Now, we have entered deep-fried Dixie, the land of slow drawls, sweet tea, and the Dukes of Hazard. While the definition of the Deep South is somewhat fluid, I have construed it here to include the five states most commonly placed within that region: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. These were the states that the cotton gin affected most profoundly, turning what was once a diverse set of farms into one-crop cotton plantation (with significant exceptions, such as South Carolina’s indigo). They were also the first states to secede when Fort Sumter was reinforced by the Union. Believing the Republicans to have been the party of racial egalitarianism, Lincoln, and the humiliating Reconstruction, this region was indelibly Democratic for nearly a hundred years after Appomattox, halted only by a brief initial rule by freedmen and carpetbagging Republicans from the North. Indeed, there was no viable Republican Party in these states for decades. These five states were also forerunners in the tide toward conservatism. All voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, all but South Carolina went for George Wallace four years later. More than any other grouping I’ve devised for the All-Star Senate, these five states cohere the most strongly as a region.
But here’s the big problem with this. I am bound, by my own criteria, to pick a number of senators who were long-tenured, skilled parliamentarians, and masterful politicians. This, unfortunately, means that many unforgivably racist men make the list here. I don’t like doing it, but I see no alternative. Thurmond, Russell, Stennis and the rest were masterful men of the Senate who revered its laws and customs, but channeled them toward grossly unjust outcomes– preventing civil rights acts, anti-lynching laws, social relief programs aimed largely at blacks. They were empowered partly by their persistent use of the filibuster, but also by their control of committee chairs. In the absence of a viable Republican Party opposition, many were able to accrue seniority and earn committee chairs whenever the Democrats were in power. Ultimately, our Deep South ten belong on this list, if only as a grim reminder of the less savory elements in American history, where the reigns of law and order were skillfully misused by a small cabal of Dixie senators. In spite of their glaring historical blemishes, many of the most ardent segregationists demonstrated the qualities necessary for senatorial success: parliamentary knowledge, patience, longevity, constituent services, and good committee work.
So, when I talk about the ‘best’ or ‘great’ senators for some of these states, it is in recognition of legislative skill, but abhorrence toward the ends in which it was employed. To quote the Simpsons, “by great, we mean ‘large’ or ‘immense’/we used it in the pejorative sense.”
XVI. South Carolina
Too small to be its own country, too large to be an insane asylum. In these words, judge James Petigrue captured the character of the Palmetto State. South Carolina has long been the most consciously Southern of the Southern states. At first the home to bustling ports like Charleston, plantation interests soon dominated the state. Its intellectual life was strongly premised on nullification and defiance; it tried to secede the Union twice before any other state made a serious attempt. It was its second try, after the reinforcement of Fort Sumter, that led her neighbor states to leaving the Union.
31. John C. Calhoun (Democrat, 1832-1843, 1845-1850)
One of the Great Triumvirate, John Calhoun wore many hats: an icon of Southern intransigence, a political theorist, a perpetual office-holder (including tenures as vice-president, Secretary of War and Secretary of State), and a startling orator. It seems crazy when you look back at his career, but Calhoun was one of the first great nationalists. You would be hard pressed to find a man who more ardently argued for national roads, canals, and stronger armed forces. Yet, he found himself changing his mind with the advent of the strong presidency of Andrew Jackson, and the rise of the Tariff of Abominations. Much, though surely not all, of this change was economic in nature. Through these experiences, Calhoun became a profound counter-revolutionary.
As a theorist, Calhoun’s understanding of “concurrent majorities” and minority rights still hold a surprising amount of sway. Minority rights referring to a political, rather than racial minority, of course. For a law to pass, a number of interlocking groups must assent, so that no single group is taken advantage of. Calhoun saw democracy as a potential threat; he was republican to the core. Dreading what he saw as the moblike qualities of Jacksonian democracy, he played a role in South Carolina’s retrenchment; even as late as 1860, its state senate, rather than its citizens, determined who its electors would vote for in a presidential race. Fearing the overwhelming numbers of the North, he fervently argued for nullification, the ability of a state to cancel out a federal law within its jurisdiction. In a roundabout way, the means in which 40 senators can upset the will of 60, even today, bears an unacknowledged debt to Calhoun.
Yet, for all of his genius, self-interest ruled the day for Calhoun. As a defender of state’s rights and nullification, he advanced the causes of his own region. I suppose abstractly, there is little that is wrong with this– a senator is supposed to represent his constituency. But for all of his genius, all of his famed oratorical skill, Calhoun should still trouble us. His belief in a racial hierarchy cannot be wholly excused as ‘what people believed at the time’; there were plenty of Quakers, ministers, missionaries, etc. who did not believe in an inferior black race as early as the 1830s and 1840s. Neither, too, can his Southern loyalty be seen as an inevitable byproduct of the region; his early career belies that. But much of senatorial history and discourse is based on the idea that the South is different from the rest of the country, and that its interests and beliefs do not line up with the rest, and that it must stand united against grievances real and imagined. This was not always so, as a study of the Early Republic will suggest. Nobody contributed more to the distinctiveness of the South, and its culture of remembrance, regional identity, and victimization, than John Calhoun. For good or ill, that is perhaps his greatest legacy.
32. Strom Thurmond (Democrat, Republican, 1956-2003)
One of the most surreal moments during the entire George W. Bush presidency was seeing him walk into the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union address, and embrace Strom Thurmond on his way to the rostrum. At the time, Thurmond was president pro tempore of the Senate, and therefore fourth in line to the presidency. This was, mind you a man who had challenged Harry Truman as a third-or-fourth party candidate back in 1948. Thurmond is remembered chiefly for two things: his longevity and his staunch opposition to civil rights. As a legislator, he revived the filibuster as a tool of the South, a practice in keeping with his predecessor, Mr. Calhoun’s belief in concurrent majorities. In this manner, he effectively led the movement to prevent anti-lynching laws, civil rights legislation (even meaningless, toothless civil rights legislation- see the Acts of 1957 and 1960. He once filibustered the 1957 Act by himself for over 24 hours). With less success, he tried to prevent the magisterial Civil Rights Act of 1964, and only the sustained and united opposition of liberal and moderate Democrats and Republicans was enough to invoke cloture. And even then, it was a very tough call. I find it significant that a dam in southern South Carolina is named after him; Thurmond’s skill was largely in holding progress up, and preventing things from happening.
Thurmond also famously bolted the Democratic Party when it started getting serious about civil rights. One of the first Republicans in the 20th century to represent the South in the Senate, he was the first in a slow, but near-complete transition of the South’s political affiliations. From then on, he became a kind of kingmaker in the Southern primaries, supporting both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan during their respective presidential campaigns. Those who believe that the conservative ascendency in America has little to do with race would do well to closely examine the scope of Thurmond’s career and influence.
Strom Thurmond remains a synonymous with racism during the entire last half of the 20th century. Most of the worst Dixiecrats from the 1960s who lived into the 1980s or 1990s eventually recanted. John Stennis did. George Wallace did. Strom did not.
Runners-up: Ernest “Fritz” Hollings was not as distinguished as Thurmond, nor as notorious, but he did rack up more than 40 years of service in the body. Robert Hayne, the Robin to Calhoun’s Batman, was given consideration, as was ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman, a populist firebrand from the early 20th century.
It is with irony that I note that Georgia started out as an Enlightenment experiment– a place where debtors and the poor could work as yeoman farmers without competition from the large slave plantations that dominated other colonies. Yet, in time, Georgia became almost identical in character to its neighbors, rife with cotton plantations, prominent families who monopolized its political life, and . Devastated in the Civil War, Georgia changed profoundly in the decades after Reconstruction; its cities became emblems of Henry Grady’s “New South,” focused on industry, productivity, and at least in rhetoric, minimizing racial animosity. Atlanta rebuilt itself as a bustling metropolis with the tongue-in-cheek motto “too busy to hate.” Since then, Georgia’s record has been mixed; it has elected some of the most brazen racists in the country to its governorship (Lester Maddox), while four years later electing one of the first post-racial politicians in the South (Jimmy Carter). In 2004, the last conservative Democrat in the Senate, Georgia’s Zell Miller, retired. Statewide offices have been dominated by Republicans ever since.
33. Walter George (Democrat, 1922-1957)
Another long-tenured Democrat from this region, George transitioned from the isolationism and unilateralism that dominated much Southern thought at the beginning of his career, to the internationalism that defined the 1940s. As a key member of the Finance Committee, he successfully steered funding for the Lend Lease program through the Senate, saving Britain’s bacon, and eventually supported the U.N. Yet, like Pat Harrison, his relationship with the New Deal was halting and complex. While eager for legislation that lent aid to his farmer constituents, George among other senators, worked for legislation that effectively kept ‘black’ occupations, such as maids, off of social security, in effect creating a kind of affirmative action that only favored whites. He also kowtowed to Georgia’s nascent industrial sector, using his Finance Committee leadership to bolster the prospects of Atlanta-based Coca Cola and the Georgia Power Company. George’s career ended on a disgraceful note; one of his last actions as a senator was reading the Southern Manifesto on the Senate floor (although a number of Southerners composed the document), intoning a defiant riposte against Brown vs. Board, civil rights legislation and the prospect of an integrated society.
34. Richard Russell (Democrat, 1933-1971)
It is almost axiomatic that Richard Russell was one of the most skillful senators to ever hold office. Russell is most commonly remembered for two filibusters designed to halt civil rights laws: the watered-down 1956 Civil Rights Act, and the more well-known 1964 Civil Rights Act. But if Strom Thurmond was a symbolic demagogue, it was Russell who actually had the legislative skill and the capacity to marshal forces that ultimately made him a more effective senator in the long run, even as they worked for similar purposes and operated on similar philosophies and assumptions. Thurmond was a mascot, albeit an effective and long-tenured mascot. Russell was the field marshal, or the quarterback. He was the one who arranged the delays, filibusters, and the use of parliamentary precedents that forestalled civil rights legislation for decades. Though less demagogic than his colleagues from neighboring states, Russell was nonetheless committed to a segregated society, believing that it fulfilled Jeffersonian notions of personal freedoms which the government could not intrude upon by compelling integration.
How did he do this? A good part of the answer lies in committee assignments. This held a dual purpose; as Armed Services chair, military budgets and plans had to get through him. In this capacity, he helped establish an independent CIA, and the Atomic Energy Commission. But he also held a career-long spot on the Appropriations Committee, allowing him to funnel pork barrel projects to Georgia. Initially a New Deal Liberal, he secured passage and funding for the Rural Electrification Act, Farm Security Administration, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, each of which strengthened the rural Georgian farmer.
Like Georgia, Alabama’s postbellum history mixes strong farming communities with heavy industry. Birmingham and Montgomery both became prominent centers of manufacture within the South.
35. John Tyler Morgan (Democrat, 1877-1907)
When the Confederacy crumbled at the end of the Civil War, many of its leaders and generals famously made a beeline for Brazil and the Caribbean, where the plantation ethos survived and where slavery, in Brazil at least, continued as a way of life. John Tyler Morgan brought these sentiments to the Senate, and more than any other figure from his region, argued in favor of imperial expansion in the Caribbean and the Pacific. He pushed for annexation of Cuba, of the Philippines, of Hawaii, and in each case considered a mass deportation of black Americans to these locales. He is also regarded as the ideological father of the Panama Canal, eager to build along the longer, but less mountainous, Nicaraguan route. To these ends, Morgan was a prolific and insatiable debater; it was said that he could speak for nearly three working days straight for or against a given issue, and he is testament to an age where a debate or stump speech was high public entertainment in the South.
A skilled legislator, he was behind a series of ingenious contrivances to skirt around the 15th Amendment and deny black Americans a place at the ballot box, and turned public opinion against a federal elections bill in 1890 that would have put federal troops at polling stations where noncompliance with the 15th Amendment’s provisions was suspected. Both his attempts to disenfranchisement black Americans and his naked imperialism are testament to Morgan’s unending belief in racial hierarchy. More of a paternalist than a demagogue, he saw white oversight of the Pacific and Caribbean spheres as an act of beneficence. But there was method, too, in his imperialism. By yoking the Caribbean to the U.S., the region would gravitate to the South, buy its consumer goods, and thus challenge the economic dominance of the North.
One of my professors ran a postwar U.S. reading seminar on the belief that America’s race policy and its foreign relations were deeply intertwined. Morgan’s career suggests that this extends throughout the duration of American history.
36. Oscar Underwood (Democrat, 1915-1927)
Underwood is like a breath of fresh air, as well as evidence to the several layers of nuance in Southern politics. He was an early opponent of Prohibition, an astounding stance in the South, where temperance exerted an immense political pressure. Yet, he also stood against women’s suffrage and popular election of senators and the presidency, arguing that each would water down the effectiveness of the South’s bloc in Congress. Underwood, though, is best known for two things. The first is his policy on tariffs. While tariffs make students’ eyes roll in the back of their head, there were few issues in American congressional history that had so deep an effect on the typical American. They could stimulate home industries by raising the costs of foreign competitors if high. And they could raise internationalist sentiment and give American goods superior foreign markets if lowered. Underwood argued for lower tariffs– both as a measure for the Alabama farmer and to support foreign markets for the burgeoning industrial sector in Birmingham. Secondly, Underwood famously opposed the KKK– no small task for an Alabama senator working in the 1920s, when the Klan was enjoying a second wind that extended throughout the nation. He worked adamantly, but futilely, to get an anti-Klan plank into the Democratic platform in 1924, and even attempted his own run at the presidency. Both efforts fell short, and Underwood retired in 1926 rather than face almost certain defeat in his party’s primary. For his bravery in opposing the Klan, JFK gave Underwood a chapter in his celebrated Profiles in Courage.
Mississippi has been the scene of some of the most heated racial tension in America. The site of the ‘Black Belt’ and the delta of the eponymous river, this is a state with deep poverty, poor education, and limited infrastructure throughout much of its history. (To wit, as the old joke goes, New Mexico’s state motto is ‘thank God for Mississippi’, lest they be last in every category.) Home of the Freedom Summer, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, this was also ground zero for much of the grassroots civil rights action conducted by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.
37. Pat Harrison (Democrat, 1919-1941)
The Faustian bargain the New Deal presented Southerners in Congress is perhaps best seen in Harrison’s career. Most Southerners were eager to provide their constituents the electricity, farm aid, poor relief, and banking restrictions they clamoured for. But the New Deal also presented a quandary– what if the same overarching federal government tried to get involved in say, anti-lynching laws, or enforcing the 15th Amendment, or cutting down on poll taxes, or enacting civil rights legislation? This resulted in Southern senators trying to have it both ways– endorsing New Deal programs in general, but limiting their ability to aid black residents; securing pork barrel spending for their districts, while loudly proclaiming state’s rights.
Harrison’s role in all of this was singular. As chair of the Finance Committee, he was responsible for bringing up and handling the floor debate on several life-altering programs– the National Industrial Recovery Act, ending Prohibition (think of where Milwaukee and Denver would be without that!), and the Revenue Act of 1935, which dramatically raised the tax scale among the very wealthy. Loyal to the core, he pushed through these programs even though he had reservations- especially with the Revenue Act and ending Prohibition. When Roosevelt’s critics charged that he had a “rubber-stamp Congress” at his disposal, these charges were made with men like Harrison in mind. The loyalty wasn’t rewarded; FDR endorsed a rival for the position of Senate Majority Leader, and Harrison retaliated by watering down late 1930s measures, such as capital gains taxes. Eventually, the two reconciled, and worked together on Lend Lease to Britain, which FDR wanted funneled through the Finance Committee, rightly confident in Harrison’s ability to pass it through.
38. John Stennis (Democrat, 1947-1989)
Stennis is a complicated man. A Mississippian who loved the Senate and its institutions, he was also part of the Dixiecrat coterie that thwarted justice for black Americans for most of his tenure. Not a fire-breather, and quick to condemn the violence of the KKK, Stennis was nevertheless participis criminalis to much of the obstruction committed in the name of state’s rights.
This is rendered more nuanced by John Stennis’s evident love and reverence for the Senate and its institutions, as well as his commitment to putting personal ethics first. He wrote the first Senate Ethics Code, and was the first chair of the Senate Ethics Committee Eventually ethics won out, belatedly. When he stepped down from the Senate in 1989, he gave his prize office space to Joe Biden. According to Biden, Stennis confided to him his regret. “The civil rights movement ultimately did more for the white man than the black man. It freed my soul,” he told the astonished senator from Delaware. Stennis could, in a fashion, be generous, bipartisan, and gracious. And he showed courage by being the first Democrat to stand up to McCarthy on the Senate floor, believing that the Wisconsinite’s actions disgraced congress. Does this make up for the social legislation that he opposed when it really mattered?
Runners-up: Oh, heaven help us. Theodore Bilbo came very close to making the list. Don’t let the Hobbity surname fool you; Bilbo was probably the most prominent race-baiter in the country, who used racial tension to win primary elections in Mississippi’s back country. Jefferson Davis is significant as well; his time as a senator was used to solidify opinion in the South among different parties and interests. And it is difficult to include John Stennis in this list and exclude his longtime colleague, James Eastland.
The piece on Louisiana is coming soon….
39. William Pitt Kellogg (Republican, 1868-1872, 1877-1883)
The only carpet-bagging Reconstruction Republican on this list (I think), Vermont-born, Illinois-raised Kellogg stands out like a sore thumb on this Deep South list. Part of the radical faction, Kellogg was easily elected to the Senate in 1868, served until 1872 to run for governor, and went to the Senate again after a tempestuous turn as Louisiana’s governor. Sent to Washington for the second time just as Reconstruction was ending, Kellogg faced daily threats on his life, his home, and his family. Indeed, he endured potential danger more often as senator than probably anybody else on this list. Devoted to keeping black suffrage intact, and keeping ex-Confederates out of power (both out of principal, and because this was the only way in Hell he would represent Louisiana on a statewide level), Kellogg became an icon of an uphill, and ultimately futile, battle.
40. Huey Long (Democrat, 1932-1935)
Long is quite probably the shortest-tenured senator to make the All-Stars, but it is difficult to deny his significance. When people consider today’s Democratic Party to be radical and socialist, I sigh, shake my head, and try to bring out actual examples of populist radicalism as embodied by such figures as Huey Long. His controversial plan, Share Our Wealth, became his platform as a senator, extending a Louisiana experiment to the rest of the nation. Long argued that economic recovery from the Depression was not feasible when the nation faced such grave maldistribution of wealth, claiming that only 15% of the nation’s wealth was controlled by the lower 95% of its people, and 12 people owned as much as the poorest 120 million. His plan involved capping personal fortunes at $50 million, and using the rest for education funding, internal improvements, vocational training, and stipends for working families earning less than one third of the national income. His plan caught on, with thousands joining his Share Our Wealth clubs, and receiving 60,000 letters a week. Long demonstrates that the New Deal wasn’t exactly revolutionary reform; it was a series of stopgap measures to prevent a full-throated revolution from taking place during the middle of the Depression. Long challenged FDR from the left, and indeed, the president had to adopt watered-down versions of some of his proposals in order to curtail his influence. It is possible that Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, both acts of limited reform, owe a degree of debt to Long’s advocacy, prior to his assassination in 1935.
Runners-up: Russell Long, Huey’s son, served longer in the Senate than he, and was a significant Senate fixture.