As an amateur student of the United States Senate, I wonder who the greatest Senators in history are likely to be?
It’s a little easier to determine the greatest senators if they have been out of power a long time. Back in 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy headed a committee that selected these five senators as the nation’s greatest:
- Henry Clay of Kentucky: Served in the Senate from 1831 until his death in 1852. A member of the Whig Party, he was “the Great Compromiser” who had a great ability to balance regional and national interests. He was largely credited with keeping the North and South together without civil war for many years despite their differences over slavery.
- John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, leading proponent of “states’ rights.” In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy described him as a “forceful logician of state sovereignty” and a “masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority.”
- Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who served in the Senate from 1827 to 1850, except for a two-year stint as Secretary of State. He championed the concept of a strong national government, and was a great orator.
- Robert Marion La Follette, a Republican from Wisconsin, was a leading progressive. He served in the Senate from 1906 until his death in 1925. He championed the regulatory reforms of Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson, and also more direct democracy, pushing the Seventeenth Amendment (1913), which provided for direct election of senators.
- Robert A. Taft, Republican of Ohio, served in the Senate from 1938 to 1947. He helped write the Labor Management Relations Act, which placed controls on labor unions and prohibited “closed shops,” meaning that all employees must be a member of a specified union as a precondition of employment.
In 1989, the Senate added to its list of greatest senators
- Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, architect of the labor relations act, and
- Arthur Vandenburg, Republican of Michigan, who switched dramatically from isolationist to internationalist in early 1945.
Not surprisingly, these selections were themselves political, as they attempt to honor enduring political principles in American history. They pair a champion of states rights with a champion of a strong national government; a champion of the labor movement with a champion of freedom not to join a union. History, as the Senate would write it, honored a progressive champion of regulation, but not a libertarian believer in laissez faire, and an internationalist but not an isolationist.
A future list might honor:
- senators who vigorously resisted a disastrous foreign entanglement, like Vietnam or Iraq. Both wars are probably still too controversial to know the full consequences if America had not gotten involved. But in terms of early opposition to the Vietnam conflict, Republicans Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield of Oregon come to mind, along with George McGovern of South Dakota. McGovern was also an author, along with Bob Dole of Kansas, of the food stamp program and the Food for Peace program.
- senators who rooted out government waste or championed responsible budgeting. Democrat William Proxmire of Wisconsin and Republican Warren Rudman of New Hampshire come to mind.
- senator who championed civil rights. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was the floor manager for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legalized segregation (“American apartheid”) and authored the original legislation for the Peace Corps and Medicare.
- senators who championed the environment. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was advocate of the first “Earth Day” in 1970 and Edmund Muskie of Maine was author of the Clean Air Act of 1966.
- Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, 51 years. Master of Senate rules, who modeled himself after a classical Roman senator.
- Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, nearly 50 years.
- Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, 48 years, from 1956 to 2002. He died months after retiring at age 100. Not likely he’ll make the list of great ones, as he is best known as a staunch defender of segregation. No doubt Calhoun was his hero.
- Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, 46 years, and author of a plethora of legislation over decades.
Byrd and Kennedy will probably eventually make a list of the greatest senators.
Other nominees? Add your comments below.