America’s Worst Senators
The American Senate has long be recognized and heralded as one of the world’s greatest legislative chamber. Its emphasis on debate – on cooling the passions of a tempestuous public – created a chamber that, at its best, embraced dispassionate discourse aimed at educating the public and passing enlightened legislation.
Of course, the Senate has not always lived up to its glorious conception. At many points throughout its history, the Senate ignored its founding principles and allowed the president to dominate the chamber; at far too many points, senators used the chamber’s rules and dilatory design to slow movement towards racial equality.
A legislature is only as good as its legislators. Who are the worst senators in American history, the ones whose actions and statements stained one of America’s greatest creations? In no particular order, here are America’s worst senators.
Theodore Bilbo (D-MS, 1935-1947)
The Mississippi demagogue and likely KKK member committed his public service tenure to preserving segregation and uses all power at his disposal to prevent African Americans from attaining equal civil and political rights. Bilbo, along with other Southern senators, embarked on one of the Senate’s longest fillibusters to prevent passage of an anti-lynching bill, saying (on the Senate floor!) “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded AngloSaxon white Southern men will not tolerate.”
In that same speech, Bilbo first dabbled with an idea to return all 12 million blacks to Africa. He introduced legislation to achieve that goal in 1938 and continued pushing for this “repatriation” during the Second World War. Upon the war’s completion, he added a new target for his vitriol: Jews. Defeating Nazism apparently didn’t defeat anti-Semitism at home.
Writing to Leonard Golditch, executive secretary of the National Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism, Bilbo ranted that “there are five million Jews in the United States and the majority of them are fine public citizens, but if Jews of your type don’t quit sponsoring and fraternizing with the Negro race you are going to arouse so much opposition that they will get a very strong invitation to pack up and resettle in Palestine, the homeland of the Jews, just as we propose to provide for the voluntary resettlement of the American Negro in West Africa their fatherland. Now do not pop-off and say I am in favor of sending the Jews to Palestine. What I am trying to say to you is that there are just a few of you New York ‘kikes’ that are fraternizing and socializing with the Negroes for selfish and political and if you keep it up you will arouse the opposition of the better class of your race.”
Perhaps most shocking and stomach-churning, Bilbo published a book in 1946 entitled “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.” The racist manifesto furthered his efforts to popularize deporting all blacks to Africa, preying on racial anxieties and pointing to the “scientific” inferiority of blacks to argue that commingling of the races – which would lead to interracial marriages – would destroy white civilization. His own words best exemplify the true depths of his hatred and ignorance: “The experiences and history of thousands of years prove that whenever and wherever the white and black man have tried to live side by side the result has been mongrelization which has destroyed both races and left a brown mongrel people.”
James Eastland (D-MS, 1943-1978)
James Eastland, another Mississippi race-baiter, spent 35 years using his august position as a United States Senator to further segregationist causes. His reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the separate but equal regime, showed he believed in the Constitution and the Supreme Court only when the two furthered his racist intentioned. Eastland argued that “the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court’s decision” and went on to tell states – wrongly – that “you are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations.” States obviously cannot pick and choose which Supreme Court decisions and federals to follow. The Civil War ended that phony debate once and for all.
According to Eastland, man did not create segregation. From nature arose the separation of races and only through the tyrannical and forceful actions of men would races ever live together; such an event would never happen spontaneously. “The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct,” Eastland contended, a “self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination… it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.”
His rhetoric and staunch opposition to civil rights will always stand as an embarrassment to the Senate and country.
Joseph McCarthy (R-WI, 1947-1957)
Joseph McCarthy’s brief reign of terror saw ruined hundreds of lives by relying on naked demagoguery to parlay obvious lies into a seemingly unstoppable political force. McCarthy quickly earned national prominence after the “Wheeling Speech,” in which he claimed to have a list of 205 (or 257) suspected members of the Communist Party who had infiltrated the State Department. During various speeches and testimonies, the list’s size varied and its contents remained a secret; McCarthy’s claims later grew to encompass the Truman Administration and the US Army.
His slander cultivated fear among public servants and even elected officials. Few dared stand up to the demagogue because of his ruthlessness in slaying naysayers. As such, McCarthy managed to bluff his way to success – he of course had no proof and no reason to accuse hundreds of communist sympathies, but whenever challenged for evidence, McCarthy snarled his way to maintaining the house of cards. Only when McCarthy directly challenged the Army and a month’s worth of televised “Army-McCarthy” hearings let the public see the extent of his recklessness, deceit, and slander did he fall from grace, culminating in a formal Senate censure and his eventual death in office.
Strom Thurmond (D/R-SC, 1956-2003)
The 1948 State’s Rights Party presidential nominee used his authority to thwart progress on civil rights, a dedication proved by running for president against Harry S Trump (his party’s nominee) because the Democratic National Convention endorsed a pro-civil rights plank. Thurmond wrote the first version of the Southern Manifesto, a piece which asserted that the Supreme Court no longer had the ability to review laws (a principle since the country’s founding) and that (southern) states should therefore resist the ruling. Many feared that the Southern Manifesto might be turned into another secessionist movement, coming, as it did, amidst heightened racial tensions because of desegregation.
In case his views on civil rights weren’t yet clear, Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the longest filibuster in American history. He labelled Martin Luther King, Jr a “communist” and claimed “King demeans his race and retards the advancement of his people.” His militancy towards desegregation efforts came to light after Truman desegregated the army and Thurmond pronounced “there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra [sic] race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
Huey Long (D-LA, 1932-1935)
Huey “Kingfish” Long, a radical demagogue, earned the title “America’s first dictator” by The Nation. President Franklin Roosevelt considered him one of the most dangerous men in America (General Douglas MacArther being the other). He came to prominence in 1928 following his election as governor of Louisiana. There, Long “turned the state into his duchy, had made vassals of the state’s legislators,” and continued his corrupt regime by installing a puppet governor in 1932, at which point he ascended to the Senate.
H. L. Mencken referred to Long as a backwoods Mussolini — “impudent, blackguardly and infinitely prehensile.” Others called him “Der Kingfish,” tying him, none-too-subtly, to Adolf Hitler, then gaining power in Germany. He fit the bill, controlling Louisiana affairs while serving the Senate. The Kingfish often returned to Louisiana to push for desired legislation, venturing into the state capitol and forcefully arguing with present legislators. Long had the state government use patronage as a weapon and did the same with taxation, threatening exorbitant rates and promising kickbacks to businesses that played ball.
His Senate tenure saw Long posture for a bolder goal: The presidency. Deriding Roosevelt as a puppet of special interests, Long introduced the “Share Our Wealth” program which sought to dramatically redistribute money through maximum incomes and limits on personal wealth (his numbers did not add up). That morphed into the “Share Our Wealth Society,” a political organization ginning up popular support for a potential 1936 presidential candidacy. Such goals never came to fruition as a disgruntled doctor murdered Huey Long in 1935. Sic semper tyrannis.
William Borah (R-ID, 1907-1940)
Borah served in the Senate for 33 years as a populist Republican and a leading isolationist voice. He led the so-called Irreconcilables – the senators staunchly opposed to the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Together with the Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and other Republicans, Borah resisted the Fourteen Points and toured the country lambasting America’s involvement in an international organization that hoped to bring the world closer together and truly make World War I the “war to end all wars.” Ultimately, Borah and his isolationist cohort succeeded in defeating Wilson’s grand liberal goals.
Despite rightfully predicting that the Treaty of Versailles harsh treatment of Germany might hurt the nascent Weimer Republic, when Adolf Hitler rose to power and threatened the new democratic order, Borah, though supposedly horrified by the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, refused to speak out against the regime. He similarly opposed immigration of Jew from Germany. Bizarrely, after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Borah lambasted Britain and France, not Germany. In his delusions of grandeur, Borah also believed that had he met with Hitler personally, Hitler would not have invaded Poland and World War II’s onset might have been avoided.
Borah also opposed federal anti-lynching legislation.
Robert Taft (R-OH, 1939-1953)
The son of President Howard Taft, Robert Taft made his name as a staunch conservative and opponent to the New Deal, which he labelled “socialist.” Taft’s opposition to Roosevelt and Democratic initiatives included arguing against American involvement in World War II prior to the Japanese attack on pearl Harbor. A staunch non-interventionist, Taft fought against all efforts to aid countries at war with Nazi Germany – his leadership in the cause pushed Roosevelt into acting without Congress, finding ways around the legislative branch to help victims of German aggression. After the war, Taft remained suspicious of, and hoped to demolish, NATO. He also condemned the Nuremberg Trials that sought to prosecute leading Nazis for crimes against humanity during the Holocaust.
But the absolute worst senators in American history have to be those who joined the Confederacy.
The Confederate senators committed treason by seceding from the Union and supporting a failed nation-state that rose in arms against the federal government. They abandoned the Constitution and tried to forever divide the country in order to hold humans in bondage and continue an atrocious system of violent white supremacy. These senators, who will always live in infamy, are:
- Clement Clay, Jr (AL)
- Benjamin Fitzpatrick (AL)
- William Sebastian (AR)
- Charles Mitchel (AR)
- David Yulee (FL)
- Stephen Mallory (FL)
- Robert Toombs (GA)
- Alfred Iverson, Sr (GA)
- Jesse Bright (IN)
- John Breckinridge (KY)
- Judah Benjamin (LA)
- John Slidell (LA)
- Jefferson Davis (MS)
- Albert Brown (MS)
- Waldo Johnson (MO)
- Trusten Polk (MO)
- Thomas Bragg (NC)
- Thomas Clingman (NC)
- James Chesnut, (SC)
- James Hammond (SC)
- Alfred Nicholson (TN)
- Louis Wigfall (TX)
- John Hemphill (TX)
- James Mason (VA)
- Robert Hunter (VA)