A Lion Among the Liberals:

Senator William Edgar Borah and
the rise of New Deal Liberalism

Kevin C. Murphy, Harvard University
(Copyright 1997-2013, All Rights Reserved)

I. Introduction
II. The Lion of Idaho: Borah's Intellectual Anatomy
III. The Lion Roars: Borah and the Early New Deal
IV. The Lion in Winter: Borah and the Later New Deal
V. Epilogue: A Critique of Borah's Public Philosophy


William Edgar Borah (1865-1940) of Idaho, considered by his contemporaries a first-class statesman and orator in the tradition of Daniel Webster and William Jennings Bryan, spent thirty-three tumultuous years as one of the most powerful and persuasive members of the United States Senate. From the time of his arrival in Washington in 1907 until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1940, Borah was well known and highly regarded both in the capital and across the nation for the force and quantity of his rhetoric. In 1936, Time Magazine declared him "the most famed Senator of this century" and "the great Moral force of the Senate, the one member who could arise and deal with Right and Wrong in an electric way."1 Esteemed around the world as "the Lion of Idaho" and "the Great Opposer," he played a pivotal role through five Presidential administrations in shaping the domestic and foreign agendas of early twentieth-century American public policy.

A Populist silverite and Progressive Republican in his early career, Borah had by the 1920s become one of the undisputed leaders of the Senate, despite his penchant for straying from party doctrine. Indeed, Borah remained one of the few congressmen not to be swept up in the furor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's early New Deal. In the relatively non-partisan atmosphere of the First Hundred Days, Borah remained an occasional locus of discontent, choosing bill by bill whether to stand by Roosevelt or to attack his policies. Even when FDR moved toward more Progressive stances in his Second New Deal of 1934-35, Borah respectfully refused to blindly join the Roosevelt fold. Instead, he ran for President in 1936 in a vain attempt to liberalize his party.

After the 1936 election, the result of which clearly wore down the aging statesman, William Borah's vitality began to sag. From FDR's court-packing plan until Borah's death in 1940, the Lion of Idaho continued to denounce what he regarded as an impure strand of liberalism, one that tacitly accepted the centralization of power in the executive office.2 Yet, Borah often seemed too tired or distracted to continue his Progressive tirade against New Deal liberalism.

His health increasingly infirm and his thoughts increasingly preoccupied with the prospects of European war, the Senator inadvertently aided in the collapse of his own public philosophy. In his last years, he confirmed Thurman Arnold to head the Antitrust Division, a man who had deemed Borah's antitrust philosophy "entirely futile but enormously picturesque." Moreover, Borah quietly served on the Temporary National Economic Conference (TNEC) in 1938-39, a useless political committee which sidetracked rather than engaged debate on the monopoly issue, and whose irrelevance was recognized by the Senator before his death in 1940.3

In his recent book, Democracy's Discontent, Professor Michael Sandel has pinpointed the New Deal as the historical moment when the long-standing American public philosophy of civic republicanism was overwhelmed and undermined by the philosophy of contemporary Keynesian liberalism. According to Sandel, civic republicans define freedom as sharing in self-rule and are concerned with government's involvement in shaping virtuous citizens. Keynesian or New Deal liberals, on the other hand, perceive freedom as choosing one's own ends and are concerned primarily with the equitable distribution of national resources.4 While the former philosophy views citizens primarily in the role of producers, a tradition running back to Thomas Jefferson's ideal of the independent yeoman farmer, its replacement regards citizens as consumers whose needs and desires should be fulfilled by a responsive government. This second view is perhaps articulated best in Roosevelt's 1945 inaugural address, in which he offered the nation a Second Bill of Rights which includes rights to adequate housing, a decent job, and a minimum standard of living.

I am particularly interested in understanding the response of William Borah, himself a transitional figure between public philosophies, to this paradigm shift in the proper role and extent of American government. I chose Borah not because he is the best exemplar of civic republicanism, but rather because of his vaunted independence from the two-party system, his fearsome and well-documented powers of oratory, and his stature and influence in the Senate during these times. As one historian has noted, Borah "kept his own counsel, ignored party platforms when it suited him, and acted as his own interpreter of the Constitution."5

While several scholarly studies have examined Borah's views on foreign policy, few writers have made much of the Idahoan's domestic vision. For years, historians have portrayed Borah as a provincial, outdated thinker at best -- a man who could never transcend his rabid Jeffersonianism and constitutionalism to embrace the seemingly inevitable modern liberal state system. While taking into account those aspects of his thought which do indeed seem hopelessly antiquated, such as silverism and isolationism, I hope to understand Borah as a more dynamic thinker than he has been given credit, one who believed strongly in the government's role in distributing justice and increasing purchasing power long before many in his time had caught on.

Moreover, I believe many of Borah's perceived political inconsistencies resolve themselves when Sandel's philosophical framework is applied to his thinking. Through such an application, I hope to illustrate that the Senator's arguments against some aspects of the New Deal foreshadow modern criticisms of the welfare state and point to issues which Neoprogressives may want to consider in their attempts to revive America's civic life.

Chapter 1 traces the anatomy of Borah's conception of American democracy prior to the Depression and the New Deal in light of Sandel's two public philosophies. Chapter 2 depicts Borah's reaction to the policies of Roosevelt's first term, culminating in the Idahoan's failed Presidential campaign of 1936, the high tide of Borah's public philosophy. Chapter 3 continues the story from the beginning of FDR's second term, examining Borah's responses to the court-packing plan through his demise in 1940. The Epilogue steps back to critique the differences between the liberalisms of Borah and FDR and to discuss the relevance of Borah's public philosophy and criticisms of the welfare state to modern political discourse.

As this paper is primarily concerned with William Borah's vision of American democracy, I have relied substantially upon interpreting the Senator's political rhetoric. Given that Borah, a pioneer in the use of radio, press conferences, and other modern technologies of publicity, undoubtedly often had ulterior motives in his public speeches, as in appealing to his primarily agrarian electorate or influencing his colleagues, some may find fault with my decision to base this essay upon the Senator's rhetorical flourishes. Yet, Borah prided himself on his oratory, kept little in the way of private writings and personal correspondence, and was well known as an idealist who lived his political life by the precepts he often invoked.6 Thus, I have decided more often than not to take the Senator at his word.

Continue to Chapter I: "The Lion of Idaho: Borah's Intellectual Anatomy."

1. "Long ago and Far Away," Time , March 30, 1936, quoted in LeRoy Ashby, Spearless Leader: Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920's, University of Illinois Press (Chicago: 1972), 294.
2. McKenna, 306-379.
3. Brinkley, Alan, The End of Reform, Alfred A. Knopf, (New York: 1995), 111, 123-132, 315.
4. Sandel, Michael, Democracy's Discontent, Harvard University Press (Cambridge: 1996), 4-5. 250.
5. Patterson, James T., Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal, University of Kentucky Press (Lexington: 1967), 104.
6. Johnson, Claudius O., Borah of Idaho, Longman, Green, and Co. (New York: 1936), 496-498.

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