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Cosson, George
(January 21, 1876–June 15, 1963)

–progressive Republican Iowa attorney general (1911-1917), internationalist, and peace activist—was born in Laclede County, Missouri, the son of George Willis Cosson, a railroad construction contractor, and Mary Ann (Grigsby) Cosson. Relocating with his parents to Carroll County, Iowa, Cosson completed his public schooling in Manning in 1893, and then attended Valparaiso University in Indiana and law school at the State University of Iowa. Admitted to the Iowa bar in 1898, Cosson launched a private law practice in Audubon, Iowa, in 1899, and courted a local high school English teacher, Jennie Florence Riggs, whom he married in 1904.

    Meanwhile, Cosson's law practice flourished, and his political career blossomed. A supporter of Iowa's Insurgent Republican governor, Albert Cummins, Cosson campaigned for Republicans and won election as Audubon County Attorney in 1905. From 1907 to 1909 he served as special counsel in the state attorney general's office. At age 31, he successfully campaigned for a state senate seat representing Audubon, Guthrie, and Dallas counties in the 33rd General Assembly. There he challenged lax enforcement of liquor and vice regulations in Iowa, and secured enactment of stricter law enforcement statutes. Often referred to as the Cosson Laws, these included a recall mechanism that empowered private citizens to seek a judicial remedy against local officials who failed to uphold the law. Another measure, known as the red light injunction law, became a successful tool for abating segregated prostitution districts then flourishing in Davenport and Des Moines.

    The Cosson Laws and the state and national notoriety they attracted paved the way for the young state senator's three-term tenure as Iowa attorney general. In that office, Cosson continued to stress strict law enforcement, but demonstrated an even-handed approach and a penchant for reform. Facing outcries for law and order during the Muscatine button workers' strike in 1911, Cosson defended the workers' legal right to maintain picket lines. A year later he spoke out against "acts of injustice" against prison inmates, calling attention to corrupt practices in Iowa jails and condemning the contract-labor system in state prisons.

    Always something of a political maverick, Cosson raised eyebrows by endorsing Theodore Roosevelt's rebellious presidential run in 1912, even while campaigning for the Republican state ticket and his own reelection. Then, after six years as attorney general, Cosson declared his intent to win the Republican nomination for governor in 1916, but lost out to William G. Harding in the primary. Only once thereafter did Cosson seek public office. In 1932 he challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Smith Wildman Brookhart, but again lost in the primary.

    In the meantime, Cosson restarted his law practice in Des Moines, became active in his profession, and in 1935 joined the Drake University law faculty; but when war clouds descended on Europe and Asia, the former attorney general joined the debate over America's role in the gathering overseas crisis. He spoke out against prevailing isolationist policies, criticized Charles Lindbergh's America First campaign, and subsequently agreed to chair the Iowa branch of Fight for Freedom, a group dedicated to repealing the Neutrality Acts and supporting Lend-Lease aid to Great Britain. During World War II, he chaired the Defense of British Homes Committee and the Iowa Russian War Relief Committee, and became convinced that the wartime allies could and would work together to create a new era of international cooperation.

    After 1945, however, when disagreements between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened to sour their wartime partnership, Cosson questioned, and then sharply criticized, what he believed to be a fateful turn in U.S. foreign policy toward confrontation. In speeches, lobbying efforts, and written commentaries, Cosson blasted the U.S. containment policy, the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance, and especially the U.S. role in the Korean War, stating, "You can't shoot democracy into people or bomb communism out of them."Cosson also challenged red baiting and McCarthyism when he defended Iowa Union farmer publisher and editor Fred Stover from false charges that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. Still hoping to dampen Cold War tensions, and still active at age 82, he arranged a personal visit to Russia in 1958 to promote peaceful cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. Author of The Cosson Laws, The Iowa Plan: A Basic Plan for National Recovery, and Enlightenment and World Crisis, Cosson finally retired in 1962 from the Des Moines law firm he had founded in 1917. He died 10 months later in Des Moines at age 87.
Sources The George Cosson Papers are located in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also Iowa Press Association, Who's Who in Iowa (1940). An obituary is in the Des Moines Register, 6/16/1963.


A statement submitted by George Cosson III, grandson of the subject, on January 12, 2022, has the following information.

Rather than residing in Audubon, Jennie Florence Riggs was in fact a resident of Indianola, Iowa, and a great deal of correspondence formed a vital part of their long term relationship. After their marriage, the couple resided in Audubon. The Papers of Jennifer Riggs Cosson are housed at the Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries.

Also, while Cosson challenged red baiting and McCarthyism, he was not formally charged with being a member of the Communist Party. Instead, it was an allegation made on a Des Moines radio program, which was the subject of an unsuccessful libel civil lawsuit filed by Fred Stover (Stover v. Central Broadcasting Company). Records pertaining to this case are in the Papers of George Cosson, housed in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

Contributor: Robert Dietrich