May 8: A big day for Utah in 1895


Salt Lake City’s Main Street in the 1890s.

Wednesday, May 8, 1895, was the last formal day of the Utah Constitutional Convention.

Unlike the lawyer-dominated Philadelphia Convention, the top occupation of Utah delegates was farming, though lawyers were certainly represented. The president of the convention was John Henry Smith, and prominent delegates included Thomas F. Kearns, who would later be a U.S. senator and owner of The Salt Lake Tribune (and donor of the Governor’s Mansion), and Orson F. Whitney, who would later be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There were 97 delegates to the convention, 49 Republican and 48 Democrat. A full 37 had been born outside the United States. Only 28 had been born in Utah.

The Utah Constitution, like other state constitutions, typically gets much less attention than it deserves. This is a problem because under the system adopted by the Framers of the United States Constitution, states, rather than national government entities, were intended to have the most direct interaction with citizens.

The first application for statehood of what would become the Utah Territory was made in 1849, two years after the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. Unsuccessful applications were made five more times over the next four decades. Community leaders in the territory knew immediately (and would have that knowledge confirmed repeatedly over the years) that statehood was the way to protect local autonomy.

Eventually, on July 16, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the Enabling Act for Utah statehood. In the November election of that year, delegates were elected for a constitutional convention. The delegates met in convention from March 4 to May 8 of 1895 and drafted a proposed constitution for the state.

The new constitution was easily ratified by voters the next year. Congress approved and President Cleveland signed the Proclamation making Utah a state on January 4, 1896.

Seventy years later, a vote was held on whether to hold another convention for a major overhaul of the Utah Constitution, but the proposal was rejected by 85 percent of voters. Thus, the 1896 constitution, with occasional amendments, has served us well for well over a century.

In future posts I will talk more about the convention and some of the unique provisions of the Utah Constitution.

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