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Missouri Government

Missouri has often been described as a microcosm of the United States.  This is because, in many key respects, Missouri's social, economic and political characteristics are very close to the United States as a whole.  In terms of income, education, age, racial, and religious characteristics, there is a noticeable symmetry.  Since 1904, Missouri has one of the best records of any state of voting for the winner in presidential elections (but we got it wrong in some recent elections!).  This has led some analysts to describe Missouri as "the bellwether state." 


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      Missouri was formed out of the vast Louisiana Territory that was purchased from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.  Since Thomas Jefferson played a key role in gaining what is now Missouri for the United States, the capitol of the state was named Jefferson City after statehood in 1821.  Jefferson City is the location of the State Legislature, the Governor's Mansion, the Supreme Court Building, and various other state offices.

      The first constitution of Missouri was drawn up by the territorial legislature and submitted to the U.S. Congress for its approval.  Because admission of Missouri as a state in 1820 would have resulted in a majority of slave states in the U.S., there was an intense debate in Congress.  President Jefferson  described the quarrel as "a fire-bell in the night."1  From this debate the Missouri Compromise was forged, whereby Maine, a free state, entered the Union as the 23rd state and Missouri, a slave state, entered as the 24th state.  Statehood for Missouri became official on August 10, 1821.

      Missouri has had four constitutions.  The first was adopted in 1820.  It was a brief, basic document that could only be amended by the Legislature, and guaranteed the vote only to free white male citizens.  The second constitution (drafted toward the close of the Civil War in 1865), was submitted to the voters and narrowly ratified by only a 1,862-vote margin.  This document placed some restrictions on the Legislature and provided for popular ratification of amendments.  It was controversial, however, because it included an "ironclad oath" intended to punish former Confederates and Confederate sympathizers.  This constitution lasted only ten years and was replaced by yet another constitution in 1875.  The 1875 Constitution limited taxation, extended the governor's term of office from two to four years, gave strong support to the principle of public education, provided for the popular election of Supreme Court justices, and provided "home rule" to the rapidly growing city of St. Louis.

The 1945 Constitution

      The present Missouri Constitution was drafted by a bipartisan group of delegates during World War II.  These individuals sought to modernize the somewhat antiquated and oft-amended 1875 document.  The new constitution was approved by the voters in 1944 and adopted in 1945.

      Like most state constitutions, the Missouri Constitution is much more detailed than the United States Constitution in such areas as taxation and powers of local government.  Although more cumbersome than the very brief U.S. Constitution, the Missouri document is somewhat similar, particularly in the structure of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) and in the specific enumeration of a "Bill of Rights" for Missouri citizens.  It is, however, much more explicit with respect to the powers and duties of executive branch officers.

      The American citizen has, in effect, dual citizenship.  He or she is expected to obey the laws of both the national ("federal") government and the state government.  When a person runs afoul of the law, the case is most often handled by a state or local court.  Local governments, such as cities and counties, make laws, but only under guidelines established by the state.2  Local governments in Missouri have no sovereignty.

            Missouri state government and its subdivisions regulate such areas as motor vehicles, education, day care, nursing homes, public health, divorce, business licensing, real estate, insurance, and crime.  Under our federal system, there is often aid or cooperation from the national government in performing many of these tasks.  For example, federal money and/or manpower are used to help in road construction or to fight illegal drugs such as methamphetamines.  Just as federal and state governments often cooperate, there is cooperation between state and local governments.  Moreover, city authorities often work with their county counterparts.  Missouri law allows contiguous counties to pool resources relating to such items as road equipment, regional hospitals and regional jails.

      Since World War II some regions of the state have grown rapidly, some have grown little and others--especially northern rural areas--have declined.  Some of the fastest growing counties have been Boone (Columbia); the southwestern counties of Greene, Christian, Stone and Taney; Platte, Clay and Cass (in the Kansas City area); and Saint Charles and Jefferson (in the St. Louis area).  Overall, its fair to say that Missouri has changed a lot since the last Constitution was drafted.

            As Missouri's society has changed and become more complex, there has been a corresponding need to amend the state's Constitution.   Missouri is not unique in this respect. Due to their specific nature, many state constitutions have a plethora of amendments.  For example, the Texas Constitution of 1876 contains over 200 amendments!  Although Missouri's Constitution contains less amendments than the constitutions of some other states, by the mid-1980s it contained over 65 amendments.  By the mid-1990s, the number had jumped to 82!  Remember, the U.S. Constitution contains only 27 amendments.

            Several methods may be employed to amend the Missouri Constitution:


(1)               proposed by a majority vote of the members of each House of the Missouri legislature and ratified by the majority of the votes in an election;


(2)               proposed by a popular initiative petition containing 8% of the registered voters in two-thirds of the U.S. congressional districts in the state (6 of 9) and ratified by a majority of the popular votes in an election;


(3)               proposed by a majority vote of elected delegates at a state convention and ratified by a majority of the popular votes in an election.


            The present Constitution will probably not be the state's last constitution.  Indeed, according to the Missouri Constitution, the state must call an automatic referendum every 20 years to determine whether a constitutional convention should be called to adopt a new constitution. 


      The legislative branch of Missouri government is known officially as the General Assembly.  The General Assembly is a bicameral, or two-house, legislature.  The U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., is bicameral, as are the legislatures of all fifty states except for Nebraska, which changed to a unicameral system in the early 1930s.

      The Missouri Senate has 34 members, who are elected to overlapping terms of 4 years (17 senators are elected in every even-numbered year).  Senators must be at least 30 years of age and be registered voters in the districts they represent.  Senate districts are reapportioned after every  census and must be roughly equal in population (approximately 162,000 people as a result of the 2000 Census).  Senate districts vary enormously in area.  In the 1990s the largest area district was the 12th in the northwest part of the state--it consisted of 16 sparsely populated rural counties and almost 10,000 square miles!

      The Missouri House of Representatives has 163 members, who are elected to terms of two years.3  Representatives must be at least 24 years of age and be registered voters in the districts they represent.  Like the Senate, House districts are reapportioned after every census and must be roughly equal in population (approximately 34,000 following the 2000 Census).

      As a result of a constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters in 1992, there are now term limits on members of the General Assembly.  No one can serve more than eight years in one house, or more than sixteen years total in both.  This stands in stark contrast to the unlimited terms that U.S. Senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives may serve.  

      Like the U.S. Congress, Democrats and Republicans dominate the General Assembly.  However, there was a big change in 2000.  As a result of the 2000 election, there was a shift in party control of the Missouri Senate to the Republicans (18-16) for the first time since 1948.  The House remained Democratic by a margin of 87-76.  So, Missouri began to experience what some describe as "divided government."  Some feared that the state government might suffer "gridlock."  These fears persist.  Today, both houses of the legislative branch are dominated by the Republicans and the governor (Jay Nixon) is a Democrat.

      The General Assembly meets every year from early January until late May.  Many legislators are businesspersons or attorneys and are able to maintain their regular occupations while serving in the Assembly.  As of 2001, the salary was about $31,000, which is above the national average for state legislators.  In addition to their salaries, legislators are provided a number of benefits including offices, secretarial assistance, per diem allowances, mailing privileges, and pensions.4

      Like the U.S. Congress, the General Assembly could be described as the "law-making" branch of government.  It also has powers of oversight and confirmation, among others.  And like the U.S. Congress, committees are very important in organizing the work of the General Assembly.  Every year,  hundreds of bills are introduced to the General Assembly.  Each of these will be assigned to a specific standing committee, depending on its subject matter.  Committees with the most members include Appropriations, Agriculture, Education, and Banks.  Each house operates independently of the other and just because a bill is introduced in the House does not mean it is necessarily introduced in the Senate, or vice-versa.

      The party that controls the House or Senate appoints the chairpersons of every committee for that body.  This means that all Senate and House chairpersons ("chairs") are Republicans.

      The most powerful person in the House is the Speaker.  He or she appoints the committee chairs and decides who in his/her party gets to serve on which committees.  The Speaker is also the presiding officer of the House.  In the Senate, the most powerful person is the President Pro Tem(pore).  This person appoints committee chairs in the Senate.  However, the technical leader of the Senate is the Lieutenant Governor of Missouri.  The Lieutenant Governor is not a member of any Senate committee and may not vote, except to break a tie.

      In many respects, the Missouri Senate and House operate in a similar manner. However, the Senate tends to be more informal, less partisan and somewhat more conservative in appropriating funds.  The Senate allows "unlimited" debate, including the filibuster device.

      Unless bills deal with appropriations, they must contain only one subject.  The great majority of bills die in committee--that is, they never become law.  Bills that enjoy the support of the party leaders and/or have strong interest group or overwhelming public backing have the strongest chance of reaching the governor's desk.  Among the more influential interest groups in Jefferson City are farm groups, trucking groups, the Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries, Anheuser-Busch, MADD, the NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business), the National Rifle Association, the AFL-CIO, teacher organizations and "right to life" groups. 

      Public hearings are normally scheduled for most bills.  When a hearing has concluded, a committee will convene in "executive session."  If a bill receives a majority committee vote, it is placed on the calendar for final floor debate.  If both houses report out a bill favorably but the versions are different, a conference committee composed of both Senators and Representatives meets to "iron out," or compromise, the differences.  Thus, if a Senate bill appropriates $12 million for a new state university building while the House bill allows $14 million, a possible compromise bill would allow $13 million.  If the changes are acceptable, the revised bill is then sent back to both houses for another vote.  If this vote is positive, the bill goes to the governor for signature or veto.  A vetoed bill requires a two-thirds majority to override.  Overrides of gubernatorial vetoes in Missouri are very rare (only seven from 1821 to 2001!).

      Compromise is very important in the legislative process in a democracy.  Deals are made; favors are often exchanged and, of course, friendships are also important.  Legislators who are flexible, friendly and dependable are at a distinct advantage.


            The executive branch is the part of government responsible for enforcing the law. Like many other state governments, Missouri has a "plural executive."  In other words, the logical counterparts to numerous officials appointed at the national level of government are elected independently of the governor in Missouri.  Brief descriptions of some officials are provided below.

Missouri Governor

  The governor, elected statewide every four years, is the person who heads the executive branch.  The governor must be a U.S. citizen, at least 30 years old, and a Missouri resident.  Until 1965, Missouri governors could not be elected to a second consecutive four-year term.  Today, however, the governor may be elected twice--but only twice.  Like the U.S. president, the governor cannot be elected to a third term.  Interestingly, several states, including Illinois and New York, do not place term limits on their governors.

      Of the people who have become governor since statehood, none since 1940 has come from the heavily populated St. Louis area and only one, Joseph Teasdale (1977-1981), in the entire history of the state has come from Kansas City.  This tendency to elect individuals from smaller cities and towns in outstate Missouri shows a distrust of "big city" politicians.6  The great majority, as might be expected, have had some previous service in state, county or municipal government.

      In terms of formal powers, the Missouri governor is one of the more powerful chief executives in the fifty states.  He/she appoints most state judges (described in more detail in the next section of this article), has the general veto and item (partial) veto for appropriation bills, has the ability to call special legislative sessions, can control the rate of state spending, and must give a "State of the State" address to the General Assembly each January.

      The state constitution requires an annual budget message from the governor and it requires that the legislature act on all appropriations recommended in the budget.  Although the Office of Administration plays an integral role in the preparation of the budget, all executive departments participate in this cumbersome process.

      Other gubernatorial powers include appointment and removal of officials; granting of reprieves, commutations and pardons; calling of elections (e.g., statewide issues, vacancies); and serving as commander-in-chief of the state militia.

      Although the governor appoints thousands of state employees, most persons who work as state bureaucrats are employed under a civil service system.  The personnel division of the Office of Administration administers competitive examinations.  Any division of the state bureaucracy that receives federal funds must hire its employees through a merit, rather than a patronage, system.

      In organization terms, in Missouri the major executive divisions for which the governor appoints the heads (with the concurrence of the Senate) consist of ten departments.7  The departments are Revenue, Agriculture, Economic Development, Insurance, Social Services, Mental Health, Natural Resources, Public Safety, Labor and Industrial Relations, and Higher Education.

      In addition to these formal powers, the governor also wields some "informal" powers.  The "threat to veto" can be especially important.  Moreover, the governor is one of the state's foremost public opinion leaders. 

Missouri Lieutenant Governor

      The Lt. Governor is acting governor when the governor is out of state and ex-officio president of the senate. Unlike the Vice President of the U.S. who is elected on the same ticket as the President of the U.S., the Lt. Governor is elected independently of the Governor.  As you might imagine, this can make for some interesting divisions in state government!  Like the governor, the Lt. Governor serves a four-year term.

Attorney General

            The Attorney General is the state's chief law enforcement official, representing the state in legal action and providing an opinion on legal matters.  Once again, like the Governor, the Attorney General is elected to a four-year term.

Missouri Auditor

The Auditor oversees state expenditure and determines whether state funds are being spent properly.  The Auditor is elected to a four year term. Unlike other members of the plural executive, however, this officer is elected in "off-year" elections (2002, 2006, etc.)--elections that do not coincide with the presidential election.

Secretary of State

            Unlike the U.S. Secretary of State, Missouri's Secretary of State is not responsible for foreign policy.  In fact, many people had no idea what powers a secretary of state might wield until the controversial 2000 presidential election. The Secretary is the state's chief elections officer.  This means that he or she is responsible for certifying signatures on initiative and referendum petitions and oversees elections. The Secretary also registers corporations and maintains official state records. Like the other officers, this member of the plural executive is elected to a four-year term.

State Treasurer

The State Treasurer is the custodian of state funds.  As such, he or she is responsible for depositing state money in Missouri banks.  The Treasurer is elected to a four-year term.  Like the Governor, this officer is limited to only two terms of office.


      Besides the departments and other divisions under the control of the governor, the executive branch also consists of five statewide elected officials who are independent of the governor.  Those officials are the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the treasurer, and the auditor.    A brief description of the duties of these officers are provided  in the box below.  Note that all of these persons serve four-year terms and, except for the auditor, are elected (as is the governor) in presidential years.8


Table 1



Official                        Salary (as of 2000)      Brief Description of Office and Duties


Governor                              $112,755            Chief executive, spokesperson for state; limited to two terms


Lieutenant Governor            $68,195              Acting governor when governor cannot assume

                                                                        duties; ex-officio president of Senate; ombudsman

                                                                        for state residents


Attorney General                 $97,899              Principal legal representative for the state and

                                                                        state residents


Auditor                                $90,471              Broad powers to audit public accounts�primarily

                                                                        focuses on state offices/institutions


Secretary of State                $90,471              Chief elections officer; registers corporations; keeper of official state records and state seal


Treasurer                              $90,471              Custodian and investor of state moneys; limited to two terms



      Missouri�s legal system is based on English "common law" that has evolved over the past 1,000 years.  Traditional common law has been superseded gradually by more specifically defined statutory law.  Statutes are laws written and adopted by the General Assembly.  Missouri's statutes must be in accordance with the state's Constitution, which, in turn, must be in compliance with the United States Constitution.  Moreover, municipal ordinances (local laws) cannot conflict with the state statutes or the state constitution.

      Judges in Missouri are engaged in explaining and defining statutes and constitutional provisions because statutes and constitutional statements are not always clear.  Although it is somewhat of a simplification, it can be useful to think of the courts as interpreting laws that have been written by legislators and enforced by persons in the executive branch.

      Missouri's court system is separate from the federal court system.  The average citizen is more likely to come into contact with the state courts than the federal courts because state and municipal jurisdiction encompasses the more "common" areas such as business, regulation, marriage, divorce, child custody,  motor vehicle and traffic issues, landlord-tenant relations and most criminal activity.

      Missouri has a three-tiered court system.  In the lowest tier are the trial courts: circuit, associate circuit, and municipal.  The municipal courts deal with violations of local ordinances (e.g., a person who has been cited for not leashing a dog or for speeding).  Associate circuit courts have jurisdiction in civil cases under $25,000 and all misdemeanor cases.  Every county has at least one associate circuit judge.  Associate circuit judges also rule in cases that are on the docket in small claims courts.  These courts were established in 1979 and handle civil claims of under $3,000.  Representation by an attorney and formal rules of evidence are not required in a small claims situation.  In the larger counties, one associate circuit judge specializes in probate and juvenile cases.

      Circuit courts in Missouri have original jurisdiction in felony cases and civil cases of over $25,000.  There are 45 circuits.  Most of the rural circuits encompass more than one county and have only one circuit judge.  There are considerably more judges in the two major metropolitan areas of the state (Kansas City and St. Loius).

      The middle tier of the Missouri court system consists of the Court of Appeals.  It has three districts: the Eastern District in St. Louis; the Western District in Kansas City; and the Southern District in Springfield and Poplar Bluff.  The Missouri Court of Appeals has general appellate jurisdiction in all cases except those under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (e.g., death penalty verdicts).  Appellate judges serve a 12-year term, circuit judges serve a 6-year term, and associate circuit judges serve a 4-year term.

      The Missouri Supreme Court is at the apex of the state's court system.  It hears cases in specialized areas and has exclusive jurisdiction in five areas, including cases involving the meaning of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.  Missouri Supreme Court judges serve 12-year terms.  There are seven members on the court, and there is a �rotating� chief justice who serves a two-year term.9  Although the Supreme Court has considerable power and influence, much less is heard about it in the media as compared to the governor, attorney general, or the General Assembly.

      The selection of Missouri judges may appear somewhat complicated at first reading.  Missouri uses two systems for selecting judges, unlike the case in most states where only one procedure is used.  The traditional method, partisan selection in the August primary election and November general election, is used to select all the circuit and associate circuit judges in 110 counties mainly in rural Missouri.  Judges are nominated by Missouri voters in August and elected in November.  Their names appear on the ballot with the designation of "Republican," "Democrat," or some other political party.  The other method of selection for judges is much more interesting.  It is known as the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, or Missouri Court Plan.  This method is used to select all Supreme Court and Appellate Court judges and, more recently, has been adopted to select all circuit and associate circuit judges in the metropolitan counties of Jackson, Clay, Platte, and St. Louis, as well as St. Louis City.

      The Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan was approved by voters in 1940 following a strong campaign on its behalf by the Missouri Bar Association, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Kansas City Star, among others.  It was touted as a reform measure that would remove some of the "politics" often associated with the election of judges.

      How does the Nonpartisan Court Plan work?  Whenever there is a vacancy on a court covered by the Plan, the governor must appoint one of three persons whose names have been submitted by a commission of laymen, lawyers and judges.  The nominee selected by the governor assumes the position immediately but must be approved by the voters at the next general election following a full one-year tenure.  After one year, the name of the judge will appear on the ballot without a partisan designation, and the voters are simply asked to vote "yes" or "no" on whether the judge should be retained in office.  If the judge is retained, which is almost always the case, then his or her name must appear on the ballot again after the end of the term (12, 6, or 4 years depending on the position).  Judges cannot run after they reach the mandatory retirement age of 70.

      Missouri was the first state to adopt the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan format and, because of the large number of judges in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, it is now the method for choosing some 55% of non-municipal judges in the state.  At least 15 other states use the Missouri Court Plan, or a modification of it.10 Even Japan now uses a similar system to select its Supreme Court justices!

      The power that the Missouri Court Plan may give to a governor is illustrated by the experience of John Ashcroft.  When governor, Ashcroft appointed all seven Supreme Court justices during his two terms (1985-1993)�including the first woman to serve on the court.  As of March 2001, four of these justices were still sitting on the high court.  Only two of the justices were appointed by his successor, Governor Mel Carnahan.  


This essay provides readers with an overview of Missouri Constitution and the three branches of Missouri's state government.  It is the sincere hope of the writer that this information will help citizens make well-reasoned choices and thereby promote participation in our democracy. But it should also do more than that.

Given the fact that the average American moves every two years, there is a strong possibility that many who read these pages may ultimately reside in another state.  Having gained a fundamental knowledge of Missouri's government will enable these individuals to compare and contrast the various state governments.  The knowledge gained in this class will alert students to the range of other possibilities that have been tried elsewhere.   For example, if you move to Texas, you may learn that the Lone Star State elects all of its Supreme Court justices and press for judicial reform.  On the other hand, if you return to Missouri from Alaska or Texas, you may argue for the creation of a General Land Office--an office of the plural executive that exists only in those two states.    In short, learning about your state government holds the potential to promote good citizenship on a national and perhaps even global scale. 



1.   Jefferson, in a letter to John Holmes dated April 22, 1820, referred to "this momentous question [Missouri statehood], like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror."  Reprinted in Merrill D. Peterson, editor, The Portable Thomas Jefferson, Penguin Books, 1975, p. 568.

2.   Thus, within Missouri, there is a unitary system.

3.   Missouri Senate districts are somewhat larger (in population) than the national average; Missouri House districts are definitely smaller.

4.   The Missouri state capitol building, situated on a hill overlooking the Missouri River near the geographical center of the state, is one of the largest and most expensive of the fifty state capitols.  The building covers three acres, was completed in 1918, and is the eleventh capitol building that Missouri has had since its admission to the Union in 1821.

5.   Gordon D. Friedman, �Interest Groups and Media� in Denny E. Pilant, editor, Reinventing Missouri Government, Harcourt Brace, 1994.

6.   Most governors come from outstate�non-Kansas City/St. Louis metropolitan areas.  Joseph Folk, Missouri�s premier reform governor (1905-1909) became popular in outstate Missouri for his vigorous prosecution of corruption in St. Louis.  This activity occurred prior to his governorship while he was prosecuting attorney in St. Louis.

7.   Also of importance are two commissions, one office and one board.  The commissions are Highways & Transportation and Conservation.  There is a State Board of Education, which supervises public education, consisting of eight members appointed by the governor.  The Office of Administration is also a significant part of state government.

8.   In some states one or more of these officials are appointed by the governor.  In many states additional officials are elected statewide.  Examples would include commissioners of education (or superintendents of instruction), railroad commissioners, and controllers.  In only three states is the governor the only statewide-elected executive branch official.

9.   The Supreme Court has offices in the Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City.  It is located near the capitol and also houses the offices of the attorney general.

10. A study by Herbert Jacob shows that very few judges are voted out of office under the fifteen states that use a version of the Missouri Nonpartisan Plan�Herbert Jacob, �Courts� in V. Gray, et al., Politics in the American States, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983 (fourth edition).  Only a handful of the approximately 1,000 judges who have appeared on the Missouri ballot since 1942 have been removed.  A major work on Missouri�s court plan was written by two scholars in 1969: Richard A. Watson and Rondal G. Downing, The Politics of the Bench and Bar: Judicial Selection Under the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1969.  Watson and Downing stress that Missouri�s Court Plan has increased the power of the governor and has allowed governors to appoint friends and political supporters, in part because of the governor�s influence with the nominating commissions.  Watson and Downing do not say that the Plan takes politics out of judicial selection but say that is not the real issue.  They say the Plan has had a number of positive consequences.




1.   The Council of State Governments, The Book of States, Lexington, Kentucky.  Published every two years since the 1930s.

2.   Constitution: State of Missouri.  Published by the Missouri Secretary of State: Jefferson City, MO, 65101, (573) 751-4936.

3.   Denny E. Pilant, editor, Reinventing State Government: A Case Study in State Experiments at Work, Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

4.   Duane G. Meyer, The Heritage of Missouri, St. Louis: River City Publishers Limited, 1982 (third edition).

5.   Richard J. Hardy and Richard R. Dohm, editors, Missouri Government and Politics, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1985.

6.   Virginia Gray and Herbert Jacob, editors, Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis, Washington, DC, Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996, sixth edition.

7.   Larry Sabato, Goodbye to Good-time Charlie�The American Governorship Transformed, Washington, DC,: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1983, second edition.

8.   The Official Manual of the State of Missouri is published every two years by the Secretary of State.  Free copies are available to Missouri residents.

9.   William E. Parrish, Charles T. Jones, Jr., and Lawrence O. Christenson, Missouri, the Heart of the Nation, Arlington Heights, IL: H. Davidson, c. 1992.


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