Walter M. Pierce

Walter M. Pierce

Infobox Governor
name= Walter M. Pierce

caption=Governor Pierce
office= Governor of Oregon
term_start= January 8, 1923
term_end= January 10, 1927
predecessor= Ben W. Olcott
successor= I. L. Patterson
state2= Oregon
district2= ushr|Oregon|2|2nd
term2= March 4 1933January 3 1943
preceded2= Robert R. Butler
succeeded2= Lowell Stockman
birth_date= birth date|1861|5|30|mf=y
birth_place= Morris, Illinois
death_date= death date and age|1954|3|27|1861|5|30|mf=y
death_place= Salem, Oregon
spouse= Clara Rudio Pierce (died, 1890)
Laura Rudio Pierce (died, 1925)
Cornelia Marvin Pierce
profession= Lawyer
party= Democratic

Walter Marcus Pierce (May 30, 1861 - March 27, 1954) was an American politician, a Democrat, who served most notably as the 17th Governor of Oregon and a member of the United States House of Representatives from ushr|Oregon|2. A native of Illinois, he served in the Oregon State Senate before the governorship, and again after leaving the U.S. House. Pierce is also the namesake of the United States Supreme Court case of "Pierce v. Society of Sisters" on compulsorily public education.

Early life

Pierce was born to Charles M. and Charlotte L. (nee Clapp) Pierce, Jacksonian Democrat farmers in Morris, Illinois on May 30, 1861. At the age of 17, he began teaching school despite only having a secondary education.

The ideas of Manifest Destiny as espoused by Horace Greeley, influenced Pierce to move west in 1883. He was also influenced to move west because of a diagnosis of having tuberculosis. After arriving in Portland, Oregon in June of that year, he found no available work. After a time working the wheat fields of Walla Walla, Washington, he earned enough money to finally settle in Milton, Oregon in Umatilla County. There, he returned to a career in education, and established a successful farm.

As an educator, Pierce was drawn into local politics. He became well known for his pro-temperance views, as he regularly spoke out against saloons selling alcohol to his students. In 1887, he married one of his students, Clara R. Rudio, who died during childbirth only three years later. The child was named after her mother. He married Clara's sister Laura in 1893. They had five children: Loyd, Lucile, Helen, Edith and Lorraine. Laura died of cancer in 1925. His third wife was Cornelia Marvin, the Oregon State Librarian, whom he married in 1928.

From 1886 until 1890, Pierce served as Superintendent of Umatilla County Public Schools. From 1890 until 1894, he served as Umatilla County Clerk, a prosperous time in which he earned enough money from land transactions to further his education. He then returned to Illinois with his family to attend Northwestern University, earning his Bachelors of Law degree in 1896.

Early political career as a state senator

After graduation, the Pierce family returned to Oregon, where Walter set up a successful law firm in Pendleton. From 1896 to 1906, he managed a power company, speculated in land, and became one of the state's most renowned Hereford cattle breeders. He won election to and resumed the office of County Clerk, between 1899 and 1903.

Pierce won a seat in the Oregon State Senate in 1902. In his first term, he unsuccessfully attempted to win passage of prohibition legislation, while successfully winning passage of a state subsidy of $6 per child for education. He was defeated at the polls for reelection, and retired from politics for a decade beginning in 1906.

While out of politics, Pierce continued local and statewide activities. He took part in founding the Oregon Farmer's Union and the Public Power League, headed the State Taxpayers League, and took a seat on the board of Regents of Oregon Agricultural College from 1905 to 1927. He began advocating for using the Columbia River for hydroelectric power during this time.

Pierce won the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 1912, but lost to Harry Lane in the general election. In 1916, he was reelected to the state senate. Pierce then unsuccessfully ran against incumbent Governor James Withycombe in 1918 as a progressive Democrat. In the next election, 1920, he lost his senate seat by only twenty-seven votes.


The loss of his State Senate seat did not stop Pierce from further pursuing the Governor's office. In 1922, he ran a successful campaign against Ben W. Olcott, with aid from the Ku Klux Klan.

At the time, the Klan was growing in influence and power across the state, and had crafted an overtly anti-Catholic and anti-semitic compulsory school bill. The bill incorporated the issue of public tax support for private schools, i.e. Catholic schools. Governor Olcott was perceived as Catholic, and defiantly refused to work with the Klan in any way. Pierce had no such qualms, he tacitly accepted the endorsement. He lent his support to the school bill, and was swept into office with the largest margin of victory recorded in an Oregon Governor's race.

As governor, Pierce had to battle with a Republican-dominated legislature. His administration was able to continue the road-building policies of the previous two administrations, but could not win passage of a state income tax or assessed value license fees for automobiles. He attempted to gain support from progressive Republicans on issues of prison reform, reforestation, and hydroelectric development, but divided the state Democratic Party by endorsing Robert M. La Follette for President in 1924. In March 1925, his second wife, Laura, died of cancer.

He refused to work with many groups with their own agendas. A recall effort was begun by the Ku Klux Klan, who had endorsed him only a few years prior. The recall effort was unsuccessful, but he lost the next election.

In the 1926 elections, Republican I. L. Patterson defeated Pierce. Upon leaving the Governor's office, Pierce returned to his ranch in Grande Ronde, Oregon to reflect upon his future political prospects.

During his tenure, he oversaw the passage of Compulsory Education Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1925, on the grounds that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

Pierce wasn't through with politics; he ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 1928. This same year, he married Cornelia Marvin, the first State Librarian of Oregon, his third and final wife. He declined to run for a second term as governor in 1930.

Pierce tried once more for Congress in 1932, a good year for progressive Democrats. He was elected amid excitement over the landslide Presidential election victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Pierce would become a staunch supporter of FDR's New Deal, serving in Congress until his electoral defeat in 1943.

One of the oldest politicians in Oregon history, Pierce retired from politics at age 81. He and his wife Cornelia retired to Eola, Oregon.

He and Cornelia both became involved in the anti-Japanese movement during World War II. The largest reason being the success of Japanese truckers in certain areas of Oregon. This success threatened local residents, who were afraid of a takeover.

He died near Salem, Oregon on March 27, 1954. Cornelia died on February 12, 1957.

See also

* "Pierce v. Society of Sisters", the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Oregon's Compulsory Education Act


* [ Oregon State Library]
* Klooster, Karl. Round the Roses II: More Past Portland Perspectives, pg. 122, 1992 ISBN 0-9619847-1-6
* [ Walter M. Pierce] , Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
* Bone, Arthur H. editor, Oregon Cattleman/Governor/Congressman: Memoirs and Times of Walter M. Pierce, Oregon Historical Society, 1981.

External links

* [ Oregon State Archives: Pierce Administration] -Photo and some public speeches of Walter M. Pierce as Governor.
* [ Guide to the Walter Pierce papers at the University of Oregon]
* [ Political Graveyard]

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