As Chairman of the Special Senate Committee on the Senate Reception Room, established by S. Res. 145 of the 84th Congress as amended, I wish to report to the Senate that our Committee has completed its deliberations, and its surveys of scholarly and Senatorial opinion as described in the Committee Report, and recommends that there be placed in the five unfilled spaces in the Senate Reception Room paintings portraying the following five outstanding Senators of the past:
Senator Henry Clay, of Kentucky, who served in the Senate 1806-7, 1810-11, 1831-42, 1849-52. Resourceful expert in the art of the possible, his fertile mind, persuasive voice, skillful politics, and tireless energies were courageously devoted to the reconciliation of conflict between North and South, East and West, capitalism and agrarianism. A political leader who put the national good above party, a spokesman for the West whose love for the Union outweighed sectional pressures, he acquired more influence and more respect as responsible leader of the loyal but ardent opposition than many who occupied the White House. His adroit statesmanship and political finesse in times of national crisis demonstrated the values of intelligent compromise in a Federal democracy, without impairing either his convictions or his courage to stand by them.
Senator Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who served in the Senate 1827-41, 1845-50. Eloquent and articulate champion of "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable," he grasped in an age of divided loyalties the full meaning of the American Constitution and of the supremacy and indissolubility of the national government. Molding the symbols of the Union he cherished so strongly that neither secession nor war could break them, his steadfast courage and powerful leadership in two of the Senate’s most historic and critical debates were brilliantly portrayed in orations attentively heard and eagerly read. Influential spokesman for industrial expansion, his dedication to Union above all personal and partisan considerations overshadowed the petty moral insensitivities which never compromised his national principles; and his splendid dignity and decorum elevated the status and prestige of the Senate.
Senator John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, who served in the Senate 1832-43, 1845-50. Forceful logician of state sovereignty, masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority, his profoundly penetrating and original understanding of the social bases of government has significantly influenced American political theory and practice. Sincerely devoted to the public good as he saw it, the ultimate tragedy of his final cause neither detracts from the greatness of his leadership nor tarnishes his efforts to avert bloodshed. Outspoken yet respected, intellectual yet beloved, his leadership on every major issue in that critical era of transition significantly shaped the role of the Senate and the destiny of the nation.
Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., of Wisconsin, who served in the Senate 1906-25. Ceaseless battler for the underprivileged in an age of special privilege, courageous independent in an era of partisan conformity, he fought memorably against tremendous odds and stifling inertia for social and economic reforms which ultimately proved essential to American progress in the 20th century. Determined to make law serve the rights of persons as well as property, to make government serve the interests of great social justice as well as great political parties, his constructive pioneering efforts to promote the general welfare aroused the slumbering conscience of the nation and made the Senate more responsive to it. The bitter antagonisms stirred by his unyielding opposition to international commitments and conflict were ultimately submerged by widespread admiration for his dedicated life-long fight against political corruption and corporate greed.
Senator Robert A. Taft, of Ohio, who served in the Senate 1939-53. The conscience of the conservative movement, its ablest exponent and most constructive leader, his high integrity, analytical mind and sheer industry quickly won him a select spot in the councils of his party and the hearts of all his colleagues. His Senate leadership transcended partisanship; his political courage and candor put principles above ambition. Dedicated to the Constitution and the American tradition of individual rights as his keen legal mind interpreted them, he demonstrated the importance of a balanced and responsible opposition in an age of powerful governments.
These five names, it should be made clear, and I shall discuss some of the objections raised to each in a moment, are not offered as "the five greatest" Senators of all time. The Senate resolution under which we were deliberating instead called for simply –
five outstanding persons from among all persons, but not a living person, who have served as Members of the Senate since the formation of the Government.
Nevertheless, the decisions of the special committee in agreeing to these five names were unanimous. And although we recognize, with humility, the hazards of attempting to pass judgment on other Members of the Senate, when we claim for ourselves neither the detachment nor the expertness of professional historians – and although we recognize further that no other Senator or committee of Senators would have necessarily reached the same conclusions – we can take pride nevertheless in the fact that Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and LaFollette were among the top 5 receiving the most endorsements from our panel of 150 scholars; that the same 4 names were also among the top 5 receiving the most endorsements from those Senators who responded to our inquiry; and that the late Senator Taft, whose name completes the 5 recommended by our committee, was the first choice of the Senators who responded and among the first 10 in the poll of scholars.
Our Committee does not, of course, attempt to say that many other Senators of the past are not deserving of recognition, or are not considered in the minds of some, even "greater," however that term may be measured. On the contrary, the excellence of so many nominations made our assignment a nearly impossible task. Speaking only for myself, I will say to the Senate that I had the most difficulty excluding from the list three other outstanding Senators of the past:
– George Norris of Nebraska, one of the most courageous, dedicated men ever to sit in the Senate, and one whose influence on the public power, agricultural, labor and political aspects of this nation will long endure.
– Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the great “Nestor of the Senate” from 1820-1850, who on more than one occasion took on the Great Triumvirate individually and collectively and bested them in the Senate itself; and
– Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, the outstanding figure in the first Senate, who authored the Federal Judiciary Act that will always remain a monument to his genius and shepherded the Bill of Rights through the Senate.
Many others deserve recognition, and were the subjects of scholarly, thoughtful letters from Members of the Senate or distinguished historians, political scientists and public figures. Sports writers choosing entrants to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown have it easy by comparison – for them, and for those who miss, there will always be a next year. Our Committee was limited to five – for all time – without a "next year," a "second team," or a list of those deserving "honorable mention."
Nevertheless, in the Report filed today, the Committee lists in alphabetical order the following names (omitting the three I have already mentioned), which were among those most prominently mentioned in letters received by the committee from Members of the Senate, our panel of scholars, and the general public, which we list because of our regret that a selection of only five names was permitted and because of the possibility that some future committee of the Senate, meeting at some future date, will find occasion to honor additional names:
Alben W. Barkley, of Kentucky
William Borah, of Idaho
Stephen Douglas, of Illinois
Carter Glass, of Virginia
Justin Smith Morrill, of Vermont
John Sherman, of Ohio
Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts
Lyman Trumbull, of Illinois
Oscar Underwood, of Alabama
Arthur Vandenberg, of Michigan
Robert Wagner, of New York
Thomas Walsh, of Montana.
The members of the special committee recognized that they faced a particular problem with respect to Senators of the 20th century. We realize that many of those nominated from this period were men with whom contemporary Senators, including members of the committee, have served, and about whom both sentiment and prejudice may still exist in sufficient quantity to influence the opinions of Senators, historians, and the general public. Nevertheless, the mandate of the Senate as contained in Senate Resolution 145 called for the selection to be made "from among all persons … who have served as Members of the Senate since the formation of the Government"; and this clearly implied that, to the extent possible, the entire history of the Senate should be considered and represented in the selection process. It is important to note, moreover, that to eliminate consideration of 20th century Senators and thus to impose a cutoff date of 1900 may well have meant imposing in effect a cutoff date of approximately 1850, because of the predominance of outstanding Senators from the period of 1830 to 1850 compared with those in the latter half of the century. To have recommended five Senators who all served more than a century ago would not, we finally decided, fulfill either the mandate of the Senate Resolution or our efforts to arouse public interest in the Senate, its greatness and its role.
With this in mind, the committee has selected Senators Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin and Robert A. Taft of Ohio as outstanding representatives of the progressive and conservative movements in the 20th century. We realize, of course, that considerable controversy and sentiment still surround each of them; that it is impossible to prove that they deserve the honor more than Norris or Vandenberg, for example, or Borah, Carter Glass, Barkley, Wagner, Walsh, Underwood or any among a dozen others who were seriously considered; and that whatever names are chosen from the 20th century will appear to suffer in comparison with the Great Triumvirate.
Nevertheless the Committee believed LaFollette and Taft to be the most appropriate choices under the terms of the resolution – particularly in view of the way in which they symbolized the progressive and conservative points of view on the great domestic issue that confronted the Senate during this century: the proper role of governmental activity in the economic and social life of this country.
But both were more than symbols. "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, a great Governor of Wisconsin whose influence is still felt in that state, was the outstanding Progressive of his day; and his struggle strongly influenced the economic reforms of the Wilson and Roosevelt eras. Professor Henry S. Commager thought him "An obvious choice for the period around the turn of the century … A man who did more to bring about Progressivism than anyone who was in the Senate in his generation." An outstanding political scientist who also picked LaFollette over the other great Progressives of this century, Dr. E.E. Schattschneider of Wesleyan, called LaFollette "The most vigorous and important exponent of liberal Republicanism in the Senate in the first quarter of the 19th century." However isolated he may have been in the Senate, and however short-sighted his views on foreign policy may seem to most of us, his impressive legislative accomplishments which are outlined in the Committee Report, his tireless battles to make government serve all the people, and his deeply felt insight into social and economic forces, all combined to shape a career we rightfully honor today.
Bob Taft was also more than a symbol. All of us here who served with him would agree, even though on many occasions we may have disagreed with him, that he was a figure of many dimensions. His name offers logical balance to the name of LaFollette in our group of five, just as he himself offered logical balance during the days when the role of the opposition was more difficult. The distinguished historian Alpheus T. Mason of Princeton ranked Taft with the Great Triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun and Webster because he "succeeded in being a strong partyman without being blinded by partisan considerations." Quincy Wright, along with other well-known professors including Clinton Rossiter of Cornell, pointed out in his letter that Taft’s leadership of the conservative movement was all the greater because his "conservatism was qualified by his capacity to perceive necessary reforms." The fact that he was the leading choice among members of the Senate today is not without significance.
Nevertheless, because of the controversy still surrounding the names of Taft and LaFollette, it is important to recall that Clay, Calhoun, and Webster in their own times did not always enjoy the wide recognition of their talents that posterity has given them. Listen, for example, to these words spoken about Henry Clay: "He prefers the specious to the solid, and the plausible to the true … He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes." Those words were spoken by John C. Calhoun, who ridiculed Clay’s lack of education, moral conduct, and short temper. Daniel Webster said Clay was "his inferior in many respects"; and Andrew Jackson once characterized him as being as "reckless and as full of fury as a drunken man in a brothel." On the other hand, who was it that said that John C. Calhoun was a rigid, fanatic, ambitious, selfishly partisan and sectional "turncoat," with "too much genius and too little common sense," who would either die a traitor or a madman? Henry Clay, of course. When Calhoun boasted in debate that he had been Clay’s political master, Clay retorted: "Sir, I would not own him as a slave." Both Clay and Calhoun from time to time fought with Webster; and from the other House, the articulate John Quincy Adams viewed with alarm "the gigantic intellect, the envious temper, the ravenous ambition and the rotten heart of Daniel Webster."
And yet our Committee has selected Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun – and felt it had no other choice. For over 30 years they dominated the Congress and the country, providing leadership and articulation on all the great issues of the growing nation – the tariff, fiscal policies, foreign relations, defense, internal improvements, agriculture, industrial development, westward expansion, states rights, and slavery. From time to time they supported and opposed each other for the Presidency that each desired but never achieved. And despite whatever bitter words passed between them, their mutual respect for each other remained high. "I don’t like Henry Clay," said John Calhoun, "I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God, I love him." Webster considered Calhoun "much the ablest man in the Senate… He could have demolished Newton, Calvin or even John Locke as a logician … Whatever his aspirations, they were high, honorable, and noble … There was nothing groveling or low or nearly selfish that came near the head or the heart of Mr. Calhoun." Henry Clay predicted that Calhoun’s principles would "descend to posterity under the sanction of a great name." And whatever John Quincy Adams may have thought of Webster’s "rotten heart," he considered his celebrated reply to Hayne to be the "most significant (act) since the founding of the Constitution."
This is not to say that objections cannot be raised to each of the three. Criticisms of Henry Clay’s moral conduct, scholarship, and political schemes may well be justified; and there are those who feel he carried the principle of compromise too far. It is true that Clay said "It is a rule with me, when acting either in a public or a private character, to attempt nothing more than what there exists a prospect of accomplishment." And yet his spirit of compromise, in the words of Carl Schurz, "was illumined by a grand conception of the destinies of his country, a glowing national spirit, a lofty patriotism." His greatest anxiety was the preservation of the Union; and few did more to contribute toward its salvation. Abraham Lincoln called the Great Pacificator "my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life." An extraordinarily gifted figure, his brilliant oratorical talents, unusual vitality, and a unique gift of winning the hearts as well as the minds of his countrymen all enabled his three great compromise proposals in 1820, 1833 and 1850 to save the Union until it grew strong enough to save itself. "No other American politician," as Vernon Parrington has observed, "has been so loved by a hero-worshiping electorate – and so lovable."
Daniel Webster, it is true, portrayed, in the words of one of his intimate friends, an extraordinary "compound of strength and weakness, dust and divinity." It is true that he accepted a retainer from Nicholas Biddle of the Bank of the United States; that he accepted favors from the New England manufacturers; and that his decisions both as a Senator and as a Secretary of State appear to have been open to improper influence. Yet there is not serious evidence that his views on the Bank, the tariff, and foreign policy would have been any different without these dubious connections – and on the contrary Professor Allan Nevins has written that he demonstrated more than any other colleague real insight into the problems of public finance, moderate protectionism, and international affairs. Whatever may have been petty about his financial affairs, there was nothing petty about his moral stature in times of national crisis or in his dedication to the Union.
No list of outstanding Senators would be regarded as complete without Webster. Professor Commager wrote the Committee that "Webster is so obvious a choice that it would be superfluous to attempt a justification. Indeed if a single name were to be selected, that name would be, almost by common consent, Webster." And in 1900 when balloting began for the American Hall of Fame at New York University, Webster was tied with Abraham Lincoln for second place immediately behind George Washington. Many members of our panel of scholars stated that they selected Webster for the permanent impression left by his Constitutional ideas despite his faults of character. My old Government professor at Harvard, Arthur N. Holcombe, wrote me: "Though a blot on his record, these dealings were not so far out of line with the political morals of his time as they would be today. Allowance should be made for the lower standard of political ethics at the Senatorial level then."
The same answer, I believe, can be given to those objecting to the views entertained and defended by John C. Calhoun. "He was wrong," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote us, "but he was a greater man and Senator than many people who have been right." In defending the views of his state and section on the practice of slavery, abhorrent to all of us today but a Constitutionally recognized practice in his time, Calhoun was yielding neither to the pressures of expediency or immorality – nor did his opponents at the time so regard it. Calhoun was not a proponent of disunion – though he warned at the end of his career that secession might be the South’s only means of achieving justice, he fought long and hard to keep the South in the Union.
Generally judged to be the most notable political thinker ever to sit in the Senate, whose doctrine of concurrent majorities has permanently influenced our political theory and practice, John Calhoun did more than any other Senator in the 19th century, in the words of Professor Nevins, "to make men think clearly and carefully on fundamental political questions… He was a model member in the purity of his public and private life, in his incessant industry and in his efforts to master completely the main issues of his day.”
And thus I am among those who would regard it as inconceivable not to name Clay, Webster and Calhoun on the list of five outstanding Senators. No other Senators have ever rivaled the unparalleled leadership and statesmanship which they gave to a growing and anxious nation during a critical era when the Senate was the nation’s most important body. Whatever objections may be raised to their views and morals, in my opinion, must be balanced against their achievements – and against the high-mindedness and dignity which moved them at their finest moments.
As I have pointed out in the Committee report, which outlines their careers and achievements in more detail, the objections which can be raised to each of the five names selected – just as they can be raised against any name suggested – are outweighed in the case of these five Senators by their over-all statesmanship, their service to the Nation, and their impact on the Senate, the country, and our history. They are not necessarily, as already pointed out, the five greatest Senators; nor are they necessarily the most blameless or irreproachable ones, nor models of contemporary behavior. Allowance must be made of the times, the morals, and the practices of the period in which each served; and political and policy differences should not diminish their claim to the label "outstanding."
Obviously everyone will not agree. The distinguished Yale Professor, Samuel Flagg Bemis, who nominated Webster even though one of his books has been cited as an authority for Webster’s laxity in financial matters, told me of an interesting precedent in this matter of portraits (a precedent which went the other way) – namely, that when the Bemis book appeared, the large portrait of Webster which balanced that of John Hay suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from the anteroom of the Secretary of State in Washington, apparently relegated to a more obscure hanging in some other room. Senators, too, will disagree; and in filing this report with the Senate, I want to make clear my hope that Senators who do disagree with our conclusions will voice their objections or preferences to the Senate. Should a majority be opposed to the recommendations contained in our report, I assume under the parliamentary situation it would be possible for the Senate to reject it. Although individual Senators were asked to submit nominations, no attempt was made to clear our findings with Senators from the same home states as those proposed – and the Committee will be glad to defend its choices against whatever objections may be raised.
There is always much for which a chairman is grateful in filing a report. I am grateful for the kindness and cooperation of my four colleagues on the Committee – Senators Bridges, Russell, Bricker and Mansfield – who brought to this task the wisdom and sense of responsibility it deserved. I am grateful to the distinguished historian Allan Nevins, who graciously consented to serve as chairman of our Historical Advisory Committee, and whose counsel was of particular value to me; and to all members of our panel of scholars who responded to our inquiry with thoughtful, helpful letters. I am particularly delighted to be able to report that the Committee spent less than 6% of its budget! Of $10,000 allotted to the Committee under the resolution, $9,466.68 has been returned.
May I conclude by stressing once again that I believe this project to have had for this body considerable value beyond the basic necessity for its creation. The Senate emphasized in the discussion preceding passage of the resolution, and the committee has attempted to emphasize during the past year, that there is considerable merit in stimulating interest among the general public and the Senate itself in the high traditions of the Senate, in the political problems faced by even our most distinguished statesmen, and in the high standards of the past which might be inspiring or emulated today. It is the committee's hope that the considerable interest evoked by this project will be of value at a time when the democratic way of life is under pressure from without and the problems and conflicting pressures involved in the political profession are frequently misunderstood within our own country. The committee has attempted in a small way to focus the Nation's attention upon the Senate and its distinguished traditions, upon the high quality of men who have served in the Senate, and upon the significant role that the Senate has played in the history of our nation. The members of the special committee thus hope that an increasing awareness of national and Senatorial history which should not be forgotten will be of benefit to the general public and to the Senate itself.
I wish at this time, Mr. President, to file our report with the Senate.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 897, Folder: "Senate Reception Room, 1 May 1957".