Notable Oregonians: William U'Ren - Political Reformer

William U'Ren in pinstripe suit
William U'Ren, 1859-1949. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
William U'Ren was born in Lancaster, Wisconsin on January 10, 1859, the son of William and Francis U'Ren. As as youth he lived and studied in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. He attended Denver Business College from 1878 to 1879 before studying law for two years. After passing the Colorado bar, U'Ren practiced law for eight years in Gunnison and Denver. He moved to Oregon City, Oregon in 1889 to practice law, becoming involved in Republican Party politics.
A quiet, contemplative man, he was nonetheless determined to change public participation in Oregon government. U'Ren supported the ideas of James W. Sullivan, author of Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum (1892). He hoped to empower common citizens in his desire to wage war on vested interests, corruption, and the tensions that set classes against each other. In 1897 he gained a seat in the legislature as a candidate of the People's Party. From there he was in a position to maneuver toward his goal of direct legislation.
In what was known as the "Holdup of '97," U'Ren, Representative Jonathan Bourne, and others forged a coalition and used a cumbersome procedural process to gain approval of a constitutional amendment to institute the initiative and referendum process. The amendment was later ratified by a resounding public vote in 1902.
For the first time since its adoption in 1857, the state constitution was amended. This opened the floodgates to additional progressive legislation in the next ten years including the direct primary in 1904, the direct election of United States senators in 1906, the recall of public officials in 1908, the presidential preference primary in 1910, and woman's suffrage in 1912. By continuing to exercise U'Ren's legacy of direct legislation, Oregon voters have had a direct and significant impact on the actions of the legislature and state government.
U'Ren died in Portland on March 8, 1949 at the age of 90.
(Sources: Oregon Blue Book | Portland: Its History and Builders, vol. 2)
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