Making history in “the world’s greatest deliberative body”

Senators Charles Percy and Everett Dirksen, 1967. 
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
On January 3 in Washington DC the members of the 117th Congress were sworn in. As the members of the House and Senate took their seats they followed a long line of legislators which extends so far back through history that it pre-dates the Capitol building itself. Among these historic figures are the 51 United States Senators from the state of Illinois.

Illinois senators have risen to become towering figures in the chamber, while others faded to obscurity. Senator David Davis of Bloomington, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln who served for fifteen years on the U.S. Supreme Court, held the Senate’s highest office: President pro tempore. Senator Scott Lucas of Havana rose to the position of Senate Majority Leader in 1949. His successor in the Senate, Everett Dirksen of Pekin served as Senate Minority Leader during the 1960s and played a crucial role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some of Dirksen’s many quips and quotes remain legendary to this day.

Senator Stephen Douglas of Jacksonville was a nationally-known orator nicknamed the “Little Giant” because of his small size but high profile. A century later, Senator Paul Douglas of Chicago was a political reformer and a leading advocate of civil rights legislation. Paul Douglas also had the distinction of being married to another member of Illinois’ congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Emily Taft Douglas.

Illinois’ longest-tenured Senator was Shelby Moore Cullom of Springfield, a former Governor and state House speaker who represented the Prairie State in the U.S. Senate for 30 years from 1883 to 1913. Among Cullom’s many achievements was the first successful legislation to protect farmers from abuses at the hands of unregulated railroads. At the other end of the spectrum was Senator David Jewett Baker of Kaskaskia who served in the Senate for less than a month in the fall of 1830 when his predecessor, John McLean of Shawneetown, died before his elected successor, John Robinson McCracken of Carmi, began his term.

One of Illinois’ first U.S. Senators was Ninian Edwards, a slaveholder who had served as Governor of the Illinois Territory. Among Edwards’ successors were Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman ever elected to the Senate, and Senator Barack Obama, who became the nation’s first African American President.

Senator Jesse Thomas of Edwardsville was the other half of the pair of inaugural U.S. Senators from Illinois. Thomas had some prior congressional experience, serving as the congressional delegate from the Indiana territory from 1807 to 1809.

James Shields 
Senator James Shields made history as the only man to represent three different states in the U.S. Senate. After his time as a Senator from Illinois ended in 1855, the former state auditor and Illinois Supreme Court Justice (who in 1842 challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel over the young legislator’s criticism of his policies) served as a U.S. Senator from the newly-admitted state of Minnesota and later filled a vacant Senate seat from Missouri.

In the state’s first century, many Senators also served a term as Governor, either before or after their time in Washington. Senators Edwards, William L.D. Ewing, Richard Yates, John Palmer and Richard Oglesby joined Cullom in holding both offices. In the 20th Century only Governor Charles Deneen went on to serve in the U.S. Senate after his governorship.

Two would-be Senators found themselves unable to be seated in the body after corruption allegations so tainted their appointments that their credentials were not accepted. Former Congressman Frank Smith of Dwight was rejected not once, but twice. Smith was elected to the Senate in 1926 and when the incumbent senator, William McKinley of Champaign, died shortly after the election Smith was appointed to fill the vacancy. However, serious allegations of fraud surrounding his campaign caused the Senate to reject the appointment. When he tried to take office in March for the elected term, he was rejected for that too.

A similar fate befell Congressman William Lorimer, the so-called “Blond Boss” of Chicago who was appointed to the Senate by the state legislature, but was turned away by the Senate when its investigation found, “that corrupt methods and practices were employed in his election, and that the election, therefore was invalid.”

Lorimer was among the last of the Senate appointments issued by the Illinois General Assembly. Under the original text of Article I of the Constitution, Senators were elected not directly by the people but instead by the state legislatures. This led to state legislative elections throughout the 19th century which were in effect referenda on the Senate nominees of the various parties – none more hotly-contested than the 1858 election between Democrat incumbent Stephen Douglas and Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln of Springfield.

As part of the wave of progressive reform sweeping the nation in the early 20th-century, the 17th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1913 allowing for the direct election of Senators by the people. Cullom, at the age of 84 and in his 30th year as a Senator decided he did not have the energy to pursue a statewide campaign and opted for retirement, perhaps helped along by his loss in the “advisory” primary to Lawrence Y. Sherman of Macomb. Sherman was appointed to fill the remainder of the term vacated by Lorimer, and in 1914 he became Illinois’ first popularly-elected U.S. Senator.

Illinois’ current U.S. Senators are Democrats: Senator Dick Durbin of Springfield (who stands to tie Cullom’s longevity record should he complete the six-year term to which he was elected last November) and Senator Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates. The most recent Republican was Senator Mark Kirk of Winnetka who was elected in 2010.

Over the years the partisan affiliations of the state’s Senators have been evenly divided and reflect the complicated politics of the Senate in the days before the Civil War. Senator John A. Logan of Murphysboro had served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat but joined the party of Lincoln around the same time he became a General in the Union Army. He served Illinois in the Senate until his death in 1886, becoming one of Capitol Hill’s fiercest advocates for veterans.

In total, Illinois has had 22 Republican Senators and 22 Democrat Senators, plus one Senator who served in the office as a member of both parties. Senator Lyman Trumbull first came to the Senate in 1855 as a Democrat, having bested a field of opponents which included Abraham Lincoln. He served as a Democrat Senator from Illinois through the end of the Civil War, but recognizing the direction of the political winds following the war, he returned to Washington for the 40th Congress in 1867 as a Republican. He finished his senatorial career in 1873 as a Democrat.

Six other Illinois Senators belonged to neither party, at least not as the parties are understood today. Davis was officially an independent for his single term. Edwards served first as a Democratic-Republican, the party of Thomas Jefferson, and later as an Adams-Clay Republican when his original party split into factions during the 1820s. As the name implies, these factions were divided by their loyalty to their preferred Presidential nominee.

Two other Illinois Senators, Ewing and Elias Kent Kane, belonged to the opposite faction, the Jacksonians. McLean started out with the faction backing Treasury Secretary William Crawford but later became a Jacksonian. Thomas perhaps followed the most complicated path of them all, starting out as a Democratic-Republican, joining the Crawford Republicans and finishing his career with the Adams faction.

U.S. Senate Chambers, 1963. 
Credit: U.S. Capitol Historical Society & National Geographic
These are just a few of the many stories about the part which Illinois’ U.S. Senate delegations have played in more than 200 years of American history. Illinois senators left their mark on the house of Congress sometimes called the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” From the early days of statehood to the debates over civil rights, from clashes over America’s global role following the world wars to the challenges of the 21st century, voices from Illinois have thundered through the halls of the United States Senate.