The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21

Author: William G. Jordan  | Date: A.D. 1910

The United States House of Governors:
A New Machinery Added to the Federal Form of Government

A.D. 1910


The formal establishment of the "House of Governors," which took place in January of 1910, marked the climax of a definite movement which has swept onward through the entire history of the United States.

When in 1775 the thirteen American colonies made their first effort toward united action, they were in truth thirteen different nations, each possessed of differing traditions and a separate history, and each suspicious and jealous of all the others. Their widely diverging interests made concerted action almost impossible during the Revolutionary war. And when necessity ultimately drove them to join in the close bond of the present United States, their constitution was planned less for union than for the protection of each suspicious State against the aggressions of the others.

Gradually the spread of intercourse among the States has worn away their more marked differential points of character and purpose. Step by step the course of history has forced our people into closer harmony and union. To-day the forty-eight States look to one another in true brotherhood. And as the final bond of that brotherhood they have established anew organization, the House of Governors. This constitutes the only definite change made in the United States machinery of government since the beginning.

The House of Governors sprang first from the suggestion of William George Jordan, who was afterward appropriately selected as its permanent secretary. Hence we give here Mr. Jordan’s own account of the movement, as being its clearest possible elucidation. Then we give a series of brief estimates of the importance of the new step from the pens of those Governors who themselves took part in the gathering. In their ringing utterances you hear the voice of North and South, Illinois and Florida, of East and West, Massachusetts and Oregon, and of the great central Mississippi Valley, all announcing the fraternizing influence of the new step.

Governor Willson, of Kentucky, chairman of the committee which arranged the gathering, in an earnest speech to its members declared that, "If this conference of Governors had been in existence as an institution in 1860, there would never have been a war between the States. The issues of the day would have been settled by argument, adjustment, and compromise." It would be hard to find stronger words for measuring the possible importance of the new institution.


THE conference of the Governors at Washington this month marks the beginning of a new epoch In the political history of the nation. It is the first meeting ever held of the State Executives as a body seeking, by their united influence, to secure uniform laws on vital subjects for the welfare of the entire country. It should not be confused with the Roosevelt conferences of May and December, 1908. It is in no sense a continuation of them. It is essentially different in aim, method, and basis, and is larger, broader, and more far-reaching in its possibilities.

The nation to-day is facing a grave crisis In its history. Vital problems affecting the welfare of the whole country, remaining unsolved through the years, have at last reached an acute stage where they demand solution. This solution must come now in some form—either in harmony with the Constitution or in defiance of it. The Federal Government has been and still is absolutely powerless to act because of constitutional limitation; the State governments have the sole power, but heretofore no way has been provided for them to exercise that power.

Senator Elihu Root points out fairly, squarely, and relentlessly the two great dangers confronting the Republic: the danger of the National Government breaking down in its effective machinery through the burdens that threaten to be cast upon it; and the danger that the local self-government of the States may, through disuse, become inefficient. The House of Governors plan seems to have in it possibilities of mastering both of these evils at one stroke.

There are three basic weaknesses in the American system of government as we know it to-day. There are three Insidious evils that are creeping like a blood-poison through the body politic, threatening the very life of the Republic. They are killing the soul of self-government, though perhaps not its form; destroying its essence, though perhaps not its name. These three evils, so intertwined as to be practically one, are: the growing centralization at Washington, the shifting, Undignified, uncertain status of State rights, and the lack of uniform laws.

It was to propose a possible cure for these three evils that the writer sent in February, 1907, to President Roosevelt and to the Governors of the country a pamphlet on a new idea in American politics. It was the institution of a new House, a new representation of the people and of the States to secure uniform legislation on those questions wherein the Federal Governments could not act because of Constitutional limitation. The plan proposed, so simple that it would require no Constitutional amendment to put it into effect, was the organization of the House of Governors.

More than thirty Governors responded in cordial approval of the plan. Eight months later, October, 1907, President Roosevelt invited the State Executives to a conference at Washington in May, 1908. The writer pointed out at that time what seemed an intrinsic weakness of the convention, that it could have little practical result, because it would be, after all, only a conference, where the Federal Government, by its limitations, was powerless to carry the findings of the conference into effect, and the Governors, acting not as a cooperative body, but as individuals, would be equally powerless in effecting uniform legislation. It was a conference of conflicting powers.

The Governors were then urged to meet upon their own initiative, as a body of peers, working out by united State action those problems where United States action had for more than a century proved powerless. At the close of the Roosevelt conference the Governors, at an adjourned meeting, appointed a committee to arrange time and place for a session of the Governors in a body of their own, independently of the President. This movement differentiated the proposed meeting absolutely from that with the President in every fundamental. It essentially became more than a conference; it meant a deliberative body of the Governors uniting to initiate, to inspire, and to influence uniform laws. The committee then named, consisting of three members, later increased to five, set the dates January 18, 19, and 20, 1910, for the first session of the Governors as a separate body.


When a new idea or a new institution confronts the world it must answer all challenges, show its credentials, specify its claims for usefulness, and prove its promise by its performance. As an idea the House of Governors has won the cordial approval of the American press and public; as an Institution it must now justify this confidence. To grasp fully its powers and possibilities requires a clear, definite understanding of its spirit, scope, plan, and purpose, and its attitude toward the Federal Government.

The House of Governors is a union of the Governors of all the States, meeting annually In conference as a deliberative body (with no lawmaking power) for initiative, Influence, and inspiration toward a better, higher, and more unified Statehood. Its organization will be simple and practical, avoiding red-tape, unnecessary formality, and elaborate rules and regulations. It will adopt the few fundamental expressions of its principles of action and the least number of rules that are absolutely essential to enunciate its plan and scope, to transmute its united wisdom into united action and to guarantee the coherence, continuity, and permanence of the organization despite the frequent changes in its membership due to the short terms of the Executives In many of the States.

With the House of Governors rests the power of securing through the cooperative action of the State legislatures uniform laws on vital questions demanded by the whole country almost since the dawn of our history, but heretofore impossible of enactment. The Federal Government is powerless to pass these laws. For many decades, tight held by the cramping bonds of Constitutional limitation, it has strained and struggled, like Samson in the temple, to find some weak spot at which it could free itself, and endangered the very supporting columns of the edifice of the Republic. It was bound in its lawmaking powers to the limitation of eighteen specific phrases, beyond which all power remained with the States and the people. In the matter of enacting uniform laws the States have been equally powerless, for, though their Constitutional right to make them was absolute and unquestioned, no way had been provided by which they could exercise that right. The States as individuals, passing their own laws, without considering their relation or harmony with the laws of other States, brought about a condition of confusion and conflict. Laws that from their very nature should be common to all of the States, in the best interests of all, are now divergent, different, and antagonistic. We have to-day the strange anomaly of forty-six States united in a union as integral parts of a single nation, yet having many laws of fundamental importance as different as though the States were forty-six distinct countries or nationalities.

Facing the duality of incapacity—that of the Government because it was not permitted to act and the States because they did not know how to exercise the power they possessed—the Federal Government sought new power for new needs through Constitutional amendments. This effort proved fruitless and despairing, for with more than two thousand attempts made in over a century only three amendments were secured, and these were merely to wind up the Civil war. The whole fifteen amendments taken together have not added the weight of a hair of permanent new power to the Federal Government. The people and the States often sleep serenely on their rights, but they never willingly surrender them, yet the surrender of a right is often the brave recognition of a higher duty, the fine assumption of a higher privilege. In many phases the need grew urgent, something had to be done. By ingeniously tapping the Constitution to find a weak place and hammering it thin by decisions, by interpretations, by liberal readings, by technical evasions and other methods, needed laws were passed in the interests of the people and the States. Many of these laws would not stand the rigid scrutiny of the Supreme Court; to many of them the Government’s title may now be valid by a kind of "squatter’s sovereignty" in legislation,—merely so many years of undisputed possession.

This was not the work of one administration; it ran with intermittent ebb and flow through many administrations. Then the slumbering States, turning restlessly in their complacency, at last awoke and raised a mighty cry of "Centralization." They claimed that the Government was taking away their rights, which may be correct In essence but hardly just In form; they had lost their rights, primarily, not through usurpation but through abrogation; the Government had acted because of the default of the States, it had practically been forced to exercise powers limited to the States because the States lapsed through neglect and inaction. Then the Government discovered the vulnerable spot In our great charter, the Achilles heel of the Constitution. It was just six innocent-looking words in section eight empowering Congress to "regulate commerce between the several States." It was a rubber phrase, capable of Infinite stretching. It was drawn out so as to cover antitrust legislation, control and taxation of corporations, water-power, railroad rates, etc., pure-food law, white-slave traffic, and a host of others. But even with the most generous extension of this phrase, which, though it may be necessary, was surely not the original intent of the Constitution, the greatest number of the big problems affecting the welfare of the people are still outside the province of the Government and are up to the States for solution.

It was to meet this situation, wherein the Government and the Stated as individuals could not act, that the simple, self- evident plan of the House of Governors was proposed. It required no Constitutional amendment or a single new law passed in any State to create it or to continue it. It can not make laws; it would be unwise for it to make them even were it possible. Its sole power is as a mighty moral influence, as a focusing point for public opinion and as a body equal to its opportunity of transforming public opinion into public sentiment and Inspiring legislatures to crystallize this sentiment into needed laws. It will live only as it represents the people, as it has their sympathy, support, and cooperation, as it seeks to make the will of the people prevail. But this means a longer, stronger, finer life than any mere legal authority could give it.

The House of Governors has the dignity of simplicity. It means merely the conference of the State Executives, the highest officers and truest representatives of the States, on problems that are State and Interstate, and concerted action in recommendations to their legislatures. The fullest freedom would prevail at all meetings; no majority vote would control the minority; there would have to be a quorum decided upon as the number requisite for an initial impulse toward uniform legislation. If the number approving fell below the quorum the subject would be shown as not yet ripe for action and be shelved. Members would be absolutely free to accept or reject, to do exactly as they please, so no unwilling legislation could be forced on any State. But if a sufficient number agreed these Governors would recommend the passage of the desired law to their legislatures in their next messages. The united effort would give it a greater importance, a larger dynamic force, and a stronger moral influence with each. It would be backed by the influence of the Governors, the power of public sentiment, the leverage of the press, so that the passage of the law should come easily and naturally. With a few States passing it, others would fall in line; it would be kept a live issue and followed up and in a few years we would have legislation national in scope, but not in genesis.

The House of Governors, in its attitude toward the Federal Government, is one of right and dignified non-interference. It will not use its influence with the Government, memorialize Congress, or pass resolutions on national matters. What the Governors do or say individually is, of course, their right and privilege, but as a body it took its stand squarely and positively at its first conference which met in Washington in January of this year as one of "securing greater uniformity of State action and better State Government." Governor Hughes expressed it in these words: "We are here in our own right as State Executives; we are not here to accelerate or to develop opinion with regard to matters which have been committed to Federal power." The States in their relation to the Federal Government have all needed representation in their Senators and Congressmen.

The attitude of the Governors in their conferences is one of concentration on State and Interstate problems which are outside of the domain and Constitutional rights of the Federal Government to solve. There can be no interference when each confines itself to its own duties. In keeping the time of the nation the Federal Government represents the hour-hand, the States, united, the minute-hand. There will be correct time only as each hand confines itself strictly to its own business, neither attempting to jog the other, but working in accord with the natural harmony wrapped up in the mechanism.

We need to-day to draw the sharpest clear-cut line of demarcation between Federal and State powers. This is in no spirit of antagonism, but in the truest harmony for the best interests of both. It means an illumination which will show that the "twilight zone," so called, does not exist. This dark continent of legislation belongs absolutely to the States and to the people in the unmistabable terms of the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution or prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States, respectively, and to the people." This buffer territory of legislation, the domain of needed uniform laws, belongs to the States and through the House of Governors they may enter in and posess their own. The Federal Government and the States are parts of one great organization, each having its specific duties, powers, and responsibilities, and between them should be no conflict, no inharmony.

Let the Federal Government, through Congress, make laws up to the very maximum of its rights and duties under the Constitution; let the States, taking up their neglected duties and privileges, relieve the Government of those cares and responsibilities forced upon it by the inactivity of the States and which it should never have had to assume. With the burden thus equitably readjusted, with the dignity of the two powers of Government working out their individual problems in the harmony of a fuler understanding, let us face the results. If it then seem, in the light of changed conditions from those of the time of the writing of the Constitution, that certain control now held by the States can not properly be exercised by them, that in final decision of the best wisdom of the people this power should be vested in the Federal Government, let the States not churlishly hold on to the casket of a dead right, but surrender the living body of a responsibility and a duty to the power best able to be its guardian. There are few, if any, of their neglected powers of legislation that the States and the people acting in cooperation, through the House of Governors, will not be able to handle.

Some of the subjects upon which free discussion tending toward uniform laws seems desirable are: marriage and divorce, rights of married women, corporations and trusts, insurance, child labor, capital punishment, direct primaries, convict labor and labor in general, prison reforms, automobile regulations, contracts, banking, conveyancing, inheritance tax, income tax, mortgages, initiative, referendum and recall, election reforms, tax adjustment, and similar topics. In great questions, like Conservation, the Federal Government has distinct problems it must carry out alone; there are some problems that must be solved by the States alone, some that may require to be worked out in cooperation. But the greatest part of the needed conservation is that which belongs to the States, and which they can manage better, more thoroughly, more judiciously, with stronger appeal to State pride, upbuilding, and prosperity, with less conflict and clearer recognition of local needs and conditions and harmony with them than can the Federal Government. Four-fifths of the timber standing in the country to-day is owned, not by the States or the Government, but by private interests.

The House of Governors will not seek uniformity merely for the sake of uniformity. There are many questions whereon uniform laws would be unnecessary, and others where it would be not only unwise, but inconceivably foolish. Many States have purely individual problems that do not concern the other States and do not come in conflict with them, but even in these the Governors may gain an occasional incidental side-light of illumination from the informal discussion in a conference that may make thinking clearer and action wiser. The spirit that should inspire the States is the fullest freedom in purely State problems and the largest unity in laws that affect important questions in Interstate relations.

While uniform law is an important element in the thought of the Conference it is far from being the only one. The frank, easy interchange of view, opinion, and experience brings the Governors closely together in the fine fellowship of a common purpose and a common ideal. They are broadened, stimulated, and Inspired to a keener, clearer vision on a wider outlook. The most significant, vital, and inspiring phases of these conferences, those which really count for most, and are the strongest guaranties of the permanence and power of this movement, must, however, remain intangible. This fact was manifest in every moment of that first Conference last January.

The fading of sectional prejudice in the glow of sympathetic understanding was clearly evident. Some of the Western Governors in their speeches said that their people of the West had felt that they were isolated, misrepresented, misunderstood, and misjudged; but now these Governors could go back to their States and their people with messages of good will and tell them of the identity of interest, the communion of purpose, the kinship of common citizenship, and the closer knowledge that bound them more firmly to the East, to the South, and to the North. Other Governors spoke of the facilitating of official business between the States because of these meetings. They would no longer, in correspondence, write to a State Executive as a mere name without personality, but their letters would carry with them the memories of close contact and cordial association with those whom they had learned to know. There was no faintest tinge of State jealousies or rivalry. The Governors talked frankly, freely, earnestly of their States and for them, but it was ever with the honest pride of trusteeship, never the petty vanity of proprietorship.

Patriotism seemed to throw down the walls of political party and partizanship and in the three days’ session the words Republican or Democrat were never once spoken. The Governors showed themselves an able body of men keenly alive to the importance of their work and with a firm grasp on the essential issues. The meeting added a new dignity to Statehood and furnished a new revelation of the power, prestige, and possibilities of the Governor’s office. The atmosphere of the session was that of States’ rights, but it was a new States’ rights, a purified, finer, higher recognition by the States of their individual right and duty of self-government within their Constitutional limitations. It meant no lessening of interest in the Federal Government or of respect and honor of it. It was as a family of sons growing closer together, strengthened as individuals and working to solve those problems they have in common, and to make their own way rather than to depend in weakness on the father of the household to manage all their affairs and do their thinking for them. To him should be left the watchfulness of the family as a whole, not the dictation of their individual living.

President Taft had no part in the Conference, but in an address of welcome to the Governors at the White House showed his realization of the vital possibility of the meeting in these words:

"I regard this movement as of the utmost importance. The Federal Constitution has stood the test of more than one hundred years in supplying the powers that have been needed to make the central Government as strong as it ought to be, and with this movement toward uniform legislation and agreement between the States I do not see why the Constitution may not serve our purpose always."


Governor of Kentucky

President Roosevelt held two conferences of Governors, and as a member of a committee chosen to do so, I have invited the Governors of all of the States and Territories to meet at the White House in Washington, January 18th, 19th, and 20th.

The conference has no legal authority of any kind. At the previous conferences, the conservation subject was the one chiefly thought of, and it will be brought up in the next conference. The question of what the Governors will recommend on the income-tax constitutional amendment may come up. The matter of handling extradition papers is important. Uniform State laws on matters of universal interest, school laws, road laws, tax laws, commercial paper, warehouse receipts, bills of lading, etc.; the control of corporations, of which taxation is one branch, the action of the States in regard to water-powers within the States; marriage, divorce, wills, schools, roads, are all within the range of this conference, and the agreement of all of the Governors on some of these subjects, and by many of them on any, would be of useful influence.

The meeting has further interest and importance in being for two days in touch with the National Civic Federation, which will afford all of the Governors a chance to learn what that association of many of the most prominent men of this country is doing, and get the benefit of its discussions and the pleasure of being acquainted with many leaders of thought and action in the country, who will attend its sessions.

I am sure that I speak the sentiment of all of the Governors that they do not wish any legal power or any authority except that of the weight of their opinion as chosen State officers. They only wish the benefit of discussion of important subjects interesting to all of the States, and to establish kindly and mutually helpful relations between the Governors and the Governments of the States.

Governor of Massachusetts

I believe that a meeting of Governors may accomplish much good for every section of the country. They naturally can not legislate, nor should they attempt to. They can discuss and can learn many things which are now controlled by law in different States and which would be improvements to the laws of their own States; and they can recommend to the legislatures of their own States the enactment of laws which will bring about these improvements.

These Governors will be the forty-six [now forty-eight] representative units of the States of this great nation. By coming together they will be more than ever convinced that they are Integral parts of one nation, and I believe their meeting will tend to remove all notions of sectionalism and will help the patriotism and solidarity of the country.

Governor of Illinois

The conservation of natural resources often necessitates the cooperation of neighboring States. In such cases, the discussion of proposed conservation work by the representatives of the States concerned is of great importance. It brings to the consideration of these subjects the views and opinions of those most interested and best informed in regard to the questions involved.

The same is true in relation to many subjects of State legislation in which uniformity is desirable. This is especially the case with regard to industrial legislation. The great volume of domestic business is interstate, and the industrial legislation of one State frequently affects, and sometimes fixes, industrial conditions elsewhere. An example of the advantage of cooperation of States in the amendment and revision of laws affecting industry is seen in the agreement by the commissions recently appointed by New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to investigate the subjects of employers’ liability and workmen’s compensation to meet for the joint discussion of these matters. The General Assembly of Illinois is now convened in extraordinary session, and has under consideration the appointment of a similar commission in order that it may meet and cooperate with the commissions of the States named.

Along these and other similar lines it seems to me that the House of Governors will be of practical advantage in the beneficial influence it will exert in the promotion of joint action where that is necessary to secure desired ends.

Governor of Oregon

President Roosevelt rendered the American people a great service when he invited the Governors of the various States to a conference at the White House in 1908. The subject of conservation of our natural resources received such attention from the assembled Governors that the conservation movement has spread to all parts of the country, and has gained such headway that it will be of lasting benefit to our people. This one circumstance alone proves the wisdom of the conference of Governors, and it is my earnest hope that the organization be made permanent, with annual meetings at our national capital.

Such meetings can not help but have a broadening effect upon our State Executives, for, by interchanging ideas and by learning how the governments of other States are conducted, our Governors will gain experience which ought to prove of great benefit, not only to themselves, but to the commonwealths which they represent. Matters pertaining to interstate relations, taxation, education, conservation, irrigation, waterways, uniform legislation, and the management of State institutions are among the subjects that the conference of Governors will do well to discuss; and such discussions will prove of inestimable value, not only to the people of our different States, but to our country as a whole.

The West is in the front rank of all progressive movements and welcomes the conference of Governors as a step in the right direction.

Governor of Florida

I can only estimate the significance and importance of this conference of Governors by my experience from such a conference in the past. It was my good fortune to be for a week last October on the steamer excursion down the Mississippi River. The Governors held daily conferences. Several elucidated the manner in which some particular governmental problems were solved in their respective States, all of which was more or less interesting. Of the several Federal matters discussed, it was specially interesting to me to hear the various Republican Governors discussing State rights, disputing the right of interference of the General Government on such lines. It "kinder" made me smile. In formal discussions of such matters in public, in Washington, it is probable that such expressions would not be made.

The result of this conference made me feel as if I knew the Governors and the people of the various States therein represented far better than I had before. Such discussions, with the attending personal intercourse, naturally tend to give those participating in them a broader nationality.

The House of Governors will convene; there will be many pleasant social functions and many pleasant associations will be formed. Some of the Governors will speak; all of them will resolute. They will behold evidences of the greatness of our common country and the evidence of the greatness of our public men, as displayed in the rollicking debates in the House, and the "knot on the log" discussions of the Senate. Everything will be as lovely as a Christmas tree. The House will then adjourn.

Governor of Missouri

During recent years, the development of the National idea has carried with it a marked tendency on the part of the people to look to the National Government for the correction of all evils and abuses existing in commercial, industrial, and political affairs. The importance of the State Governments in the solution of such questions has been minimized, and, in some cases, entirely overlooked, although Congress has been behind, rather than in advance of, public sentiment upon many questions of national importance. The Congressmen are elected by the people of the different Congressional Districts, and regard their most important duty as looking after the interests of their respective districts. The United States Senators are elected by the legislatures of the several States, and do not feel that sense of responsibility to the people that is incident to an election by the people. The Governors of the various States are elected by all of the people of the State, and they are more directly "tribunes of the people" than any other officials, either in our National or State Governments. These officers will thus give a correct expression of the sentiment of the people of the States upon public questions.

While these expressions of opinion will naturally vary according to the sentiments and opinions of the people of the various States represented, yet, on the whole, they will represent more of progress and more of actual contact with present-day problems than could be secured from any similar number of public officials. And the addresses and discussions will also tend to mold the opinions of the people and have a marked influence not only upon State, but also upon National legislation.

1Reproduced from The Craftsman of October, 1910, by permission of Gustav Stickley.

2The following letters are reprinted by permission from a collection of such commentaries from Collier’s Weekly.


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Chicago: William G. Jordan and The Governors, "The United States House of Governors:A New Machinery Added to the Federal Form of Government," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024,

MLA: Jordan, William G., and The Governors. "The United States House of Governors:A New Machinery Added to the Federal Form of Government." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Jordan, WG, The Governors, 'The United States House of Governors:A New Machinery Added to the Federal Form of Government' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 21. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from