The history of the Missouri veto

Something happened at the capitol yesterday that has happened only two dozen times in the state’s history.  And we were there.

I can hear Walter Cronkite wrapping up another episode of the 1950s television show, “You are There,” a program that dramatized historical events as if they were being covered by today’s reporters.  “What sort of a day was it?” Cronkite would ask us at the end of each show. “A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our time.  And you (slight one-beat dramatic pause) were there.”

Mike Lear was in the House and I was in the Senate when the legislature overrode  the bill that is known to its supporters as a religious freedom bill and known to its opponents as the contraception insurance bill.

The legislature has overridden only 24 bills since 1820, the year before Missouri was even a state.  Two of those overrides are bills vetoed by Governor Nixon.  Governor Bob Holden had three overrides.  But the override champion is Governor Daniel Dunklin, who has half of all of the vetoes.

We have had a list of veto overrides tacked to the bulletin board in our office for several years. Our friend Marc Powers had updated an original list created by former House staffer Darrell Jackson.  You’ll find Marc’s updated update at the end of this discussion.

Congress allowed Missourians to elect a governor, other state officers, and a state legislature in 1820 so the soon-to-be state could create a constitutional convention and create a state constitution that would have to be approved by Congress before the area could join the union.  Governor Alexander McNair vetoed a bill on legislative expenses.  In October, 1820, the House overrode the veto 28-7.  The
Senate voted 9-3 for the override.  Missouri enered the Union on August 10, 1821.

Our fifth governor and the Veto King was Daniel Dunklin, who served 1832-1836.  Twelve of the bills he vetoed were enacted into law despite his objections.  And what was he so upset about?


Divorce did not become entirely a matter for the courts in Missouri until 1853.  They were hard to get in those days and usually required proof of long-term fault. Divorce was expensive, even then, and that discouraged a lot of filings.  There were not many legal grounds that could be used. And on top of everything else, divorce was considered a family disgrace.   It was so bad that women sometimes just walked out on their husbands and started referring to themselves as widows, often moving in with some other man because the unattached woman in those days was in a terrible situation.  (Missouri finally decided divorces could be granted without the agony of alleging fault in 1973).

So how could people get divorces in those days if they couldn’t afford to go to court and they didn’t want to just walk away from each other?   They asked the legislature to pass a bill granting them a divorce.

We stopped by the legislative library this morning, where Ann Rotman, the chief library lady there, dug out the state statues from those early days.

Mary Ann (Lawrence) Dunlap and David Dunlap were given permission by the legislature to divorce.  Governor Dunklin vetoed the bill because a legislatively-granted divorce was valid only in the state where it was granted.  A court-ordered divorce, he argued, was recognized throughout the land.  He also argued that legislative divorces violated the separation of powers because it constituted one branch of government also exercising the powers of another. In this case the legislature was assuming powers that should be reserved to the judicial branch.

If marriage is considered a civil contract, which it was then and is today, he argued, both the political as well as the legal branch of government could have jurisdiction.

Well, what if marriage was a matter of “law or equity.”  In that case, the state constitution clearly ut the powers to grant divorces only in the court system.  Dunklin said he vetoed the bill becasue “every branch of this government has concurred in assigning the power to grant divorces to the Judiciary.”   And he cited state law saying circuit courts had the power in all cases of divorce and alimony.   So he vetoed the Dunlap divorce bill.  And the state senate voted 11-7 to override the veto. It was joined by the House on January 31m 1833  on a vote of 31-15.  The Dunlaps were no longer mister and missus.

Dunklin vetoed Eliza Gay’s divorce bill for the same reason.  The same day the legislature overrode the Dunlap divorce, the legislature overrode the veto of the Gay divorce bill, 10-7 in the “Senate and 31-15 in teh House.

In February, Dunklin vetoed the divorce bill of Winaforde B. Hicks from Ammon Hicks, citing the same reasons.  The House overrode 33-10 and the Senate overrode 12-4.

The legislature got real serious when it voted to put asunder the marriages of Solomon Fisher and Susan Fisher, Sophia and Robert K. Hamilton, Mary and Barnabas Wallace, Elizabeth and John Dedmore, Martin and Elizabeth Bonham, and Sara Ann Washbuirn and Leander Washburn.  Nope, said Dunklin.  Putting several couples into one of these bills didn’t make the bill legal. The legislature said, “Oh yes, it does,” the senate voting 11-5 and the House voting 28-14.

Well, said the legislature, if we can’t get six divorces in one bill past the governor, what will he do if we put THIRTY-SIX couples in a bill.

Vee-toe, said Governor Dunklin.  Over-ride said the legislature.

And so it went on through February 13, 1833, when the last override happened.  A dozen bills allowing more than 50 couples to divorce.

Lord, Lord, Lord—-We are grateful that divorces don’t have to be approved by the legislature today.  How much do you want to bet that the phrase “family values” never came up during the debate on divorces in the 1830s.  But today?   Let’s not go there.

Well, anyway, out of this divorce confrontation between the governor and the legislature came a new state law that went into effect in April, 1833.  The first part of the law granted courts divorce authority  in cases where one of the parties was convicted of an “infamous crime.”  However the parties could not legally marry someone else for two years afer the divorce became final.

The last provision of the bill bluntly said, “No divorce shall hereafter be granted by the General Assembly” unless the person seeking the divorce notified the legislature  two months before the session started.

Even that law wasn’t good enough.  A final divorce bill passed later in February, after all of Dunklin’s vetoes, granting Gentry Fry’s divorce from his wife, Elvira, wound up in the court system.  In August, 1835, the state supreme court agreed with Dunklin that the power to grant divorces belongs entirely to the judiciary.

State law banned marriage between whites and blacks in 1835. The law stood until 1969.  Missouri banned bigamy in 1865. Marriage licenses, however, were not required until 1881.  Common law marriages have not been recognized here since 1921.

Six years went by before the legislature overrode Governor Lilburn Boggs’ veto aof a bill establishing a criminal court in St. Louis County.  The legislature overrode Governor Sterling price twice, once on a nine-million dollar bond issue for the Pacific, Hannibal & St. Joseph, North Missouri, and St.Louis and Iron Mountain railroads, and again on a bill providing as much as $250,000 in bonds to build the Cairo and Fulton Railroad.  Those were in 1853.

Missouri didn’t see another veto for 121 years, until the Democratic legislature fired up by nurses, overrode young Christopher Bond’s veto of a nursing regulation bill.

Lawmakers overrode Joe Teasdale’s veto of money for he Truman State Office building’s construction in 1980.

Mel Carnahan’s veto of a bill banning “partial birth” abortions was overridden in 1999.

Bob Holden vetoed a bill allowing licensed Missourians to carry concealed weapons and another requiring a 24-hour waiting period before having an abortion.  The legislature put those bills on the law books anyway.

The next veto did not come for eight years.   In 2011, Governor Nixon vetoed the bill outlining new congressional districts.  Lawmakers overrode it.

And then yesterday, history was made with the 24th veto in state history.

And we were there.


(Marc and Darrell’s list)

The Missouri General Assembly has successfully overridden a gubernatorial veto just 24 times in state history. Those overrides came on 23 entire bills and one budget line item. Below is a listing of all successful overrides.

1. 1820 Override of Gov. Alexander McNair’s veto of a legislative compensation bill. House 28-7, Oct. 19, 1820; Senate 9-3, date unknown.

2. 1833 Override of Gov. Daniel Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Dunlap divorce. Senate 11-7, Jan. 28, 1833; House 31-15, Jan. 31, 1833.

3. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Gay divorce. Senate 10-7, Jan. 28, 1833; House 31-15, Jan. 31, 1833.

4. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Hicks divorce. House 33-10, Feb. 2, 1833; Senate 10-6, Feb. 5, 1833.

5. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting 36 divorces. House 30-15, Feb. 8, 1833; Senate 12-4, Feb. 9, 1833.

6. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Dedmore divorce. Senate 11-5; Feb. 9, 1833; House 28-14, Feb. 11, 1833.

7. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Fisher divorce. Senate 13-3, Feb. 9, 1833; House 28-11, Feb. 11, 1833.

8. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Bonham divorce. Senate 12-4, Feb. 9, 1833; House 28-11, Feb. 11, 1833.

9. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Hamilton divorce. Senate 12-5, Feb. 9, 1833; House 28-11, Feb. 11, 1833.

10. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Wallace divorce. Senate 11-5, Feb. 9, 1833; House 28-11, Feb. 11, 1833.

11. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Renard divorce. Senate 13-3, Feb. 9, 1833; House 27-10, Feb. 12, 1833.

12. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the Washburn divorce. Senate 11-5, Feb. 9, 1833; House 27-10, Feb. 12, 1833.

13. 1833 Override of Gov. Dunklin’s veto of a private bill granting the St. Cyr divorce. House 26-12, Feb. 12, 1833; Senate 11-3, Feb. 13, 1833.

14. 1839 Override of Gov. Lilburn Boggs’ veto of a bill establishing a criminal court in St. Louis County. House 66-18, Jan. 29, 1839; Senate 18-11, Jan. 29, 1839.

15. 1855 Override of Gov. Sterling Price’s veto of a bill to provide $9 million in bonds to complete the Pacific, Hannibal & St. Joseph; North Missouri; and St. Louis & Iron Mountain railroads. House 67-49, Dec. 10, 1855; Senate 20-11, Dec. 10, 1855.

16. 1855 Override of Gov. Price’s veto of a bill to provide up to $250,000 in bonds for construction of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad. House 67-37, Dec. 11, 1855; Senate 21-6, Dec. 11, 1855.

17. 1976 Override of Gov. Kit Bond’s veto of SB 108 establishing the Nursing Practices Act. Senate 27-7, Jan. 14, 1976; House116-44, Jan. 21, 1976.

*18. 1980 Override of Gov. Joe Teasdale’s line-item veto of a budget appropriation contained in HB 12 for construction of the Truman State Office Building. House 141-21, Jan. 16, 1980; Senate 32-1, Jan. 16, 1980.

19. 1999 Override of Gov. Mel Carnahan’s veto of HB 427 banning so-called “partial birth abortions.” House 127-34-1, Sept. 15, 1999; Senate 27-7, Sept. 16, 1999.

20. 2003 Override of Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of HB 349 authorizing licensed Missourians to carry concealed weapons. House 115-43-1, Sept. 10, 2003; Senate 23-10, Sept. 11, 2003.

21. 2003 Override of Gov. Holden’s veto of HB 156 mandating a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion. House 121-38, Sept. 10, 2003; Senate 25-8, Sept. 11, 2003.

22. 2003 Override of Gov. Holden’s veto of SB 13 barring lawsuits against firearms manufacturers over the social costs of gun violence. Senate 23-10, Sept. 11, 2003; House 119-38, Sept. 12, 2003.

23. 2011 Override of Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of HB 193 establishing new congressional districts. House 109-44, May 4, 2011; Senate 28-6, May 4, 2011.

24. 2012 Override of Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of SB 749 allowing employers and insurance companies to refuse to provide coverage for contraception under employee health benefit plans. Senate 26-6, Sept. 12, 2012; House 109-45, Sept. 12, 2012.

 * Line-item veto on a budget bill.

NOTE: From 1820 through 1874 only a simple majority in each chamber was necessary to override a gubernatorial veto. Since 1875, two-thirds majorities have been required.


Compiled May 5, 2011; updated Sept. 12, 2012


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