Bone, Homer Truett, 1883-1970

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1883-01-25
Death 1970-03-11

Biographical notes:

Homer Truett Bone (1883-1970) was the son of James Milton and Margaret Jane Demaree Bone, and was born near Indianapolis, Indiana. He married Blanche Sly. The Bones moved to Tacoma, Washington, in 1899, and there he had a law practice. In the early 1920s, Bone served as an attorney for Tacoma City Light, the city’s municipally owned utility. He was a Democrat; U.S. Senator, 1932-1944; judge, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, San Francisco, 1945-1954. He was best known for his involvement in the public power movement for electrical utilities, including work as a Senator with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

From the guide to the Homer T. Bone Papers, 1903-1944, (University of Puget Sound Archives)

Homer Truett Bone (1883-1970) was the son of James Milton and Margaret Jane Demaree Bone, and was born near Indianapolis, Indiana. He married Blanche Sly. The Bones moved to Tacoma, Washington, in 1899, and there he had a law practice. In the early 1920s, Bone served as an attorney for Tacoma City Light, the city's municipally owned utility. He was a Democrat; U.S. Senator, 1932-1944; judge, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, San Francisco, 1945-1954. He was best known for his involvement in the public power movement for electrical utilities, including work as a Senator with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

From the description of Homer T. Bone Papers, 1903-1944. (University of Puget Sound Library). WorldCat record id: 746573806

Homer Truett Bone (1883-1970) was a United States senator from Washington from 1933 through 1945 and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, from 1945 through 1954.

“The [U.S.] Senate has lost its mightiest atom,” Time magazine reported in 1944 when Homer T. Bone resigned his seat to serve full time on the federal bench. A man of slight physical stature, Bone became a political giant by freely exercising a talent for invective and scalding sarcasm in support of a passionate commitment to protect the interests of the “common man” against “a class-type society based on wealth” and the “interests” which controlled it. None of the “interests” riled Bone like the private utility companies. “There is nothing lower on earth,” he once groused. He devoted much of his energetic political career battling them on behalf of publicly-owned power utilities, for which he became known, both in Washington State and nationally, as “the father of public power.”

Bone was born near Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1883. By the time Homer reached the eighth grade, his father’s health, weakened by incarceration in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, and finances, lacerated by the 1893 depression, prevented him from providing any support for the family other than a meager Civil War pension. Homer had to abandon his formal education in order to provide money for his family. The Bones moved to Tacoma in 1899, where Homer studied diligently on his own, in addition to working full time. In 1907, he enrolled in night classes at the Tacoma Law School and passed the bar in 1911. His law practice specialized in labor cases and he actively pursued socialist causes, although in 1916 the Socialist party purged him from its ranks because his opposition to direct action in favor of organization and the ballot box proved unacceptably moderate.

In the early 1920s, Bone served as an attorney for Tacoma City Light, the city’s municipally owned utility. He won his first political office when elected in 1922 to the Washington House of Representatives as a member of the Farmer Labor party. Convinced that state ownership of the region’s abundant water power was necessary to ensure all citizens access to cheap electricity, he quickly became a prominent leader of the forces supporting public power in their increasingly bruising battles with the private utility companies. “The question now is breeding a battle that will tear the state wide open,” he predicted, accurately. While his campaign for public power would meet with mixed success during the next decade, Bone’s reputation grew and he captured the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1932. Wesley Jones, his Republican opponent, had held the seat since 1908 but was severely hampered by both ailing health and the extensive unpopularity of his political party. Bone won the election handily.

With enthusiastic support from President Franklin Roosevelt, the freshman senator transferred his concern for public power to the national stage. He believed that society as a whole should benefit from whatever of the nation’s natural resources had not yet been gobbled up by private interests. “Our great public domain, with its timber, coal, and oil lands, has been frittered away,” he lamented. “There is left, inexhaustible and most valuable of our resources, that of water power.” Owning the Columbia River system “would be like owning oil wells that never run dry,” and he fervently believed that the exploitation of such a vast reserve of power should be given “the people,” and not “Eastern power companies.” When bickering between the Interior Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over control threatened to derail the Bonneville Dam project, Bone fashioned the compromise that kept it alive and insured that public and cooperatively-owned utilities were given preference for purchasing the cheap, federally produced electricity.

Bone hated not only the private exploitation of what he believed to be public resources, but also political power purchased by profits gained from private exploitation. In a radio speech, he claimed that “private power companies are notorious for their attempts to control the press, legislatures, other public officials, even judges.” Unless citizens remained constantly vigilant, private power’s extensive and expensive propaganda machine would seduce public opinion and undermine democracy. Even though Bone attacked the supporters of private power for rampantly smearing their opponents with the “Bolshevik” label, he was not immune from using excessively-charged rhetoric himself. Reacting to a private-power plan in 1940 to “invade” public schools with their point of view, Bone declared “the scheme was worthy of the sinister brain of the Nazi Goebbels. Like the Nazi propagandist, the utilities adopted lying as a propaganda weapon.” He declared years later that “if they wanted to be rough, I thought I’d get a little rough, too!”

Even though Bone’s fame rests on his fight for public power, his accomplishments in the Senate exceeded this one issue. He called attention to the profits some American munitions manufacturers -- “merchants of death,” as he called them -- had made from the Italo-Ethopian War and other conflicts. As a member of the Senate Munitions Inquiry Committee, he attacked the weapon-makers’ greed, which, he believed, was pushing the United States closer to the “hell of war.” He only abandoned his pragmatic isolationism after the attack on Pearl Harbor rendered it quixotic. Bone also authored the legislation creating the National Cancer Institute at Bethesda, Maryland. When one senator questioned why the federal government needed to expend money for cancer research when private sources donated $200,000 annually, Bone thundered that “such a trifling amount is like spitting on Vesuvius to put out the fire. We need millions to fight this scourge.” The Senate passed the legislation unanimously.

Bone easily won a second term to the Senate in 1938, despite a campaign budget that allowed for little more than gas and oil for his car. An energetic man, Bone found his physical activity sharply curtailed by a broken hip in 1939, an injury from which he never fully recovered. He waggishly remarked on his treatment that “after all these years of having my leg pulled by amateurs, I’m having it pulled by an expert at last.” Despite this good humor, by 1944 the prospect of running a campaign while on crutches dissuaded him from seeking a third term. In April, 1944, President Roosevelt nominated him to the more sedate position of justice on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The Senate voted without dissent to accept the nomination twelve minutes after officially receiving it. Much to the consternation of many of his colleagues, Bone refused to give up his Senate seat immediately because that would have allowed Washington governor Arthur Langlie to fill it with a Republican. When Warren G. Magnuson won the seat in the November general election, Bone finally resigned and Langlie replaced him with the Senator-elect. Finishing Bone’s term importantly provided Magnuson with a 2 ½ month seniority over Arkansas’ William Fullbright.

Bone remained on the federal bench full time until his retirement in 1954 and still occasionally heard cases afterwards. Even though his commitment to justice never faded, his ardor had cooled by the time he had moved to the judiciary. In 1962, the former crusader reflected that he had become an “anachronism.” He noted with melancholy that “most of the old-timers like Homer Bone are dead, and no voice is raised now to resurrect the tribulations of those trying years.” As he became an old man, different issues inflamed Americans’ political passions -- on the day he died in 1970, Seattle police had to quell a student riot at the University of Washington -- but these new issues were not more important nor fought over with any more intensity, commitment, or principle than those that had engaged Homer T. Bone.

From the guide to the Homer Truett Bone Papers, 1932-1948, 1938-1944, (University of Washington Libraries Special Collections)

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Subjects:

  • Public Utilities
  • Merchant mariners--Legal status, laws, etc.--United States
  • Government and Politics
  • Legislators--United States
  • Insurance, War risk--Law and legislation--United States
  • Insurance, Marine--United States--War risks
  • Legislators
  • Public utilities--Law and legislation
  • Judges--United States
  • Judges
  • Electric utilities--Government ownership--United States
  • Washington (State)

Occupations:

  • Politicians

Places:

  • Washington (State) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Washington (State) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Washington (State) (as recorded)