Wednesday, December 13, 2017

One of the prime accomplishments of John F. Kennedy during his time in the U.S. Senate was chairing a bipartisan committee to select the five greatest members to serve in that body.  A keen student of history, he took to the task with great interest. Conferring with historians and other scholars, the committee considered sixty-five deceased senators before announcing its selections in 1957.

In the end, three were chosen from the nineteenth century and two from the twentieth.  The selections of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John Calhoun—sometimes called "the great triumvirate”—were obvious.  Clay’s reputation as a legendary compromiser and Webster’s as a great nationalist and orator were undeniable.  From our perspective today, Calhoun would be more questionable because of his slavery and secessionist views, but he had an impact on the Senate of his day.

There was no quota for the time periods, but clearly twentieth-century members needed to be included and these choices would reflect more political considerations.  A few sitting senators had worked with some of these members and had either personal affection or animosity toward potential selectees.  The result was the choice of a careful political balance of one of the greatest liberals, “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and one the greatest conservatives, “Mr. Conservative” Bob Taft. 

In an article for The New York Times on April 14, 1957, Kennedy explained the process, which was admittedly parochial at times.  He wrote that “the value of a Senator is not so easily determined as the value of a car or a hog, or even that of a public utility bond or a ballplayer.” 

He continued, “For in these days when political and legislative service is too often ridiculed or disdained, it is particularly desirable that we focus the nation’s attention upon the Senate and its distinguished traditions, stimulating interest in our political problems and motivations and increasing the understanding of the Senate’s role in our Government.”

The article included photographs of the eventual choices as well as other notable senators, including Stephen A. Douglas, George W. Norris, John Sherman, Charles Sumner, Arthur Vandenberg, and Robert F. Wagner.  Forty-seven years later, Vandenberg and Wagner were included among the original senators in this “hall of fame” list, bringing the number to seven.

The Senate at that time was in the national spotlight at least in part because of Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, and also a book written about its workings, Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate by William S. White. 

Although upbeat in concluding his article, Kennedy did write this statement:  “If United States Senators are to be judged in the coming years in terms of hogs and automobiles, then this nation is ill-prepared to face a difficult and perilous future.”

The photograph here is of the painting of Webster’s historic speech responding to Senator Robert Y. Hayne on the issue of nullification and the federal government’s supremacy over states’ rights.  The speech, presented over two days, is often considered the most distinguished in the history of the U.S. Senate.  Photo Credit:  Boston Art Commission, “Webster’s Reply to Hayne” by George P. A. Healy.

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