Who Are the Greatest US Senators in History?

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.

The longest serving senators were:

    • 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.

Previous Discussion

Bruce Johnson said…

I’d nominate Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, for his 30-year-history of the Senate; Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylviania, abolitionist; Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, great debater of Lincoln, great advocate of statehood and architect of the Compromise of 1850…

Henry Cabot Lodge Senior of Massachusetts, George Norris of Nebraska, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota,Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Everett Dirkson of Illinois,Richard Russell of Georgia….

Grand Rapids’ own Arthur Vandenburg, without whom we might not have had the United Nations, NATO, the Marshall Plan, or the bipartisan foreign policy – his conversion to internationalism, and that of his protege Jerry Ford, played a not insignificant role in American history.

And maybe, but I could be showing a chronological bias to my own era, Barry Goldwater of Arizona andHoward Baker of Tennessee.

And yes, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd. Bob Dole?

Historian said…

I thought that Sen. Kennedy was senior by almost two months to Sen. Inouye.

I have a problem with my e-mail address.

Historian said…

In my opinion, none of the recent ones really sound interesting(as far as I am aware.)

Historian said…

…or, rather, really sound like they are(or are) great

Historian said…

I think that they are also overly paid(as are many other people.)

Mike G said…

I would say Wayne Morse of Oregon.

He has had a massive impact on the education system in this country.

Was a Republican

Was A Independent

Was a Democrat

Once held the filibuster record and is noted for always keeping his filibusters germane to the debate.

Pushed to desegregate Washington DC.

He loudly took on presidents and the rest of the senate from the 40’s to the 70’s and was one of only two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

and many many more things.


Joshua said…

I’ve always been puzzled by the inclusion of John C. Calhoun on the Senate’s list. The man was clearly brilliant — one of the great reactionary intellectual in American history. But surely Kennedy’s being a little disingenuous with all the talk of defending the rights of a political minority when the political minority Calhoun protected so ferociously was the slave owning planter class of the South. Of course, “greatness” need not have anything to do with liking a person’s politics, but it would seem that a Senator whose only concern, explicitly spelled out in his writings, was to institute and maintain a ruling class on American soil.

That being said, Ted Kennedy surely deserves a place on the list. It’s impossible to find a Senator with a lengthier list of successes. And on top of that he is both a liberal ideologue and a smart, savvy compromiser on the floor, building broad coalitions on controversial subjects.

And, as a commenter noted above, Kennedy is more senior than Inouye, who took office in January of 1963. Kennedy took office immediately after the special election in November of 62.

ah said…

How about Henry “Scoop” Jackson from Washington?

MrMe said…

Henry Clay’s great Compromise is what I call to task as the cause of the civil war, his dragging out and pandering to both sides in order to make no enemies and take the high road lead to a ( no solution ) policy that
simply drug things out and made them worse.
The great compromise as it is called gave slavery to some states and kept it out of other states. The real reason for the Civil War was the north demanded southern states nationalize their produce to the northern industrial states.. funny in todays free market the Union would consist of less than 3 percent of the population using that logic. The point being Clay did NOTHING to stop it having 20 years in advance to do so,
he merely set out to crush the South no matter the cost and drug issues out on purpose to create conflict. The man is a
tragedy I can never forgive him for the
hell he brought on this country by leading the Senate and I do mean leading them.
To gross Indecision.

Worst Senator Ever.

Mark Rubin said…

Lyndon Johnson’s my nominee. As a Senator he probably wielded more power than any other Senator in history and, without doubt, was the strongest leader in the Senate. And his major accomplishment was civil rights. Imagine this country today without his having served in the Senate (which led to his service as Vice President and President, where he implemented civil rights legislation that has brought us to January 20, 2009.)

michael said…

what about Virginia senator John Warner his record includes 30 years of bipartisanship, progressive environmental efforts despite party bias and negotiating the Incidents at Sea Executive Agreement,

i give him credit just for marrying Liz Taylor

ttdugger@gmail.com said…

How on earth can Mike Mansfield not have been mentioned. Any true senate scholar would have him at the very least on top a list of the best senators of the modern era.

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