrey also invited participation from three federal territories: Dakota (later divided into the states of North and South Dakota), New Mexico, and Wyoming. Governor Humphrey’s letter was the second component of the convention call.

On February 11, the governor reported to the Kansas legislature that he had received several positive responses. However, rather than exercise his delegated power to select a time and place, he suggested that the favorable reception from other states implied agreement that the Kansas legislature designate time and place. By Senate Joint Resolution No. 5, adopted the following day, the legislature named St. Louis, Missouri as the place and March 12, 1889 as the time. This completed the call.

By March 11, state lawmakers had assembled from all over the West and Midwest, and the rotunda and lobby of St. Louis’s venerable Southern Hotel was buzzing with them. The convention’s proceedings began at noon the following day, probably at the Southern. However, the convention promptly accepted the invitation of the St. Louis mayor to move to more appropriate facilities (“House of Delegates Hall”). The move illustrates a continuing feature of interstate conventions: Although the call designates the initial place of meeting, the convention is always free to relocate.

Attendees at the Convention of States

Several states may have sent unofficial observers, but there were fully-accredited delegations from nine: Kansas, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas.

All these delegations consisted of state lawmakers, but not all states followed the recommended formula of five representatives and three senators. Another continuing feature of interstate conventions is that the composition and size of a state’s delegation is ultimately within the discretion of that state’s legislature. Iowa sent three senators but only four representatives. Colorado sent two senators and three representatives, and Missouri accredited five from each legislative chamber. Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas, Illinois, and Nebraska each followed the recommended formula.

Thus, there were 62 fully-credentialed commissioners in all. This meeting thereby ranks as one of history’s more populous conventions of states—although far from the largest. The assembly further recognized the governor of Missouri and the Mayor of St. Louis as honorary, non-voting members.

Wyoming Territory had selected a delegation, but it never arrived. Instead, the convention was asked to seat a representative from that territory’s livestock commission. Obviously, the livestock commission was not the Territory’s legislature, and the request was denied.

The records are not complete, but state commissioners appear to have been selected differently in different states. In Kansas, for example, the state senate’s three commissioners were chosen by the senate president. In Iowa, the legislature delegated the selection to the governor.

Continuity with other Conventions of States

In many respects, the St. Louis convention of states was similar to its predecessors:

*    It was limited to a fairly narrow topic.

*   It remained within the scope of the call.

*   It created standing committees. At St. Louis there were committees on rules, credentials, permanent organization (essentially a nominating board), resolutions, and “recommendations of needed legislation.

* After the governor of Missouri, the host state, had called the assembly to order, it elected a temporary chairman. This turned out to be Senator Gillette.

* It adopted formal rules, elected a president and vice president from among the commissioners, and chose non-delegates as secretary and assistant secretary.

Variations from the Convention of States Pattern

Yet the St. Louis convention adopted some variations as well. One was to elect its temporary chairman as permanent president. Insofar as I can determine, this had never been done before. The group adopted Jefferson’s Manual, the guide for U.S. Senate procedures, as its source of default rules. This move was not unique—the 1850 Nashville convention had done the same—but the default rules for most conventions have come from other sources.

To better ensure equality among states, the St. Louis convention provided that each delegation would appoint one member to each standing committee. Previous conventions had created individual committees with one member from each state, but had not applied to rule to all standing committees. Moreover, this convention was the first to impose a time limit on speeches: ten minutes.

Perhaps the most unusual decision pertained to state voting. In all other assemblies of this type, matters on the floor were resolved by a one state/one vote rule, with a majority of each state’s delegation decided how its state’s ballot would be cast. In St. Louis, each state enjoyed eight votes, generally cast by individual commissioners. If a state had fewer than eight commissioners, it still received eight votes, but those not cast by individuals were announced by the delegation chairman in accordance with the delegation’s instruction. The records do not specifically state how Missouri’s eight votes were allocated among its ten commissioners, but the recorded tallies imply that each Missouri commissioner received eight-tenths of a vote.

The Results of the St. Louis Convention of States

The convention had to struggle with a few proposals that arguably exceeded the scope of the call. Several motions pertained to a proposed investigation of the beef and pork trust. Those motions were quickly interred. Another would have recommended to Congress construction of a deep-sea harbor in Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. The resolutions committee rejected it as not within the convention’s scope. Later, however, the proposal was amended to clarify that its purpose was to crack the Chicago packing monopoly, and in that form it passed.

The convention finished its work in two long days. It recommended a state anti-trust law based on a Texas model and a state statute requiring local inspection of beef on the hoof. It further recommended that Congress enact an anti-trust law.

The St. Louis Convention must be accounted a success. Not only did several states adopt laws in accordance with the body’s suggestions, but Congress famously followed another convention recommendation when it passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act only fourteen months later.

NOTE: The author acknowledges Ken Quinn of Maine for his work in re-discovering this historic convention.