William U'Ren

William Simon U'Ren

William Simon U'Ren (January 10, 1859-March 5, 1949) was the father of Oregon's Initiative process. A progressive during the turn of the 20th century, he was instrumental in getting initiative, recall and referendum included in Oregon's government.

Early life

William Simon U’Ren was born on 10 January 1859 in Lancaster, Wisconsin, the son of immigrants from Cornwall, England. U’Ren’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were blacksmiths, as were their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers.

In 1885 he earned a law degree in Denver, Colorado. Told he would die of tuberculosis, he moved to Hawaii and worked as a sugarcane boss. Soon, however, he moved back to California, and by 1889, he had settled in Milwaukie, Oregon, where he established a law practice. In 1890, he campaigned vigorously for the Australian Ballot, which won in 1891. It was while he was involved in this campaign that he went to a seance, and met Mrs. Laure Durkee.

Oregon politics

In 1892 U’Ren suffered a severe asthma attack and gave up his law practice. Mrs. Durkee knew that the Lewellings, a local fruit growing family, had often offered lodging and care to hard luck cases, such as U’Ren was. His health was slowly restored at the Lewellings farm. The Lewellings were reformers (with one family member writing “good government being to us what religion is to most people”). U’ren was already a convert to progressive causes, especially the Single Tax proposed by Henry George. Albert Lewelling gave him a copy of James W. Sullivan’s book Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum (1892) and U’ren decided to invest his time and effort in the cause.

U’Ren brought together representatives of the state Farmer’s Alliance and labor unions to form the Direct Legislation League, of which he was named secretary. He had an express goal of implementing the three legs of direct democracy – Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. In 1894 U’Ren was elected chairman at the Populist Party convention, and won approval of an Initiative & Referendum platform plank. In 1896 U’Ren won a seat in the state’s lower house and in 1897 worked the legislature — without success — to gain approval for Initiative & Referendum. After his 1897 defeat, U’Ren reorganized the Oregon Direct Legislation League to broaden the base of Initiative, Referendum & Recall support. The new executive committee included bankers, the president of the state bar association, and Portland Oregonian editor Harvey W. Scott.

U’Ren and the Direct Legislation League won passage of an Initiative & Referendum amendment in 1898. Under the constitution of the time, amendments had to be approved by two successive sessions of the legislature. By 1902 the legislature had approved the amendment and voters had ratified it.

Other initiatives

U'Ren associated himself with many initiative efforts before his death, at age 90, in Portland on March 5, 1949, including banning free railroad passes, popular elections of U.S. Senators, and establishing the first presidential primary in the United States. Two of the more significant early initiatives sponsored by U’Ren were a 1906 constitutional amendment extending Initiative & Referendum powers to local jurisdictions, and a 1908 amendment that gave voters power to recall elected officials. In 1912, he proposed an amendment to the Oregon Constitution to essentially weight each legislator's vote on proposed bills according to the number of votes he received in the last election; this measure failed by a large margin.

U'Ren was a strong proponent of the single tax system advocated by Henry George, but was unsuccessful in getting it adopted in Oregon. After his defeat in a 1914 race for Governor on the single tax platform, he largely withdrew from active politics.


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