Dakota Datebook

Senator Pierce

Monday, November 21, 2011

 

The support of influential politicians and powerful corporations often plays a significant role in the election of US Congressmen; indeed many bitterly criticize American politics for just this fact. But in 1889, one North Dakota hopeful discovered that having friends in high places is not always enough.

Shortly after North Dakota was admitted as the 39th state in November of 1889, the state legislature assembled to elect their first representatives to the U.S. Senate. With several names proposed, one stood out as a sure victor: Gilbert A. Pierce. The one-time territorial governor of Dakota, a strong ally of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and a close personal friend of President Benjamin Harrison, Pierce easily won on the first ballot. And so, on this date in 1889, Pierce was named North Dakota’s first U.S. Senator, along with Lyman Casey of Jamestown, elected several days later.

Before the senators-elect left for Washington, the North Dakota Legislature sent to the U.S. Senate their recommendations regarding the term lengths of the two new senators. The U.S. Constitution mandated that terms for senators were to be staggered. Thus all senators from new states were not automatically assigned the normal six-year term, but were allotted various terms of two, four, or six-years. The state legislature requested that Senator Pierce be given the maximum term, but the US Congress was not about to take orders from newly-minted state legislators. The request for Pierce’s long term was summarily dismissed. Instead, the Senate turned to a lottery system – the same tried-and-true method used since 1789 to assign the term lengths of Senators from new states.

Three states entered the Union in November of 1889, meaning six new senators needed term assignments. Therefore, despite his powerful friends and considerable influence, Pierce’s fate came down to chance as the six members drew slips of paper from a box assigning them a term of two, four or six years. After Casey drew a four-year term, Pierce was utterly disappointed to draw the minimum 2-year term. To add insult to injury, Senator Pierce failed to win his reelection bid, and thus after two short years, Gilbert Pierce’s political career in Washington came to its ignominious end.

Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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