Senator William Edgar Borah and
the rise of New Deal Liberalism
Kevin C. Murphy, Harvard University
(Copyright 1997-2013, All Rights Reserved)
"Democracy is something more, vastly more, than a mere form of government by which society is restrained into free and orderly life. It is a moral entity, a spiritual force as well. And these are things which live only and alone in the atmosphere of liberty. The foundation upon which democracy rests is faith in the moral instincts of the people. Its ballot boxes, the franchise, its laws and constitutions are but the outward manifestations of the deeper and more essential thing --a continuing trust in the moral purposes of the average man or woman. When this is lost or forfeited your outward forms, however democratic in terms, are a mockery." - William E. Borah (1919)1
"Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," once quipped Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of William E. Borah's intellectual heroes and sources of inspiration. By most contemporary accounts, this was a precept the Republican Senator from Idaho lived by.2 In 1934, twenty-seven years after Borah had first entered the national spotlight, a New York Times Magazine writer deemed him "still one of the greatest riddles in American life...a baffling conglomeration of contradictions."3 Another observer, writing one year after Borah's death, regarded the Senator "an enigma...a man of paradoxes, unpredictable and unclassifiable."4
Regardless of his perceived inconsistency, in truth Borah lived more closely by another Emerson passage, his personal favorite: "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."5 As early as 1921, he was portrayed by pundits as "an important and energetic political party, whose activity is limited to the Senate, and which has no other member."6 Examining the power structure of the 1930 Congress, another commentator recognized "four distinct political factions" at work: "Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, and William Edgar Borah."7 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a well-respected historian of the Roosevelt era, described the Idahoan as "the lone wolf of American politics."8
Taking advantage of historical distance, various scholars have attempted to discern the method behind Borah's perceived political madness, and in the attempt have often sounded more inconsistent than the senator himself. In the space of four pages, William E. Leuchtenberg characterized Borah as a "nationalist," "civil libertarian," "Progressive," "particularist," "isolationist," and "a constitutionalist with a nineteenth-century faith in the force of public opinion for good."9 Attempting to make sense of this confusion, one historian has painted Borah's public philosophy as an "outdated brand of Jeffersonian liberalism tempered by...[a] deep reverence for social stability."10 Another fancied him a "rugged individualist" whose agrarian-based reformism was handed down relatively unchanged from William Jennings Bryan.11
Borah's deteriorating status in the historical record is in many ways a reflection of the winners writing the history books. As impressively explained by Sandel's Democracy's Discontent, American liberalism underwent a substantial transformation in the second half of the Roosevelt era. As a public philosophy, liberalism moved from "civic republicanism," which defines freedom as sharing in self-rule and concerns itself with shaping virtuous citizens and preserving local communities, to "Keynesian liberalism," which perceives freedom as choosing one's own ends and concerns itself with issues of economic growth and distributive justice.12 Moreover, as noted by Alan Brinkley in The End of Reform, competing strands of progressivism such as Borah's were subsumed by the dominant Keynesian philosophy via the experience of World War II. A decade after Borah's death, "New Deal liberalism" had become so widespread on the Left that it approached dogmatic proportions.13 Thus, Borah's thinking has not been given a fair shake by post-war historians, who seem to hold the modern liberal conception of the state as inevitable.
The first political theory, civic republicanism, has its heritage in such noted thinkers as Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson. It suggests primarily that "liberty depends on sharing in self-government." This philosophy, emphasizing the interconnectedness of man to his society, places prime importance on people "deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community" in order to be truly free. Such a "civic" conception of freedom requires in the citizenry "a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake." Moreover, due to the emphasis upon local self-rule, civic republicans' political debates primarily surround questions of "the political economy of citizenship," such as "what economic arrangements are hospitable to self-government" and "how might our political discourse engage rather than avoid the moral and religious convictions people bring to the public realm."14
Contemporary liberalism, on the other hand, has its roots in the political theory of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill. It espouses a "voluntarist" conception of freedom in which citizens are viewed as "independent, unencumbered selves...capable of choosing their values and ends." Under this system, the government remains neutral with respect to its citizenry. As a result, political debates are primarily concerned with the best way the government can promote economic growth and the equal distribution of justice.15
As with most men, the seeds of Borah's public philosophy are evident in his upbringing. Born in 1865 in Illinois not far from the resting place of Abraham Lincoln, the Borah family's patron saint, William Borah remained a Republican throughout his political life.16 Even after the G.O.P. clearly became the less progressive of the two major parties, Borah declined "to accept the line of least resistance and go into the Democratic party." Rather, he desired to "accept the line of most resistance and help make the Republican Party what it ought to be."17 Born to a devout Presbyterian family upon the close of the Civil War, Borah was brought up to revere the nation and the Founding Fathers as strongly as he did the Bible.18 Moreover, Borah spent his early years in various communities little removed from their frontier origins -- Fairfield, Illinois, Lyons and Lawrence, Kansas, and Boise, Idaho. All impressed in the Senator the sanctity and self-reliance of the common man.19
Like most Midwestern leaders of the Progressive generation, William Borah mostly conformed to the precepts of civic republicanism. Throughout his political life, Borah's rhetoric reflected a profound concern with maintaining the average citizen's capacity for self-government. In a 1916 argument for restricted immigration, Borah argued:
It is obligatory upon every generation...to protect the citizenship of this country, to keep up the average standard of citizenship, that this great Republic of ours may rest in safety...upon the shoulders of the average man, for there and there alone is the foundation rock upon which the Republic must rest in every crisis.20In appealing to "the shoulders of the average man" as the bedrock of the American nation, Borah indicates his preference for preserving self-government. In a similar vein, when decrying the additional taxation proposed for a bonus bill in 1922, Borah proclaimed "a nation whose citizenship has been drugged and debauched by subsidies and gratuities and bonuses...[one which] has taken the road over which no nation has ever yet been able to effect a successful retreat."21 Arguing against deficit spending a year earlier, Borah once again used civic republican arguments. "The public debt [is] a curse," proclaimed the Senator. "It eats the substance of the people, kills initiative, undermines and corrupts society, breeds discontent and disorder, and often destroys government itself."22 His fear that the government might "debauch" or "eat the substance of" citizens, or, in other words, his concern for citizens' inherent virtue, illustrates his predisposition for civic republicanism.
Borah often explicitly declared his commitment to self-government. Referring to the anti-sedition acts instituted under Woodrow Wilson during World War I, the Idahoan declared, "If we cannot, as a people, be free to discuss the political problems which involve limb and life, even in time of war, our government rests upon a very brittle foundation indeed."23 Speaking in 1911 on the subject of Lincoln, Borah argued that "some of the ablest [public servants] were never able to be free from a...distrust in the self-governing capacity of those whom we so often style the common people."24 Perhaps the best summation of Borah's belief in self-government occurred in 1937, when, while discussing the centralization of power under the New Deal, the Senator proclaimed, "If we are going to maintain this great Government of ours, we have got to have something in the nature of local self-government."25
Coupled with this concern for maintaining citizens' ability to share in self-government, Borah always kept in mind the political economy of citizenship. True to the civic republican worry over community-hospitable economic arrangements, Borah's most fervent lifelong crusade was against monopolism. "Monopoly is at war with Democratic institutions and the conflict is as irrepressible as was the contest between freedom and slavery," the Senator once proclaimed in 1913.26 He continued to state that monopoly threatened "self-reliant, self-respecting, free, and independent citizens" by centralizing economic power outside of local communities.27 In contrast, as noted by historian David Horowitz, Borah felt local business "promoted the 'strong, self-reliant capable citizen' [and] kept our small communities intact."28 Like his fellow Progressive Louis Brandeis, Borah deplored the "curse of economic Bigness" as an evil that would irreparably undermine the fabric of republican government.
So committed was Borah in his distaste for monopoly that he opposed any legislative attempts to regulate them, be they solutions of either dominant Progressive school --New Nationalism or New Freedom. Rather, Borah solemnly believed that "a Republic is strong enough to destroy, but never could be strong enough to regulate monopoly." For this reason, he led the fight against Woodrow Wilson's Federal Trade Commission and Clayton Anti-trust Act --he thought they were purely "political makeshift[s] to mislead the people into the belief that something tremendous has been done on the trust question." Only the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which proposed abolishing "all combinations in restraint of trade," was powerful enough for Senator Borah's liking. Throughout his political career, no question, with the possible exception of keeping America out of war, would so consistently move Borah to impassioned rhetoric.29
Borah's belief in community self-government also manifested itself in his commitment to states' rights. Due to his faith in civic republicanism, Borah was often loath to tread on the autonomy of states, even when he believed the state in question was wrong. For example, although he himself had proposed a women's suffrage amendment to the constitution as early as 1910, he was against the idea when another version came to a vote in 1914 --he did not want to infringe on the self-rule of communities. A major reason for his opposition, he declared, was "the doctrine of state rights for local affairs...I can not conceive of a state...which has lost the right to say who shall vote for its state officers."30 He argued in much the same way when he voted numerous times against a federal anti-lynching bill, proclaiming, "If the states cannot enforce law, who can?"31 Later, when writing a constituent on why he opposed a progressive child labor law, Borah replied, "I regard it as the most pronounced invasion of local self-government that has ever been proposed. I think it changes the whole structure of other government. We place 40,000,000 human beings under the absolute control of Congress, And all of this seems utterly unnecessary in view of the fact that only two states now really are behind in child legislation."32
In yet another example, although he adamantly favored Prohibition, Borah only supported a constitutional amendment after he determined the policy was unenforceable otherwise, due to the vicissitudes of interstate commerce.33 As one contemporary biographer put it, "the Senator has the view...that local government is, or should be, the vital unit, and he is unwilling to see state powers transferred to the national government simply because the states may be neglecting their duty. He believes the state governments are equal to their task when the public is sufficiently interested and alert."34
If William Borah was a states-rightist, then what role did the Senator envision for the national government? Here, the Idahoan's political philosophy takes a novel, perhaps prescient twist. While still retaining some of his civic republican beliefs with regard to the national government --hence his leading the fight for the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators --Borah's views on the federal government align much more closely to contemporary liberal theory. When speaking on the national government, Borah depicted citizens as autonomous, freely-choosing selves and concerned himself more often with liberal goals: the equal distribution of justice and economic plenty. In the Senator's mind, the genius of federalism was that it allowed citizens to partake in self-government on the state level while still allowing for a more independent national government to look after their well-being.
Much of Borah's rhetoric reflect this dichotomy in public philosophy. In a 1914 speech defending the autonomy of the courts, Borah stated, "There comes a time,
when every man and when the people in every walk of life seek shelter under the calm, determined, beneficent power of a great government, rely upon its impartial strength, and accept with gratitude its means and methods of measuring and distributing justice. Men should seek to build a government which has no classes, grants no special privileges, recognizes no creed, and fosters no religion...[The best government should promote] the peace and happiness, the contentment and prosperity of the whole people.35In envisioning a national government which "recognizes no creed," is concerned with "distributing justice" and promoting "contentment and prosperity," and under which citizens "seek shelter" rather than take part, Borah is clearly centered in the contemporary liberal tradition. The senator echoed the same sentiments when, in a 1921 speech, he stated that "the most widespread and threatening aspect in public affairs at this time is the feeling upon the part of the people everywhere that their Governments, either through indifference or incapacity, will not or can not relieve them of the crushing burdens under which they are now bending."36
Borah succinctly summed up this liberal ambition of national government in his 1923 Political Prisoners speech, "We are Americans. We believe that our government can do justice to our people."37 Those who portray Borah solely as a provincial states-rightist neglect this liberal-national component of his philosophy. The Jeffersonian Lion of Idaho was also the Senator who called Alexander Hamilton "the great creative, constructive, vitalizing force [of the Founding Fathers]...the one who seemed above all others endowed with...divine power" and who blessed "the great national powers now so essential to the people's happiness and the Government's stability."38
In the aforementioned 1923 speech, Borah virtually defines the liberal conception of citizenship. "Americanism is liberty," he said,
And what is liberty? It is not a mere right to be free from chains, it is not a mere right to be outside the prison walls...liberty is also the right to express yourself, to entertain your views, to defend your policies, to treat yourself and your neighbors as free and independent agents under a great representative Republic.39Borah's view of a liberal nation linking and yet transcending the civic republican state governments is further supported by his understanding of his own role as a public servant. The Senator had a strong Burkean conception of his position, meaning that he believed himself an autonomous representative who reported to his constituents but was by no means honor bound to carry out their wishes. "I have a right," he said once, "and am in honor bound, to respect my convictions and my own views, and then submit my case to the people."40 On another occasion, he declared that, "our government calls for a dual capacity in statesmanship --a combination of the apostle and the lawgiver...There is no higher duty that that of arousing to moderate and sustained action the minds of those whom all power rests. There can be no graver responsibility than that of directing the people in the use of the instrumentalities of government."41 While both statements still place the locus of power in the citizenry, Borah suggests that it is his duty as federal representative to serve their interests, whether they know them or not. Hardly a case of the people sharing in self-government.
Nevertheless, one shouldn't overstate the case. Borah clearly believed that the people were ultimately sovereign, even with regards to the federal government. As he put it in 1918, "Shall men, shall the people, be governed by some remorseless and soulless entity softly called the 'State' or shall the instrumentalities of government yield alone and at all times to the wants and necessities, the hopes and aspirations of the masses?"42 Moreover, he urged his Senate colleagues in 1911, when writing a law, to "listen closely to the instructions of a well-formed and well-sustained public opinion."43 Clearly, Borah still envisions strong ties between the people and the national government, even if the relationship between the two doesn't involve explicitly sharing in self-rule.
It would appear at first glance that Borah's simultaneously held civic republican conception of state government and contemporary liberal conception of national government are irreconcilable. As an observant critic might note, the civic republican philosophy presupposes a shared conception of the good, while the liberal philosophy argues that citizens can choose their own ends. To be sure, some tension exists here in Borah's thought. Nevertheless, much of the inconsistency disappears when one examines the two civic virtues that Borah would encourage in the electorate.
The first is patriotism. As the Senator said in 1922, "unpurchasable love of country...is the only security a republic can ever know...The faith of the citizen is after all the sole source of power in a free government."44 Hence Borah's much-maligned Founding Father-worship and commitment to Americanism. The Idahoan seems to believe that, so long as citizens embrace the American past as their own, democracy will flourish. He stated thus in 1911:
A republic must have in it the element of respect and reverence, of devotion to its institutions and loyalty to its traditions. It, too, must have its altars, its memory of sacrifices --something for which men are willing to die. If the time ever comes when the fundamental principles of our Government...no longer hold the respect and fealty of a majority of our people popular government will, as a practical fact, not long survive that hour.45Another example of Borah's belief in the virtue of patriotism can be found in a 1919 speech, when he declared that he wish "every boy and girl over the age of fifteen years could be induced to read the brilliant story of Washington...If they were not better Americans, with higher ideals, after they had read it, nothing could make them so."46 And again, in 1923, the Senator declared:
I thoroughly sympathize with...desires to inculcate respect and loyalty to our institutions. I think you cannot spend too much time in educating the American people in the worth of our institutions under which we live and of the value of our form of government...I think these people [patriotic educators], so long as they go about it in a moderate and educational way, are doing a good service.47Borah's second civic virtue is obedience to the Constitution and to the laws, as expressions of the people's will. "The Constitution," explains Borah, "binds every individual, every citizen, every organization, and all departments of government."48 Moreover, Borah declares that every word in the document, even the contentious Eighteenth Amendment, represents "the deliberate, the unmistakably, expressed will and wish of the people of the United States."49 It is "the crystallized views of a nation," he continues, that "shall be maintained and enforced as written.
No can challenge the citizenship of those who, candidly and openly, advocate a modification of the Great Charter. The supreme test of a free government is the right of a people to write and unwrite its constitution and its laws. The supreme test of good citizenship is to obey the laws when written. If we are not prepared to obey the laws when written, consciously or unconsciously, we have put aside the only principle upon which a representative republic can exist.50Borah's reading of the Constitution recalls the political theory of an earlier civic republican, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Rousseau, Borah sees the Constitution as a codified expression of the General Will, and those who "refuse to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that [they] will be forced to be free."51 To the Idahoan, the charter represents "the best there was in men, directed through the channels of government, and at last embodied in law."52 Those who undermine "constitutional morality" will, like the Israelites at Sinai, pay a "frightful penalty...sinking into utter and hopeless degradation."53
Yet, the Senator didn't religiously adhere to the laws solely out of respect for coercive majoritarianism. As he noted in a 1911 speech, these selfsame laws are the bulwark against minority discrimination. "What is the basic principle of democratic or republican government?
We sometimes urge that the first principle is that the majority shall rule. That is true in making laws and determining policies, but it has no place in and will destroy republican governments if applied...to controversies to be determined under the law. There all men are equal....I do not care whether you call it a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a republic. A government which will not protect me in my rights, though I stand alone and against all my neighbors, is a despotic government.54Thus, Borah emphasizes obedience to constitutional law on both civic republican and contemporary liberal grounds. It represents both the will of a people sharing in self-government, emphasized by Rousseau, and the cornerstone of individual rights, emphasized by John Stuart Mill.
Why does Borah place such an enormous premium on patriotism and obedience? An answer can be gleaned when one recalls the necessity in civic republicanism of "a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake."55 For Borah, America's heritage and institutions represent that bond. He describes our history and our Constitution as "our pride, our bond of union, and the basis of our power, and which is a guarantee of our future."56
True, both patriotism and obedience are Borah's chosen conceptions of the good, and in that respect he is still espousing a civic republican conception of American government. Yet, as long as they are constrained by these two "procedural virtues," Borah allows citizens the right to choose their own ends. Thus, compared to many strands of civic republicanism, Borah allows his countrymen a substantive sphere of liberal freedom. As long as they honor the Republic and its laws, citizens are free to exercise self-rule in their home states and to choose their own ends, under the preservation of a national government which equally distributes justice in accordance with representatives' and the Judiciary's interpretations of the people's founding Charter.
With the Senator operating from such a uniquely convoluted civic theory, it is no wonder that contemporaries found Borah a trifle mysterious. His political thought operated on such a delicate balance that the legislation of few other men, least of all the six Presidents of his era, would satisfy its numerous nuances. In particular, the patchwork policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal would come to upset the delicate rhythms of Borah's conception of the Republic.
Return to Introduction.
2. McKenna, Marian C., Borah, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor: 1961), 377-78.
3. Catledge, Turner, "Again Borah Plays the Lone Crusader," New York Times Magazine, August 26, 1934, quoted in David A. Horowitz, "Senator Borah's Crusade to Save Small Business from the New Deal," The Historian, Summer 1993, 693.
4. Kemler, Edgar, The Deflation of American Ideals (Seattle, 1956), quoted in Horowitz, 693.
5. Vinson, John Chalmers, William E. Borah and the Outlawry of War, University of Georgia Press (Atlanta: 1957), 9.
6. Sullivan, Mark, New York Illustrated News, Dec. 17, 1921, quoted in Vinson, 8.
7. Tucker, Ray, and Frederick R. Barkley, Sons of the Wild Jackass (Boston: 1932), 70.
8. Schlesinger, Arthur, The Politics of Upheaval, Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston: 1960), 528.
9. Leuchtenberg, William E., "William Edgar Borah," in Dictionary of American Biography (New York: 1958), 2:49-53.
10. Mulder, Ronald A., The Insurgent Progressives in the Senate and the New Deal 1933-39, Garland Publishing (New York: 1979), 6.
11. Ashby, 286-87.
12. Sandel, Michael, Democracy's Discontent, Harvard University Press (Cambridge: 1996), 250-264.
13. Brinkley, 265-271.
14. Sandel, 6-7.
15. Sandel, 4-5, 202-203.
16. Johnson, 490.
17. Patterson, 104.
18. Johnson, 490.
20. Borah, William Edgar, "The Need for Restricted Immigration," (Senate speech, 1916), 49.
21. Borah, William Edgar, "Taxation for the Bonus," (Senate speech, 1922), in Borah, 27.
22. Borah, William Edgar, "Public Debt," (Senate speech, 1921), in Borah, 162.
23. Borah, William Edgar, "Political Prisoners," (Senate speech, 1923), in Borah, 279.
24. Borah, William Edgar, "Lincoln the Orator," (public speech, 1911), in Borah, 39.
25. Mulder, 233.
26. quoted in Godfrey, Donald G. and Val. E. Limburg, "The Rogue Elephant of Radio Legislation: Senator William E. Borah," Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Spring 1990), 219.
27. Horowitz, 694.
28. Horowitz, 695.
29. McKenna, 132-133.
30. Johnson, 180-181.
31. McKenna, 325.
32. Johnson, 188.
33. Johnson, 183-184.
34. Johnson, 188-189.
35. Borah, William Edgar, "The Alternative," (1914 Senate Speech), in Borah, 186-187.
36. Borah, William Edgar, "The Bonus Bill," (1921 Senate Speech), in Borah, 10.
37. Borah, "Political Prisoners," 285.
38. Borah, William Edgar, "Hamilton," (1910 public speech), in Borah, 7.
39. Borah, "Political Prisoners," 301-302.
40. Johnson, 184.
41. Borah, "Lincoln the Orator," 32.
42. Borah, William Edgar, "The Issue of the War," (1918 Senate Speech), in Borah, 152.
43. Borah, William Edgar, "Recall of Judges," (1911 Senate Speech), in Borah, 166.
44. Borah, "Taxation for the Bonus," 26, 29.
45. Borah, "Recall of Judges," 177-178.
46. Borah, "Americanism," 74.
47. Borah, William Edgar, "Shall the Constitution of the United States be Nullified?" (1923 Public Speech), in Borah, 322.
48. Borah, 311.
49. Borah, 317.
50. Borah, 308-309.
51. Rousseau. Jean-Jacques, On the Social Contract, St. Martin's Press (New York: 1978), I:VIII, 55.
52. Borah, "Lincoln the Orator," 33.
53. Borah, "Constitution," 328.
54. Borah, "Recall of Judges," 170-171.
55. Sandel, 5-6.
56. Borah, "Constitution," 307.