If you are new, welcome! We are in the midst of a project I call the All Star Senate, where I argue my case for the 100 greatest senators in U.S. history. My rules and criteria can be found here. We’ve made it through the East, the South, and the lower Mississippi River states. So that leaves….the industrial Midwest, defined here as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
Bonded together by the Great Lakes, these states share a similar history with massive manufacturing cities and sprawling agricultural areas. They also share a common bond of being a magnet for both international and internal migration. Waves of Polish immigrants descended on Milwaukee and Cleveland, while plenty of Scandinavians made it to Minnesota, and Germans to the remotest corners of Wisconsin. In time, Detroit, Gary, Flint, and Milwaukee all saw a large influx of African-Americans during the long exodus out of the South. As a great fan of the 1960s and 1970s Senate, some of my personal favorites- Bayh, Humphrey, Dirksen, Mondale– make appearances here.
While the labor force in Michigan became a vital part of the New Deal coalition, and a component of any Democrat victory today, I have selected two Republicans to represent Michigan.
51. Zachariah Chandler (Republican, 1857-1875)
Lincoln’s secretary John Hay called Chandler a member of the “Jacobin Club,” the most radical of the fledgling new Republican Party. While many early Republicans joined out of self-interest– a desire to work in the West without competition from slaves- Chandler joined out of ideological opposition to slavery, and never wavered in that belief. Over the course of his congressional career, he vocally denounced the Dred Scott decision, got into fistfights with antiwar Democrats in hotels, and exerted every effort to impeach Andrew Johnson. Pugnacious and frequently drunk, Chandler was even frustrated with President Lincoln, thinking him too slow to extinguish the South, and too forgiving of incompetent generals. Part uncouth rich kid, part unremitting idealist, Chandler left an indelible mark on the Senate, and made volatile times even more volatile.
52. Arthur Vandenberg (Republican, 1928-1951)
After the Second World War, which some still call “the last good war,” it is easy to look at some of the isolationists of the interwar period with a degree of derision and marvel at their short-sightedness. This misconstrues both the men and the movement. Despite initial Wilsonian sympathies, Vandenberg concluded that American participation in World War I had been ruinous, and took a hard-line stance, limiting foreign aid, and insisting that the U.S. engage in any trade and diplomacy purely on its own terms. By 1945, a world war again triggered a change of mind, as Vandenberg agreed to NATO, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan in the early stages of the Cold War. Domestically, Vandenberg feared the expansion of presidential power, but voted for a number of key New Deal measures, including the Social Security Act.
Runners-up: The father of popular sovereignty, Lewis Cass came close to making the list. So did Phil Hart, an almost universally loved senator who was a strong champion of organized labor.
Indiana has a strangely reactionary history. In the 1920s, it was the epicenter of the Ku Klux Klan resurgence, and the following decade saw it host the fascist-sympathizing Silver Shirts. In the 1950s and 1960s, it served as headquarters to the American Legion and the John Birch Society. Yet, at different points, it was also home to myopic edens in the Midwestern wilderness. The utopian New Harmony community began there, and even Jim Jones first set up shop in the Hoosier State.
53. Albert Beveridge (Republican, 1899-1911)
Kind of like Carter Glass and William E. Borah, Beveridge shows the moral complexity of the Progressive moment. If Glass demonstrated its racial baggage, for Beveridge the question is one of paternalism. Beveridge was an imperialist to the core, once saying in his defense of U.S. control over the Philippines:
Self government is no base or common thing to be bestowed on the merely audacious. It is the degree which crowns the graduate of liberty, not the name of liberty’s infant class, who have not yet mastered the alphabet of freedom. Savage blood, oriental blood, Malay blood, Spanish blood- are these the elements of self-government?
Yikes– the implications here of child races and Anglo-Saxon burdens are chilling to look at today! But for reasons not entirely dissimilar, that is to say, protecting the weak, Beveridge spearheaded a number of reforms that look much better to posterity than his earlier endorsement of racial hierarchy. Laudably, he gave his support to laws severely curtailing child labor, and championed the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Eventually, Beveridge locked arms with another progressive with imperialist tendencies, Theodore Roosevelt, bolting to his Progressive “Bull Moose” Party in 1912, two years after he was defeated in his Senate race. My colleagues might appreciate that Beveridge was a member of the American Historical Association, and wrote some of the first professional treatments of the careers of Abraham Lincoln and John Marshall.
54. Birch E. Bayh Sr. (Democrat, 1963-1981)
Chances are, your life has been impacted in some way by Birch Bayh, and you do not even know it. If you voted between the ages of 18 and 21, thank Birch Bayh. He championed the constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age by 3 years. If you, or your sister, or your girlfriend, was able to play on a fully funded high school or college sports team, again, you have Birch Bayh to thank. He made sure that Title IX was affixed in 1972, making sure that both sexes benefited equally and enjoyed similar resources from institutions receiving federal aid. This was a singularly important moment in the history of women’s athletics, so much so that it is the topic of one of my colleague’s dissertation. His other great contribution was the 25th amendment, which made provisions for appointing a vice-president when the office is empty, a contingency that caused a lot of alarm when John Kennedy died and Lyndon Johnson became president. Finally, Bayh wrote, and strongly championed, the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s, which came within a few states and some vicious lies from Phyllis Schlafly from becoming the law of the land. He deserved a better fate than to lose his 1980 re-election bid to Dan Quayle, but Bayh got the last laugh when his son (albeit his much more moderate son) Evan took over that Senate seat in 1997. Oh, and he rescued Ted Kennedy from a burning plane in 1964– that’s pretty cool, no?
Runner-up: I really, really wanted to include sitting senator Richard Lugar. It is common among political commentators to point to an old politician like Charles Percy or Mark Hatfield, and say, “that man was a statesman, who really knew what it meant to be bipartisan,” when what they really mean is “that guy was a moderate.” (I have been known to fall into this trap on occasion.) Lugar was not a moderate; he was a conservative who dutifully listened to constituents and created bonds of trust with other senators to make sure the legislative body functioned smoothly. And he is one of the wisest people alive on foreign policy, even if I do not always agree with him.
The long, stovepipe-hatted visage of Abraham Lincoln continues to dominate political discourse in Illinois. Torn between a massive city, an Iowa-ish rural sector, depressing small cities like Rockford, and sprawling Orange County-esque Chicagoland suburbs, the state is a number of different houses divided upon themselves.
55. Stephen Douglas (Democrat, 1847-1861)
Douglas is significant for a number of reasons, and we ought to be wary when textbooks simply use him as a dandified doughface, an unlikeable character employed as a foil for his frequent opponent, Abraham Lincoln. Instead, I would argue that Douglas has a significance in the development of the entire Midwest region. His influence as a senator was crucial to making Chicago an ex officio railway terminus– in essence the national hub between the east and the wild hinterland in the west. This successful act of lobbying boosted the fortunes of his state, turned Chicago into America’s “Second City” for much of its history, and forever changed the political economy of his state. Lots of senators, like Robert Byrd, Ted Stevens, and Daniel Inouye dutifully brought home the pork barrel dollars, but nobody ever scored such a long-term structural coup like Stephen Douglas.
This need to populate the West, and thus provide more markets for Chicago, led him to a number of situations similar to Kansas-Nebraska, which showed that Douglas favored hasty settlement, with or without slavery. Hence the troubling argument of popular sovereignty, and hence the framing of the Douglas-Lincoln debates that would define the reputation of both men to posterity. One could argue, I suppose, that Douglas wasn’t more or less self-interested than other politicians from different eras, but his particular place and time meant that Douglas played a very high stakes game. He died in 1861, at the cusp of the event that showed just how calamitous that game was.
56. Everett Dirksen (Republican, 1951-1969)
Hubert Humphrey (#59) was the catalyst of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but he could not have made very much progress on it without help from this man, the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate. Dirksen had to preside over a time of ideological confusion in the Republican Party, torn between factions of liberals in the Northeast, conservative firebrands in the Southwest, down-home traditionalists in the farm states. It was a tall order, but Dirksen pulled it off with consummate skill. Ultimately, Dirksen got all but 6 of the most curmudgeonly Republicans in the Senate to vote for the Civil Rights Act. At the cusp of its passage, he proclaimed on the Senate floor, “stronger than all armies in history is an idea whose time has come.” Stentorian, dignified, and pragmatic, Dirksen embodied many of the best qualities that the Midwest has brought to American politics.
Runners-up: Lots of potential here. Lyman Trumbull was an key Reconstruction figure who checked the Radical Republicans, Paul Douglas is an almost textbook example of 1950s liberalism, and Charles Percy was a significant moderate Republican from the 60s and 70s.
Wisconsin is a state of extremes. The birthplace of the Republican Party in the small town of Ripon, Wisconsin was a hotbed of free-labor sentiment, checking slave power and allowing the honest yeoman to populate the West. It maintained that initial radicalism in the early 20th century, as progressive reforms made the state more accountable to its people– recalls, referendums, state primary elections, direct election of senators– all these started in Wisconsin. Fifty years later, it sent Joseph McCarthy to the Senate, who began a systematic attack on civil liberties. He remains America’s greatest cautionary tale, despite the attempts of a number of neo-cons like Ronald Radosh to whitewash his toxic reputation since then. It is a singularly divided state– out of all 50 states, Wisconsin, not Ohio, was the closest in the 2004 election. Currently the site of mass protest and a recall election against a very pro-business governor, it is possible that Wisconsin’s history of challenging established power is renewing itself once more.
57. Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. (Republican, 1906-1925)
As Sen. Beveridge shows, progressivism has many different meanings over time. What most of us would consider the most benevolent features of progressivism, that is to say, more direct say by ordinary people in their governance and choosing of their leaders, begins with Robert LaFollette. As a senator, LaFollette worked to translate what had heretofore been a “Wisconsin experiment” to the national level. Like progressive-school historians, LaFollette viewed American politics as an unending dialectic between “the people” and “the interests”, and he believed with all his heart that virtue was instilled in the former.
In his time, LaFollette campaigned vigorously for child labor laws, women’s suffrage, government control of major utilities, civil liberties, and consumer’s rights. Some of these happened during his watch– notably the child labor laws, many did not come to fruition until the New Deal, still others remain unfulfilled. Yet, the spirit of this is what is fascinating– LaFollette believed, at the end of the day, of accountability of statesmen to their constituents. For this reason, he wanted direct election of senators in an age of profound corporate influence in government (crickets chirping…), and would even go on whistlestop tours reading the names of senators whom he felt sold the people back home down the river. Fightin’ Bob was also a pronounced critic of Wilsonian foreign policy, speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I, seeing it as a giveaway to war profiteers, and an enterprise that in no way threatened American security. (It also didn’t hurt him amid the heavily Germanic population of Wisconsin.)
More than this, LaFollette envisioned a political coalition of women, African-Americans, labor unionists, and farmers which, if united, would be unbeatable– essentially taking the Socialist platform and using populism to make it palatable, even desirable, to the average American voter. Although LaFollette won only one state in his 1924 third-party run for the presidency, a whole generation of Midwestern progressives and liberals rightly look to LaFollette as their ideological grandfather. Even for moderates and conservatives, the view of the proper province of government has changed in the last 100 years, and LaFollette instigated many of these changes.
58. Russ Feingold (Democrat, 1993-2011)
When Paul Wellstone perished in a plane crash on the eve of the 2002 elections, the baton fell to Russ Feingold to be the most prominent voice against needless war in the Senate, the evolutionary descendant of the McGovern’s, McCarthy’s, and Hatfield’s from thirty-five years earlier. Feingold’s most famous acts include his lone vote against the PATRIOT Act, his vote against the Iraq War, and campaign finance reform work with John McCain. If someone decides to write an update to John Kennedy’s senatorial Profile in Courage, Feingold will surely warrant a chapter. Beyond this, Feingold represented more clearly than anyone I can think of the ideal of the left libertarian. Economically liberal, socially libertarian, and dovish on foreign policy, he saw government infringements on civil liberties, rather than on the market, as the worst example of overreach. Beyond that, he argued, it was corporate dollars in the political process– SuperPACs, lobbyists, and so on, that constituted the real threat to liberty, in effect saying that the market is far more likely to ruin government than the other way around. The most prominent Senate Democrat to lose in the 2010 elections, Feingold has since devoted himself to the Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin, and challenging the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.
Large, expansive, and filled with Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, Minnesota’s fortunes have centered around its twin cities and its border along the Mississippi River. Initially a Republican stronghold, a series of young insurgents merged the state’s moribund Democratic Party with the vibrant Farmer-Labor Party to make an almost unstoppable coalition that has dominated the state since then. (There were a few exceptions, of course, such as when Minnesota made professional wrestler Jesse Ventura its governor…) Like Prairie Home Companion’s Lake Wobegon, in Minnesota, all of the senators are above average. Here are the two best….
59. Hubert H. Humphrey (Democrat, 1949-1964, 1971-1978)
A few months before his election to the Senate in 1948, Hubert Humphrey took the podium at the Democrats’ convention and gave one of the most remarkable speeches in American history. “Walk out of the shadow of state’s rights,” he told the delegates, “and into the warm sunshine of human rights.” With these words, Humphrey caused a deep rift in his own party, but made civil rights legislation his dearest dream as long as he held federal office. Although LBJ chided Humphrey and others like him as “bomb-throwers,” nothing could be further from the truth. Hubert Humphrey believed that change happened best through established systems of power, through reasoned debate, and through the force of personality of good men and women. Ultimately, this approach became derided as “limousine liberalism”, and to be sure, as much as Humphrey worked on behalf of marginalized groups, he rarely governed in conversation with them.
Nowhere did Humphrey’s idealism and his persuasiveness collude more strongly than in marshaling votes for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, probably the most significant piece of legislation of the 20th century. Humphrey had to corral moderates, coordinate committee chairs, get enough votes for cloture, and get enough Republicans to commit to the legislation. Given how the Senate operated on seniority, and how many Dixie senators enjoyed that seniority, this was an almost impossible task, but through raw discipline and persuasion, Humphrey managed it.
Unfortunately, hipsterish distaste for establishment liberalism, and Hunter S. Thompson’s outright hatred of the man, has made it all but certain that even leftists of subsequent generations will not hold Humphrey in high regard. Working within the system, making compromises with deplorable people, none of these things are valued today, but they were essential in destroying institutional segregation in this country. Today’s activists view their activism in an existential light– that is, it becomes an extension of their own identity, and tied more to their self-image than the cause. HHH never fell for this particular trap, but as such, the generational dissonance between his generation and mine is, in its own way, insurmountable.
At one point in the mid-1970s, an informal poll of U.S. senators named Humphrey the best senator. Not the best sitting senator, mind you, but the best senator of all time. That is how highly his colleagues regarded him. Although stomach cancer took this man from us far too soon (and how we could have used his idealism in the materialistic 1980s…), Hubert Humphrey belongs with the all-time greats in any senatorial pantheon.
60. Walter F. Mondale (Democrat, 1964-1977)
When nominee-presumptive Jimmy Carter selected Senator Walter Mondale as his running mate in 1976, his mentor in Minnesota politics, Mr. Humphrey, could not have been more delighted. “If it isn’t being too sacrilegious,” Humphrey told reporters, “I don’t mind being John the Baptist to Walter Mondale.” Walter Mondale never became president as Humphrey intimated, nor was he Jesus Christ. Instead, Mondale was a low-key Senate workhorse for two full terms, before going on to be, in my judgment, the most effective vice-president of the modern era.
Mondale’s chief contribution as a senator was the Civil Rights Act of 1968– less significant than Humphrey’s 1964 law, but still important for establishing the principle of open housing– that is, you cannot refuse to sell or rent property to someone because of their race (or gender or national origin.) Segregation took its most insidious form through the housing market and the practice of redlining, subtly keeping minority races out of desirable residences, so the importance of this legislation is difficult to overstate.
Runners-up: Eugene McCarthy (as opposed to Joe) is well loved by peace activists even today, but McCarthy was a gadfly. He was much more useful as an ideal, as a hopeless presidential candidate, than as a senator. I’ve personally met with dozens of people who knew him, and almost to a man, and without my even asking, they offer a consensus on McCarthy: he was intelligent, witty, and thoughtful, but completely uninterested in politics. Paul Wellstone probably would have made this list over Mondale if his life had not been cut short.