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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 22 2012

Eriksmoen: First North Dakota rep had ashes scattered on Capitol grounds

"The only man known to rest forever on Capitol Hill” served as the first U.S. representative in Congress from North Dakota and later was a U.S. senator for 12 years. Henry Hansbrough was hand-picked by Alexander McKenzie to represent his positions in Washington, D.C., and later became his bitter enemy. Hansbrough worked closely with his friend President Theodore Roosevelt, but later supported his Democratic rival, Woodrow Wilson, for president. Hansbrough preceded William Langer by 40 years in being North Dakota’s first “maverick” in the U.S. Senate.

According to the article “The Capitol Nobody Knows,” published in January 1967 in Popular Mechanics, Henry Hansbrough walked into the office of Sen. Gerald P. Nye one fall morning in 1933. He asked the U.S. senator from North Dakota to help him fulfill one last request. One month later, on Nov. 16, 1933, Hansbrough died. His body was cremated, and the ashes were sent to the office of Nye in a shoebox. Nye’s staff carried out Hansbrough’s request by having his ashes scattered beneath an elm tree on the Capitol grounds.

In the 1880s, McKenzie recognized the popularity and leadership ability of Hansbrough, a newspaper publisher in Devils Lake. When North Dakota became a state in 1889, the McKenzie machine threw their support behind Hansbrough, and the Legislature elected the publisher to be the state’s first U.S. congressman. Soon after entering office in 1890, the new senator began gathering support to end the practice of interstate lotteries. This did not please McKenzie, who pushed hard to have the Louisiana Lottery positioned in North Dakota. When the Legislature convened in 1891, they voted to replace Hansbrough with Martin Johnson in the House. Hansbrough then announced he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate and, after 17 ballots, was named to replace incumbent Gilbert Pierce.

As a member of the Senate, Hansbrough focused his attention on agricultural issues, expanding the respect and authority of the U.S. in world politics, putting an end to business monopolies, and ending interstate lotteries. Soon after entering the Senate in 1891, he introduced a bill that would fund irrigation projects from the sale of public lands. The bill had little support, but Hansbrough continued to talk up the issue to the press, sympathetic organizations and congressional colleagues.

By 1894, North Dakota sheep growers were having difficulty competing with the price of wool that was coming in duty-free from Australia and Argentina. When the Wilson-Gorman tariff bill was introduced, which placed wool on the free list, Hansbrough became one of the primary opponents of the bill. In 1895, Hansbrough introduced a bill in the Senate called “The Suppression of Lottery Traffic through National and Interstate Commerce and the Postal Service.” This demonstrated to North Dakota residents that he placed what was best for the people ahead of the moneyed interests that were prevalent in politics.

However, it was at this time that Hansbrough agreed to do a couple of favors for McKenzie. In 1884, the North Dakota political boss had plans to get rich in Alaska and needed a judge in his pocket who would help him out. McKenzie wanted his friend Arthur Noyes appointed Alaskan judge and approached Hansbrough to shepherd Noyes’ appointment through the Senate. The senator agreed, largely because his business partner at the Baraboo Bulletin newspaper from 1880 to 1882 was Walter Noyes, brother of the nominee. Late in 1896, McKenzie was also opposed to Charles Amidon becoming federal judge for the district that included North Dakota. On Feb. 18, 1897, Hansbrough led the fight in the Senate against Amidon’s appointment but failed to convince a majority of senators.

On Jan. 20, 1897, when the 5th North Dakota Legislative Assembly re-elected the U.S. senator, Hansbrough received the votes of all 67 of the Republican legislators, easily defeating his opponent from the Democratic Party. When he returned to his Senate seat in the Capitol, one of Hansbrough’s closest friends and allies was Henry Cabot Lodge, the influential Republican senator from Massachusetts. Both senators were considered expansionists, but Hansbrough looked at his role as “a balanced approach between national interests and international responsibilities.”

The two men joined forces with other expansionists when war was declared on Spain on April 25, 1898, and with the annexation of Hawaii two months later. After hostilities ended in August, Hansbrough agreed with President McKinley that Spain should cede Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands to the U.S., and that Spain surrender all claims to Cuba.

When McKinley’s vice president, Garret Hobart, died in 1899, the Republican Party began looking for a running mate for McKinley in the 1900 election. New York Sen. Thomas Platt did not like New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt because he would not take orders. At the 1900 National Republican Convention, Platt maneuvered to get Roosevelt nominated as vice president so that he was out of the way of the Republican machine in New York. Hansbrough was elated because Roosevelt had lived in what became North Dakota and understood the needs of the state. The two became close friends.

On Nov. 6, 1900, the Republican McKinley-Roosevelt ticket was successful, and on Sept. 14, 1901, McKinley was assassinated. Meanwhile, Hansbrough and Nevada Congressman Francis Newlands submitted a joint proposal to Congress to fund water storage and delivery projects from the sale of public lands. The Newlands-Hansbrough bill passed and found an enthusiastic supporter in the new president. This bill led to Roosevelt’s National Reclamation Act of 1902, which funded 24 large irrigation projects, including the building of large dams. Since that time, Hansbrough is often referred to as “the father of irrigation.”

In 1903, Hansbrough was elected for a third term by the North Dakota Assembly. He spent much of his time dealing with “the issue of huge corporations in the United States. He declared that he and Roosevelt were against the cohorts of combination and corruption because those interests had no concern for the welfare of people.” This put Hansbrough in direct opposition of his old boss Alexander McKenzie. He denounced McKenzie in a letter to the Secretary of War in 1908. By turning against the McKenzie machine, Hansbrough knew he had to wage a vigorous campaign to be re-elected in 1908.

To make it more difficult, this would be the first election where campaign money for massive political ads would come into play. A direct-primary election law was adopted in 1907. Knowing he would be out-spent by the McKenzie machine, Hansbrough was relying on going from town-to-town to present his message. Just as he was about to launch his campaign, Hansbrough came down with a severe abscess in his ear and was hospitalized at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. During his illness, the McKenzie machine threw their resources behind Martin Johnson, the same man who defeated Hansbrough when he ran for re-election to Congress in 1891.

Having lost the election, Hansbrough returned to Devils Lake to again take over active editorship of the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean newspaper. He continued to lambast political corruption in North Dakota and the U.S. In the 1916 election, Roosevelt decided to run as a third-party (Progressive) candidate, and Hansbrough demonstrated his independence by criticizing both Roosevelt and Charles Evan Hughes, the Republican candidate. He wrote, “Never before in all its history has the Republican party been so completely under the domination of evil influences. And at no time in the past has it ever been so devoid of issues.” Hansbrough’s candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won re-election as president.

In 1919, Hansbrough retired to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He moved to Long Island, N.Y., in 1925 and then to Washington, D.C., in 1927. For president, he supported the Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith over Herbert Hoover in 1928. He also endorsed Franklin Roosevelt’s farm program in 1933 shortly before his death on Nov. 16 of that year.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.