Hart, Louis Folwell (1862-1929)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 9/14/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22546
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Louis Hart served as Washington's ninth governor from 1919 to 1925. A plain-speaking, tobacco-chewing man who originally hailed from Missouri, he was a fiscal conservative whose meticulous business policies brought the state's administrative functions into the twentieth century. Hart is known for his development of Washington's administrative code, which restructured state government from a hodge-podge of agencies into a coordinated organization that during his years as governor helped take the budget from a significant deficit to a healthy surplus.


Louis Folwell Hart was born January 4, 1862, in High Point, Missouri, to Thomas Jefferson Hart (1826-1884) and Harriet Shepard Van Artsdalen Hart (1830-1900). Most accounts say he had between five and seven siblings. In the nineteenth century it was typical for most children to complete school after seventh or eighth grade, and Hart finished at age 14. Initially, college was not in his plans. His father, a merchant, encouraged him to open a branch of his store in Cape Galena, and Hart duly operated the store for five years. But he developed bigger ambitions beyond being a country merchant. As a young man he attended Washington University in St. Louis, and at age 19 he went to work in a law office in nearby California, Missouri. Hart also was 19 years old when he wed Ella James (1860-1930) in 1881, and they had six children, five who survived into adulthood: Ralph, Anson, Eula, Laura, and Lou Ella.

Hart and his family moved to Snohomish in March 1889, when Washington was still a territory, but he arrived in time to vote on the state constitution and the first state officials later that year. For nearly ten years the gregarious Hart practiced law out of Snohomish, not making much money but making an increasingly wide circle of friends. He moved to Seattle in 1898 to serve as an agent for the U.S. Special Census Department, where he gathered manufacturing statistics for King and Snohomish counties. He subsequently lived briefly in Republic and in Kent before moving to Tacoma in 1901 to work as the grand secretary of the Odd Fellows fraternity. (He was appointed to the position by Grand Master Samuel Cosgrove [1847-1909], who later briefly served as Washington's sixth governor.) Hart held the position until 1914 or 1915, a year or two after he became lieutenant governor. A 1929 article of his life in The Seattle Times noted, "It was this office that gave him his political opportunity, for it put him in touch with active political workers and placed behind him a compact working force. He turned it to account in 1912" ("Leader of State…").

Lieutenant Governor

In 1912, Hart ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket. It was the year of the famous Republican split in which part of the party left to form the Progressive Party, popularly known by its nickname, Bull Moose. But such drama was not for the down-to-earth Hart, and in any event he was a more conservative Republican who was not known as a progressive. He remained in the traditional Republican party, and it was enough for him to win. He defeated nine other candidates in the primary and three in the general election that November, and assumed office in January 1913.

Though the lieutenant governor was the presiding officer over the state senate, it had been the practice of lieutenant governors in the years before Hart's tenure to allow the senate president pro tempore to take the lead role in the leading the Senate. This practice was fading by 1913, and Hart ignored it entirely, serving as the Senate's presiding officer in the 1913 and 1915 legislative sessions and, after winning reelection in 1916, in the 1917 and part of the 1919 legislative sessions. He became known for his steady, courteous leadership, and enjoyed a successful run in the position: When he became governor in 1919, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote of his Senate stewardship that "no decision of his was ever overruled," ("Republicans Are Returned…") while The Seattle Times added, "…His rulings were regarded as uniformly correct and impartial.  He gained the reputation of being one of the state's best parliamentarians…" ("Hart Active in State…").

Washington's Ninth Governor

On February 12, 1919, Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) was forced to take a leave of absence because of his declining health. Hart became acting governor the same day and pledged to follow Lister's policies until he returned, and he also refrained from filling at least two positions that opened in state offices. But the governor died from chronic kidney disease and heart disease four months later, on June 14, 1919. At 10 a.m. that Saturday morning, Hart was sworn in as Washington's ninth governor inside the Temple of Justice in Olympia, home of the state supreme court. It was an unexpected turn for him. In an article the following morning, the Post-Intelligencer explained, "Gov. (sic) Hart has been frequently referred to in newspaper reports as having made up his mind not to be a candidate for any state office at the expiration of his present term, but to close personal friends and political associates he has repeatedly stated that he had not reached a decision, and that he might file for governor"("Republicans Are Returned…").

Hart's friends and political associates would be proven right, but Hart had health issues which were a major factor in his hesitation about remaining in office. Though it was not common knowledge until later in his career, he struggled with untreated diabetes, particularly while he was lieutenant governor. The condition made him drowsy and even caused him to doze during long meetings, and his enemies tried to capitalize on the seeming weakness. The Seattle Star's political cartoonist frequently drew caricatures of Hart with his eyes closed, while other adversaries suggested the governor was too old or tired for the job. As it turned out, he was neither.

In March 1920 Hart reluctantly called a special session of the legislature to deal with several pressing matters, which included voting on the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution to give women the right to vote nationwide. Though there was some complaint that he was dragging his feet for women's suffrage, the primary reason he objected to calling the session was its cost during a time that the state budget was in a deficit. (It also was less common for special legislative sessions to be held in the state's early history than it later became.) The amendment was unanimously approved by the legislature, and Washington became the 35th and penultimate state needed to ratify it. Tennessee pushed it over the top five months later.

A New Administrative Code

Hart had little trouble winning reelection in November 1920, defeating the second-place finisher, Robert Bridges of the Farmer-Labor Party, by more than 22 percentage points. He was inaugurated in a simple ceremony on January 12, 1921, in the Capitol rotunda. His inaugural address -- which also was his message to the legislature -- introduced a proposal for a new administrative code. It became his signature accomplishment. During the state's first 30 years, approximately 75 administrative agencies had sprung up in a haphazard fashion with little, if any, coordination. It was inefficient and expensive. Hart's plan, which he signed into law in February 1921, reduced this number to 10. Though the code was subsequently revised by the legislature, it proved effective and marked a significant beginning in the modernization of state government.

Hart appointed who he believed to be the strongest candidates to head the new departments without regard to political affiliation, infuriating some of the members of his own party -- there was even talk of recalling the governor among some of the hotter heads. But this soon faded, especially as evidence of success began to show for the new code and for Hart's other economic policies. By the end of 1921, the state's $1 million treasury deficit which he had inherited upon assuming office had been eliminated. This could be attributed in no small part to the governor's personal monitoring of each agency's finances in a loose-leaf ledger that he kept on his desk, which gained notoriety among department heads (and legislators as well) as the governor's "black book." Each agency was required to submit a weekly financial statement, and Hart collated this information into a chart that showed at any time the current balance of each department as well as the balance in the state's general fund.  And woe to any agency head who exceeded his budget, even minimally. He could count on an invitation from Hart to stop by his office so he could personally explain the overage to the governor.

Hart made other proposals during 1921. He asked for a gas tax of one cent per gallon, which the legislature passed, and he asked for a $5-per-head poll tax to pay state veterans for their service in the Great War (World War I). Though the tax passed, it proved unpopular and was repealed by initiative the following year. Hart's recommendation for a state highway patrol passed, though he insisted it operate as an actual highway patrol as opposed to a force dedicated to enforcing Prohibition or dealing with labor unrest, as some suggested. He signed the Alien Land Bill in 1921, barring non-white immigrants from owning property in the state (the legislature repealed the law in 1967), and he signed a bill titled "Prevention of Procreation" the same day. This was a compulsory sterilization law creating categories of individuals that were inmates in state institutions who could legally be sterilized without their consent. At least 685 men and women were subsequently forcibly sterilized until the statute was ruled unconstitutional by the Washington Supreme Court in 1941.

Fiscal Success

By the time the new legislature convened in 1923, Hart's tight fiscal policies had led to a surplus in the state treasury of nearly $4 million. Nonetheless, he continued to urge economy in his legislative address that year. He asked that the gasoline tax be increased to two cents to support the growing state highway system, but he vetoed a bill raising the speed limit on these highways (many of which were still unpaved local roads) from 30 to 35 miles an hour. He vetoed a bill appropriating funds to allow the state to drill for oil on public lands, arguing that the expense was too great and would create a boon for stock swindlers, while he did sign a bill (which he had proposed) that provided for state regulation of sales of stock in the state.

During the early and mid-1920s the racist group Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence in the United States, and it reached Washington. The organization aggressively recruited members and held large rallies in the state, including one near Renton in 1923 and another a mile west of downtown Issaquah in 1924. The governor was asked by the organization to have the national guard provide security at the Renton rally, but he was unsympathetic and pointed out a new state law that prohibited masked assemblies except for "masquerades or amusement" (Newell, p. 319). He refused more strongly the following summer when he did not grant the Klan permission to meet at the state fairgrounds in Yakima. This attracted more attention to the rally, and after the Klan hosted the event on private property, a representative wrote the governor to boast that its attendance had broken records.

Diabetes became easier to treat in the 1920s as insulin came into use as a therapeutic, but while Hart more actively treated his condition during his years as governor, his health problems continued. Accordingly, he announced in December 1923 that he would not seek reelection in 1924. Though he had several candidates in mind to replace him, one had political issues while two others were not interested in running, and he eventually made no endorsement in the governor's race that year.

He faced some criticism during his final year in office over the number of pardons which he had issued from the state penitentiary during the preceding two years, and he received intense criticism episodically during his term after he instructed his lieutenant governor, William "Wee" Coyle (1888-1977), to issue a controversial pardon to the vice-president of the Scandinavian-American Bank of Seattle after it failed. Nevertheless, when he left office on January 15, 1925, he was well-regarded overall, having brought the state treasury from a deficit of more than $1.1 million during his first full year in 1920 to a surplus of $4.5 million in 1924 (some accounts put this figure at more than $5 million).

Later Years

Hart left a legacy of having begun the steps needed to bring the business functions of Washington's government out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. (Symbolically, construction of the capitol campus also began in earnest during his incumbency, further ushering state government into the modern era.) In particular, his administrative code and sound financial practices succeeded in eliminating much of the waste and inefficiencies in state government which had become prevalent by 1920. But though many (including Hart) counted the code as his greatest accomplishment, he had other noteworthy achievements. He was a proponent of new highway construction and was active in the Washington State Good Roads Association, and he was elected president of the organization in 1929. He also built up the state's dairy herds at the state's penal and charitable institutions, an accomplishment which received considerable attention, as the herds subsequently became a source of quality breeding cattle for farmers.

Though Hart hoped to remain in Olympia after he left the governor's office, his wife's declining health caused them to move to Tacoma, where they resided quietly at 4502 North Verde Street. The former governor grew a mustache, practiced law, continued his work in the Good Roads Association, and kept his hand in several fraternal and social organizations, including the Lions Club of Tacoma. He continued to struggle with diabetes.

In December 1929, Hart was hospitalized in St. Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma. Contemporaneous articles said he hoped to get some rest before having some teeth removed, which he felt would improve his overall health. As he prepared for bed on December 4, the fourth night of his stay, his doctor looked in on him and asked how he felt. Hart said he was in no pain and felt unusually well. He went peacefully to sleep, and suffered a massive stroke minutes later. His beloved Odd Fellows handled the funeral services.


Gordon Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1975), 257, 295, 297-298, 305-307, 311, 315, 319; "Lister Forced by Illness to Give Up Duties," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 13, 1919, p. 1; "Louis F. Hart Becomes State's Chief Executive," Ibid., June 15, 1919, p. 26; "Republicans Are Returned to Full Control of State," Ibid., June 15, 1919, p. 26; "Governor Urges Economy in Message to Legislature," Ibid., March 23, 1920, p. 11; Byron Christian, "Retiring Chief Reviews Work Before Solons," Ibid., January 14, 1925, p. 4; "Stroke Ends Career of State Chief," Ibid., December 5, 1929, p. 1; "State's Chief Executive Succumbs After Valiant Battle Against Disease," The Seattle Times, June 14, 1919, p. 1; "Hart Active in State Politics Many Years," Ibid., June 14, 1919, p. 3; "Hart Pays Tribute to Lister in Proclamation," Ibid., June 14, 1919, p. 3; Dora Dean, "Vote for Suffrage at Olympia Is Unanimous," Ibid., March 23, 1920, p. 11; "Inauguration of Hart Marked by Simple Dignity," Ibid., January 12, 1921, p. 1; "Louis F. Hart, Ex-Governor, Dies in Tacoma," Ibid., December 5, 1929, p. 1; "Governor Hart's Body Will Lie in State in Tacoma," Ibid., December 6, 1929, p. 33; "Body of Hart Will Lie in State Before Funeral Tomorrow," Ibid., December 8, 1929, p. 12; M. M. Mattison, "Leader of State Remembered for Bureau Changes," Ibid., December 8, 1929, p. 12; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington Governor Louis Hart signs stringent Alien Land Bill on March 8, 1921" and "Eugenics-based forced-sterilization law approved by Washington Governor Louis F. Hart on March 8, 1921" (by John Caldbick); "Governor Hart signs a new state Administrative Code making significant but short-lived changes in Highway Department organization on February 9, 1921 (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org (accessed August 12, 2022); "Louis Folwell Hart," Find a Grave website accessed August 14, 2022 (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/11178340/louis-folwell-hart); National Governor's Association, "Gov. Louis Folwell Hart," website accessed August 12, 2022 (https://www.nga.org/governor/louis-folwell-hart/); Trevor Griffey, Seattle Civil Rights Labor History Project, "KKK Super Rallies in Washington State, 1923-1924," University of Washington website accessed August 12, 2022 (https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_rallies.htm); "Elections Search Results, September 1912 primary," Washington Secretary of State website accessed August 14, 2022 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_report.aspx?e=124&c=&c2=&t=&t2=&p=&p2=&y=); "Elections Search Results, November 1912 General," Washington Secretary of State website accessed August 14, 2022 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_report.aspx?e=125&c=&c2=&t=&t2=&p=&p2=&y=); "Elections Search Result, November 1920 General," Washington Secretary of State website accessed August 14, 2022 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_report.aspx?e=116&c=&c2=&t=&t2=5&p=&p2=&y=); "Certificate of Death: Ernest Lister," Washington Digital Archives website accessed August 12, 2022 (https://digitalarchives.wa.gov/DigitalObject/Download/0656c1e4-07c2-4d7b-a142-ea52387cc9dc); "Certificate of Death: Louis F. Hart," Washington Digital Archives website accessed August 12, 2022 (https://digitalarchives.wa.gov/DigitalObject/Download/bde556e2-9bc5-449f-847b-3c2d117ff533).



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