All-Star Senate: New England
We are starting our ranking of the top 100 senators in the northeast—historically the land of Puritans, Yankees, revolutionaries, Federalists, Whigs, abolitionists and latte-drinking visionaries. Characterized by small states, a town-hall democratic ethos, and eventually large waves of immigrants—and largely Catholic immigrants at that, these states share a common heritage that is reflected in the men and women they have sent to the Senate. These five states[i] also have long histories, and for many of them, there were some tough choices and cuts to make, if I restrict each state to exactly two senators. So, without further ado, our first edition of the All Star Senate.
“ The Catalyst State” might be a more fitting name than “The Bay State” for Massachusetts. It seems that nearly every significant movement and revolution in American thought has its origins here. The cradle of the American revolution, a hotbed of antislavery (and anti-slaveholder) activism, and currently the state most associated with the modern liberal worldview, Massachusetts often pulls the rest of the country decisively in its own direction. So, I have chosen two men from Massachusetts who encapsulate specific worldviews and specific approaches to American politics.
Webster has a place in the Great Triumvirate of senators (along with his colleagues John Calhoun and Henry Clay.) Webster was not a saint, he accepted aid from many of Boston’s major firms and he used his gifts of persuasion in parlors and bedrooms as often as the senate floor (if you are a great orator, why not use these gifts to your advantage, right?) But Webster is most significant, I would argue, for being the first proponent of the concept of “union” as we understand it today. His famous reply to Robert Hayne, delivered on the Senate floor, is a forgotten moment in the transition of the USA from a theoretical connexion of sovereign states and into a nation in its own right. Schoolchildren would once recite his reply, and be responsible for memorizing passages. When Lincoln and others would argue that the Civil War was primarily about union, it was Webster who made such a conceptualization possible. Pro-U.S. bank, pro-tariff, pro-union and ultimately pro-compromise, Webster used his magisterial prowess as an orator to tie the interests of the nation to the interests of his home state.
It was said at the time of his death that Ted Kennedy had accomplished more for the average American than either of his more well-loved and well-remembered brothers. To this day, Teddy’s name is a byword for liberalism, and is used in reverence as often as it is used pejoratively. While his 45+ year tenure in the Senate is marked by personal screw-ups of the highest magnitude (Chappaquiddick, although there is strong evidence that Kennedy made every effort to save Mary Jo Kopechne even whilst intoxicated) and policy boners (No Child Left Behind), there is still much to commend, indeed, redeem Kennedy’s career as a senator.
Most of the eulogies on Ted Kennedy that dominated the headlines used phrases along the lines of “Liberal Lion,” and this is, to a large extent, true. From Medicare, to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, to Head Start, to most of the recent minimum wage laws, we live in a United States where poverty stings far less, and where those who are weakest cannot be taken advantage of so easily. Even so, he lobbied, without success, for many other worthy causes—universal health care (that is, providing it, not mandating that one buy it from private vendors), and an equal rights amendment remains unfinished. If the essence of 20th century liberalism is a state premised on social justice and compassion rather than ruthless self interest, Kennedy stands out as a giant among giants. He makes my list of Top 100 Senators, but he would also make the list even if I was allowed only 10.
More than this, Ted Kennedy loved the Senate and its institutions. He was a consummate deal-maker and negotiator, who also kept a tight focus on developments in his home state, keeping a formidable address book, and sending out thank you notes, condolence notes, memos, and reminders across his state. What one accomplishes in the cloakroom is just as important as what one accomplishes on the Senate floor, and on both counts, Kennedy stands out.
Runners-up: No other state has furnished so many adroit and historically significant senators than Massachusetts. There are about six or seven of its sons who deserve a place in the 100 Greatest Senators of All Time. Some of the most difficult cuts included John Quincy Adams for his early work on a Federalist and nationalist viewpoint, Charles Sumner for championing abolitionism, Henry Cabot Lodge for his role as foil to the Wilson administration, and Henry Wilson, a quintessential Gilded Age politician.
The character of this state has changed considerably in the last 30 years; plenty of young college students went to St. Michael’s or Middlebury College, and decided to stay in the Green Mountain State. Now one of the most reliably Democratic states in national elections, Vermont was home of the thoroughgoing independent-minded Republican for much of its history. Since the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, Vermont didn’t send a Republican to the Senate until 1975, and didn’t vote for a Republican in a presidential election until Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. If Massachusetts is an elliptical state that pushes the nation in its direction, Vermonters tend to mind their own business and conduct their own affairs as they see fit and doesn’t “proselytize” its lifestyle. With that in mind, I present…
Edmunds is rarely remembered today, but he was once one of the more prominent senators of the Gilded Age, that forgotten era sprawling from the late 1860s and into 1890 or so. In a 25-year Senate career, Edmunds was a key usher of the Sherman Antitrust Act, advocated for the rights of freedmen, and oddly enough, strove to crack down on polygamy in Utah.
When I saw George McGovern speak in Burlington two summers ago at a book-signing, he took time to praise his old friend George Aiken as one of the finest men he had served with in the Senate. This short vignette demonstrates how well-regarded Aiken was among his colleagues even decades after he left. He was so beloved in his own state that he spent less than $100 in his last Senate campaign, just enough to register his campaign in Vermont. Even as late as 2006, Vermont Republicans like then-Gov. Jim Douglas could only win in the state by pledging to be an “independent-minded, George Aiken Republican.” Aiken was a forceful voice for his state’s farmers and small businessmen, an advocate of food stamps, and his anti-corporate tone contrasted to others in his party at the time. He was a Bull Moose Republican about 25 years too late, and worked in a bi-partisan fashion and forming many warm working relationships and friendships across the aisle.
Runners-up: I gave serious consideration to three more recent guys—Batman-loving Pat Leahy, student-loan sponsoring Robert Stafford, and the deliciously socialist Bernie Sanders. Given enough time, Sanders may replace Edmunds in this ranking. He is the only one standing up to Wall Street excess in sufficiently strong language.
III. New Hampshire:
New Hampshire has historically been (and remains) New England’s most conservative state, the crabby tightwad uncle at New England’s Thanksgiving dinner table. Home of the New Hampshire Union Leader, for years the nation’s most influential right-leaning newspaper, it is also host to the nation’s first primary every election season. It is also a state of notorious cheapskates, New Hampshire having repeatedly welshed on interstate roads and bridges, leaving its neighbor Vermont to foot the bill. A “Live Free or Die” state, social permissiveness but economic restraint rule the day here.
I wanted to be sure that my list had at least one guy from the inaugural class of senators. Given the level of top-notch revolutionary talent available at the time, this first class is an unimpressive bunch, but Langdon is probably the best of their number. Langdon stayed in his seat longer than any other member of the Senate’s first class; while most left office within the first six years, he held on for nearly two full terms. He was also the first president pro tempore of the Senate; the letter informing George Washington of his election as president thus bears his signature.
There is no better emblem of New Hampshire’s peculiarly conservative approach than Styles Bridges. In fact, so well known was Bridges’ rancor towards the New Deal that FDR’s opponent in the 1936 election, Alf Landon, sought him out as a running mate. He was rejected, though, for fear that the Democrats would lambaste the ticket as “Landon-Bridges falling down.” Over the course of his career, Bridges opposed labor unions and anyone he suspected of being “soft on communism”, while maintaining power as the chair of the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee—ironically giving one of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives a significant say in the distribution of federal largesse.
“Where Maine goes, so goes the nation.” So went the popular phrase throughout much of American history, since Maine would traditionally vote for president a month or two before the rest of the country, so that early winter snowstorms would not impede voters on Election Day. It was second to Vermont as the most reliably Republican state in the nation for much of the postbellum age, never even giving its votes to FDR in any of his four presidential elections. Never forthrightly conservative, it now sends two of the last moderate Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to the Senate every six years.
A rare Jacksonian state in New England at one point, Maine hopped onto the sectionalist and abolitionist bandwagon very early, changing its allegiances to the Republican Party. Nobody emblematized this change better than Hamlin, who left his party with sharp words, and began carrying a pistol with him for protection (evidently fearing physical retribution from his colleague from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis.) After serving an undistinguished term as Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president, Hamlin eventually returned to the Senate for two terms after the war, served as Minister to Spain, and died while playing cards in a club in downtown Bangor.
Margaret Chase Smith was the first significant female senator in U.S. history, but beyond this distinction, there is much to commend her career. Her finest moment, though, was her Declaration of Conscience, which castigated Joseph McCarthy, a member of her own party. Smith’s statement was one of the only genuinely prophetic acts of the 1950s Senate (prophetic in the sense of articulating moral truth, and holding a people accountable to that truth, rather than its more commonplace meaning of predicting the future.) The statement reads in part:
Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism —
The right to criticize;
The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest;
The right of independent thought.
The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know some one who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn’t? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own.
Runners-Up: I really, really wanted to include Ed Muskie, whose photograph serves as my avatar for this blog. Muskie made the Democratic Party viable again in Maine during the late 1950s, and eventually became its governor and later, its senator. Muskie was chair of the formidable Budget Committee during the 1970s, and was one of the first advocates of environmentalism even before it came into vogue.
V. Rhode Island
A tiny little city-state, Rhode Island has been home to some of the only viable northern slave plantations, shipping magnates, and the summer homes of countless captains of industry. Since then, Rhode Island became one of the first New England states to transition from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, around the 1920s, predating the New Deal.
Aristocratic and overbearing, Aldrich was a man who was not afraid to tinker with financial and social systems to produce better outcomes. Nobody lobbied harder than he for an aggressive system of tariffs and protections—these helped the factories in Providence and Woonsocket by kneecapping foreign competition, but also made prices artificially high. Aldrich was also an early architect of the income tax and the Federal Reserve. Libertarians hate these programs with a passion, but my reading of history convinces me that their effect on American society has been more salutary, forging an American economy that can better absorb the shocks of a volatile market. Aldrich has significant weaknesses that need to be taken into account. He was a tool of the American investor, to be sure, held the common man in contempt, and bankrolled Belgium’s King Leopold’s inhumane imperial actions in the Congo. A complicated man from a complicated era, Aldrich has a foot in the self-serving corporatism of the Gilded Age, and another foot in the managerial Progressive Age.
[ii] In our all-time greatest Senate, Claiborne Pell occupies an important role as “The Education Senator.” An aristocrat like Aldrich, Pell was motivated by a greater sense of altruism. He is most famous, of course, for the Pell Grants, a significant means by which young men and women from low-income families can attend college. He was also a key foreign policy man in the Senate, as a chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, an early skeptic on the Vietnam War, and a stalwart supporter of the United Nations. An odd man who wore threadbare suits and held a lifelong fascination with UFOs, John Kennedy once called Pell the “least electable man in America,” and Rhode Island voters spent nearly 40 years proving him wrong.
Runners-up: Lincoln Chafee was the last real liberal Republican, and the only Republican in his caucus to vote against sanctioning the Iraq War. While he only served in the Senate for a shade over one six-year term, he still deserves a shout-out.
[i] In order to divide this list into 10 sets of five states, I’m grouping Connecticut with a New York City-region group of states that I am calling “The Metropolis.” I do acknowledge, though, that The Constitution State is often placed with New England.
[ii] Damn, I love the senatorial class of 1963. Lots of great senators were first elected at that time— not only Pell, but also George McGovern, Birch Bayh, Daniel Inouye, Gaylord Nelson, Abraham Ribicoff, Thomas McIntyre. Pell was one of the only ones to have survived the 1980 senatorial slaughter of the innocence that swept liberal Democrats from conservative states out of office, only to be replaced by jokers like Jim Abdnor, Dan Quayle, Bob Kasten, Brock Adams, etc.