"It will be your own fault if you do not frame the best constitution ever written," William Jennings Bryan admonished the delegates meeting in Guthrie in 1906 to draft Oklahoma's constitution. The members of the Constitutional Convention had invited Bryan to address them in person, but Bryan's schedule prevented him from attending; instead, he wrote a letter listing the items he hoped they would include. Statehood, however, proceeds from the writing of a state's constitution, and that process begins in the U.S. Congress.
On June 6, 1906, Congress passed the Oklahoma Enabling Act providing for single statehood to be formed from Oklahoma and Indian territories. On November 6 of that year elections were held in both territories for delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Each territory elected 55 delegates, and 2 additional delegates were elected from the Osage Nation. Of the 112 delegates, 99 were Democrats (the "ninety and nine"), 12 were Republicans (the "twelve apostles"), and the remaining delegate was an independent (the "renegade"). The delegates elected the colorful William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray as president. He was subsequently elected speaker of the house in the First Legislature and was elected governor in 1930.
The Constitutional Convention began in Guthrie on November 20, 1906, and adjourned on March 15, 1907. There were two additional week-long sessions to finish the document. The date set for placing the document before the voters was September 17, 1907 (symbolically chosen because September 17 was when the drafters of the U.S. Constitution adjourned their convention in 1787).
William Jennings Bryan did come to the state to encourage adoption of the proposed constitution. Having early on admonished the convention in his letter to rely on earlier state constitutions to produce the best constitution ever written, he publicly announced that he thought they had, in fact, done just that. The citizens of the two territories seemed to agree; 71 percent voted for its adoption. (The voters also overwhelmingly elected Democrats to fill positions created by the constitution.) On November 16, 1907, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, after signing the proper papers, proclaimed that "Oklahoma is now a state."
While there was little that was new in the Oklahoma Constitution, the members of the convention followed Bryan's advice and consulted numerous state constitutions, the proceedings of the Sequoyah Convention, and the U.S. Constitution in producing a document that was innovative in the sense that so many progressive provisions were included.
The drafters recognized the importance of separation of powers by creating the legislative, executive, and judicial departments and even explicitly recognizing it in Article IV. They also recognized the state as a part of the Union, hence giving a constitutional nod to the notion of federalism. They also explicitly recognized (unlike the framers of the U.S. Constitution) the power of Oklahoma courts to exercise judiciary review.
Early in the document (Article II), the drafters enumerated thirty-three rights in the Bill of Rights Article. This was followed by the article on suffrage. The right to vote, except in school board elections, was restricted to males. (The constitution was amended giving women the right to vote in 1918, two years before the U.S. Constitution was amended giving women the right to vote.)
The legislature article describes the branch (House members have two-year terms; Senators have four-year terms) and gives the power of the legislature. The influence of the Progressive Movement can be seen in the numerous restrictions placed on that body.
The article on the Governor's Cabinet was similar to that found in most other states. The governor was given a four-year term and was prohibited from being elected twice successively (amended in 1966, in the Governors Consecutive Terms Amendment, so that a governor could be elected to two successive terms). Numerous executive offices and boards were created, all mostly elected positions.
The judicial article provided for the election of judges (changed years later to appointment with retention elections) and stipulated that juries of fewer than twelve members could be used in some cases.
Several provisions of the constitution were included for the regulation of certain interests. Entire articles were devoted to corporations (IX), revenue and taxation (X), education (XIII), and banks and banking (XIV). The details of these articles display the drafters' distrust of legislatures and a concern for problems occurring during territorial days.
The progressive spirit was also evident in the provisions permitting the initiative and referendum. Only four other states (of the forty-six states in 1907) included these provisions in their constitutions. Provisions were also included for amending the constitution, including allowing the voters themselves to initiate and approve amendments (only the second state to allow this method, called initiative and referendum). Oklahoma's constitution of about fifty thousand words, one of the nation's longest, has been made longer by the relatively frequent use of the amending process (although the document has never been completely rewritten).
Amending has also resulted in several significant changes. Following a 1941 amendment the legislature has been required to balance the state's budget. In 1966 an amendment allowed annual legislative sessions (although in 1989 the voters approved an amendment mandating short legislative sessions). In 1990 Oklahoma became the first state (through amending) to place term limits on members of the state legislature, in the Term Limits Amendment. In 1992 voters approved an amendment stipulating that no bill passed by the legislature raising taxes would go into effect unless passed by a two-thirds vote of both houses.
William Jennings Bryan told the members of the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention that they had borrowed the best provisions of the existing state and national constitutions and had, in the process, created the best constitution ever written. Scholars who believe that brief constitutions devoid of policy make the best constitutions would disagree with Bryan's assessment.
SEE ALSO: BUDGET BALANCING AMENDMENT, CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, DEMOCRATIC PARTY, ENABLING ACT, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS, GOVERNOR'S CABINET, GOVERNORS CONSECUTIVE TERMS AMENDMENT OF 1966, JUDICIARY, LEGISLATURE, WILLIAM HENRY DAVID MURRAY, PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT, REPUBLICAN PARTY, TERM LIMITS AMENDMENT OF 1990, TERRITORIAL POLITICS.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Danny M. Adkison and Lisa McNair Palmer, The Oklahoma Constitution (Greenwood, Conn.: Greenwood Press, May 2001). Danny M. Adkison, "The Oklahoma Constitution," in Oklahoma Politics and Policies: Governing the Sooner State, ed. David R. Morgan, Robert E. England, and George G. Humphreys (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991). Albert H. Ellis, A History of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Oklahoma (Muskogee, Okla.: Economy Printing Co., 1923). Irvin Hurst, The 46th Star: A History of Oklahoma's Constitutional Convention and Early Statehood (Oklahoma City, Okla: Semco Color Press, 1957). William H. Murray, "The Constitutional Convention," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 9 (June 1931).
Danny M. Adkison
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