Of the people, by the people and for the people: Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention

June 15, 2021 5:08 am

A chrome lithograph of the Montana Capitol in Helena (Library of Congress, Public Domain).

Ten, twelve? How many lawsuits challenging laws passed during the 2021 legislative session will emerge? The Republican majority’s behavior during the session exemplified extreme partisanship, disregard for citizen input and little appreciation of Montana’s Constitution.

Perhaps a history lesson would be helpful to understand the significance of our state Constitution and why their assault on it is so disturbing.

The Montana Constitution Preamble states: “We, the people of Montana, grateful of God for the quiet beauty of our state, for the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish this constitution.”

Ratified in 1972, the Montana Constitution and the preamble resonate as strongly today as when it was created. Considerably shorter than the convoluted, contradictory 1889 constitution, the 1972 Constitution reflects enduring principles embedded in “Big Sky” country.

The preamble was inspired by Charlie Russell’s paintings, by John Steinbeck’s writings and the words of Chief Joseph. It was inspired by Montana’s landscapes, quality of life, fairness, dreams for future generations. Authors of the preamble were two young delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Bob Campbell and Mae Nae Ellingson. Influenced by an exhibit of Charlie Russell paintings and Campbell’s solitary drive home through a wintry landscape of snow covered mountains, these two young delegates crafted an introduction to a document that continues to touch hearts and minds. While most of the words were crafted by Campbell and Ellingson, other delegates helped fine-tune the preamble by suggesting wording to address federalism, spirituality and human dignity.

Scholars have written extensively on the spirit of Montana’s 1972 Constitution, citing the  Convention or “Con-Con” and the Constitution and preamble as examples of populism and modernization. The grassroots process to simplify and streamline an awkward, outdated constitution was clearly “of the people, by the people and for the people”.

Most agree the Con-con was a breath of fresh air. Montanans were tired of “smoke filled back room” politics lead by corporate interests, entrenched politicians and uneven voting districts. Gov. Forrest Anderson also helped during his administration by reorganizing the executive office and thus assuring Montanans that change was good and needed. The time was right as a convergence of international and national events set the stage for an ambitious undertaking in the state. It was also a time of generational transformation unprecedented in the country’s history. Issues of environmental concern, voting rights, recognition of Native American cultures and respect for individual privacy grounded the discussions.

In 1971, the Anaconda Copper company whose major revenue was from mines in Chile was taken over by the Chilean government. Overnight the Anaconda Company lost millions of dollars and faced bankruptcy. Montana mines were shut down, thousands of Montanans lost their jobs. Almost simultaneously, Montanans began reacting against the North Central Power Study, a federal study that recommended the nation address its energy needs by constructing coal-fired electrical generation plants fueled by coal strip mines.

Montanans rallied. Grassroots groups formed to actively stop the degradation of Montana. Elected officials were lobbied hard. People were empowered. A few years earlier, another cornerstone for the foundation of creating a new constitution in Montana emerged after the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruled state senate districts had to be based on population, rather than area. The “one person, one vote” decision had a tremendous impact on Montana and single member districts were redrawn.

In November 1971, Montanans went to the polls to elect delegates to the constitutional convention. A Montana Supreme Court ruling prevented legislators and other elected officials from serving in the Convention. The one hundred elected “Con-Con” delegates were diverse.  More than half were born in Montana, the majority were married with children. One-fourth were attorneys, others were farmers and ranchers, businessmen, educators and clergy members.

There were 19 women, most who listed their occupation as “housewife.” Forty served in the armed forces and half of the delegates identified as Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians or Congregationalists. Fifty-eight were Democrats, 36 were Republicans and six Independents. Delegates sat in the House Chamber in alphabetical order and Leo Graybill from Great Falls was elected President of the Convention. After fifty-four days of deliberation, debate and collaboration, a new constitution was drafted.

To fully appreciate spirit and impact of the Con-con, visit the House Chambers in the Capitol and study Charlie Russell’s painting, “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole.” It’s a painting depicting the expansive prairie, a place where Lewis and Clark asked Montana’s Salish people for directions to the safest route over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Just as the painting illustrates a historic meeting and journey made possible through cultural relationships, consider how the 1972 Constitution set an inspiring framework for new journeys and new possibilities for generations to come.

Jim Garlington, a Con-Con delegate stated it best “I think our Constitution is the finest gift to the young people of Montana that is within our power to give”.

Montana’s 1972 Constitution has provided a broad foundation underlaying the state’s transition from a 19th century extractive resource economy. Sadly, the 2021 Republican leaders have failed to show any understanding or appreciation of this remarkable legacy. They have taken us hostage, propelling our state backward to a 19th century mindset.

Lynda Bourque Moss served as a Montana State Senator 2005 from 2011.

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