This region is defined by the New York metropolitan area—with New York state itself, and two states that have heavy numbers of New York commuters, Connecticut and New Jersey. Pennsylvania and Delaware complete the set as two Mid-Atlantic states with heavy industry throughout much of its history between the steel mills and coal mines of the former, and the DuPont factories of the latter. These states were, historically, loyal to the Union and were “doubtful states” for much of the 19th century, ones which could swing either way in an election based on the strength of the candidate and who counted the votes. Now more or less reliably blue states that usually elect Democrats to statewide office, let us explore the senators our Metropolis states contribute to our All Star Senate.
VI. New York
Ah, the Empire State. Home of about half dozen presidents, Tammany Hall, David Hyde Pierce, and the great Adirondack Mountains, its influence on national politics is almost unsurpassed. For years, New York was a 50+ electoral vote behemoth, a legitimate swing state where a few votes here and there could determine the outcome of the election.
It is difficult to think of a figure more at home in the Gilded Age than Roscoe Conkling. Conkling had an effective grip on the state’s Republican Party. Tall and handsome, but arrogant and egotistical, Conkling wore ostentatious clothes and did not make friends easily, but nonetheless enjoyed a stranglehold over New York’s state and legislative spoils system. When you consider that most of the best-paying government jobs were in New York (the Collector of the Port of New York, for example, made more money than the president in the 1870s), this was a lucrative place to find oneself. He became the captain of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, which supported and made excuses for the corrupt, back-scratching Grant administration. For decades, the principle that “to the victor belongs the spoils” defined much of the Senate’s work, and few played this game as masterfully as Roscoe Conkling. At the same time, Conkling was more creditably a champion of the freedman and African-American rights, showing an important link between Reconstruction and the Age of Industry. Altruism and self-interest always coincide to some degree, as Mr. Conkling’s career demonstrates.
Wagner is the consummate “Mr. New Deal,” a liberal New York Democrat, eager to use the state to alleviate bad working conditions and regulate an often unwieldy economy. Many of the New Deal’s signature achievements were written, or lobbied for, by Wagner—the Social Security Act, the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed all workers the rights to form a union. The foundations for a mass middle class—the first in human existence– was actualized in part by the legislation that Wagner helped to pass, allowing labor a seat at the table in determining working conditions, pay, and recompense. It ended coercive and exploitative management practices, and strengthened the hand of collective bargaining. Many of his best ideas, though, did not pass—including a 1939 bill that would have admitted child refugees from Nazi Germany into the U.S., and a federal anti-lynching law (which was thwarted by Southern Dixiecrats.) He also tried, without success, to pass a communications bill that would have reserved 25% of all radio channels to nonprofit broadcasters, which would have changed the nature of the best dramatically. The unofficial “labor senator” of our group, Wagner was a significant player in the transition of using government means to redress social ills. Before, this was strongest in the Midwestern progressive tradition. Wagner, meanwhile, was perhaps the archetypal urban liberal, the first and arguably strongest senator of this breed.
Runners-up: Surprisingly few, although I would have liked Jacob Javits and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to earn props. New York’s senate seats have often been used by men and women ambitious for higher office, with little hope of staying put for the duration. Such figures include Aaron Burr, Martin Van Buren and more recently, Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
The Constitution State, Connecticut was home to some of the first seafaring Yankees, and slowly becoming a shipping and manufacturing center. More recently, credit card companies, banks, and pharmaceuticals have changed the state’s demographics considerably, turning it into a “state one drives through,” a large suburb of New York City. Perhaps this is unfair, as Connecticut proffers our All Star Senate two first-rate legislators.
Call him the Forrest Gump of the American Founding. At every significant event along the way, Ellsworth seems to have been there, even if his presence was only dimly felt. He was a Continental Congress delegate, invented the phrase “United States” to describe the fledgling nation, and brokered the Connecticut Compromise between large and small states that allowed a viable constitutional plan to pass. While his colleague Langdon could be an opponent of the Washington administration at times, Ellsworth was one of its most ardent supporters. He was the instigator of the Judiciary Act, which established a hierarchy of the national judiciary systems, allowing, for example, the federal Supreme Court to overturn decisions by the State Supreme Courts. Ellsworth also helped to usher the Bill of Rights amendments through Congress, and was one of the key backers of Hamilton’s Financial Plan, a business-friendly agenda determined to enhance America’s economic self-sufficiency. High tariffs, internal improvements, government subsidies, a national bank, and assuming state debts were all part of this plan, and by and large it worked, thanks in part to Ellsworth’s legislative skill.
Platt was in many respects a very successful reactionary. His votes against the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and the Eight Hour Labor Act (which established the now-standard length of the working day) do not made him look good to posterity, even to conservatives. His most famous namesake is the Platt Amendment, which preserved the rights of the U.S. to intervene against foreign encroachments onto Cuba (and also, more pertinently to today, established U.S. rights to Guantanamo Bay.) So influential was Platt that he and his cronies (including Nelson Aldrich) were among the Senate Four, a body of long-tenured Republicans who seemingly held the power to block any initiative of the House or the president. Power in the Senate relies on coordinating, streamlining, and using committees and amendments to your advantage, and despite the questionable ends that Platt pursued, he played the game masterfully.
VIII. New Jersey
My fiancé is glaring at me, so let me just limit my remarks to saying that New Jersey is a fine state, despite the many jokes I have cracked at its expense over the years. And I actually admire my two picks from the Garden State a great deal. Democrat-leaning for much of its history, it was implausibly in the South’s orbit in the antebellum era, while completing the transition to northeastern urban liberalism quite easily. So, blare out the Bruce Springsteen, and give Snooki the three-snap formation, as we explore the careers of….
As much as today’s politicians may belie the fact, evangelicals were among some of the most forward-thinking and conscientious statesmen from the “Age of Jackson.” While much of the nation’s evangelical community at the time was middle-class, Frelinghuysen was an aristocrat. Indeed, New Jersey’s list of senators and congressmen is littered with Frelinguysenii (which is my preferred plural form of Frelinghuysen). Back to my original point, Frelinghuysen’s evangelicalism inspired a number of humane policy choices that make him look just terrific in retrospect. He fought tooth-and-nail against Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. “God in his providence,” he once wrote,
“planted these tribes on the Western continent, so far as we know, before Great Britain herself had a political existence. I believe, sir, that it is not seriously denied that the Indians are men, endowed with kindred faculties and powers with ourselves; that they have a place in human sympathy, and are justly entitled to a share in the common bounties of a divine Providence. And, with this conceded, I ask in what code of the law of nations, or by what process of abstract deduction, their rights have been extinguished?”
Besides his opposition to the Indian Removal Act, Frelinghuysen was instrumental in the formation of the Whig Party, advocated temperance, and spoke out in opposition to slavery. He ran as the vice-presidential candidate on Henry Clay’s 1844 Whig ticket, and came within a handful of votes in New York to winning.
When I began this, I wanted to make sure that I had at least one example of the liberal Republican, and Case is one of its finest specimens. If you’ve seen Mad Men, then you have at least some idea of the liberal Republican—permissive, even ground-breaking, only social issues, yet endowed with an economic moderation or conservatism. As long as they make enough money, they will take a live-and-let-live attitude. Case was a stalwart supporter of civil rights, and advocated having congressmen disclose their financial assets to make serious conflicts of interest more widely known. Case’s career ended not with retirement or defeat in the general election, but by being defeated in his own party’s primary by a more conservative Reaganite Republican.
Pennsylvania’s list is surprisingly thin for a state of its magnitude. For most of U.S. history, Pennsylvania was second to only New York in population and national influence. With a greater proximity to the nation’s capital, and boasting the key cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it does disappoint just a bit. It seems that Pennsylvania is more of the Millstone State than a Keystone State, as evidenced by the fact that its two best senators are…..
A corrupt spoilsman, Cameron is credited with saying, “An honest politician is one who, once he is bought, will stay bought.” For years, Cameron held tight strings of patronage within his party and within his state. To nominate within Pennsylvania, and to nominate a Pennsylvanian for higher office, you had to get through him. Cameron was even able to make a deal with Abraham Lincoln’s operatives, without Lincoln’s knowledge, during his fight for the 1860 Republican nomination, exchanging the support of the Pennsylvania delegation for a cabinet post. Bribing Abraham Lincoln to make you Secretary of War on the brink of a sectional conflict of unprecedented magnitude is an extraordinarily badass move. While Cameron would serve badly in this office, and Lincoln would later effectively exile him as Minister to Russia, Cameron would return to the Senate and resume his wheeling and dealing.
Holy crap—if you google this guy’s name, the first several hits are insane libertarian arguments that the income tax amendment was not legally ratified. Anyway, Philander Knox’s importance runs a bit deeper than all of this Lew Rockwell-inspired tommyrot. Knox was a point man for Theodore Roosevelt (a position that would later secure him a cabinet position during the administration of his successor, William Howard Taft), and much of his Square Deal bears his influence. Knox was a Progressive- a somewhat reluctant Progressive, perhaps- and later in life got on the Bull Moose bandwagon, even as his party moved in the direction of Hardingite conservatism.
Tiny Delaware was once in danger of actually being engulfed by Pennsylvania and New Jersey as the borders of the United States were first drawn. As the old joke goes, Delaware has three counties at low tide, and two counties at high tide. Part of the eastern seaboard, yet a slaveholding state, it stayed loyal to the Union in the Civil War, and has in the last 50 years sent an almost even number of Republicans and Democrats to the Senate.
Earlier in life, Bayard played an important role in keeping Delaware from seceding along with its fellow slaveholding states. Bayard tried consistently throughout his career to steer Delaware between its plantation-y slaveholding past and its industrial and financial future. He also became so well-versed in foreign affairs that he would eventually become Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of State.
Literally, ladies and gentlemen, not figuratively, but literally—Joe Biden was Delaware’s senator for 36 years, an incredible six full terms, before being elected to the vice-presidency. Biden’s election as senator at the age of 29 took place under personal tragedy—before his inauguration, his wife and his infant daughter were both killed in a car crash, living the junior senator a widower with two young boys who had just sustained serious injury. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, but failed when he forgotten to credit a speech by Neil Kinnock and soon after suffered an aneurysm. Something happened almost immediately after—and Joe Biden transformed from a young, overly-ambitious “show-horse” to a senatorial work-horse. He skillfully thwarted the nomination of extremist Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, he shepherded legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Biden also became a senatorial point-man on foreign policy. When a crisis went down in Pakistan in the early 2000s, the generals wouldn’t call George W. Bush or Condoleeza Rice, but they’d give a call to Joe Biden and go from there. Despite a vote for war with Iraq that he would later rue, Biden also forcefully brought the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia to national attention, playing a key role in the U.S. thwarting the genocide there.