Monday, June 11, 2012

Favorite Historical Legislators

I originally posted this on my FaceBook page in September 2009. Now that Ted Kennedy has passed on to his post-Senate career, it is time consider some other legislative titans in American history, lest we think that Kennedy was the only Senator in the history of the US Constitution who ever made a difference. So here are a couple of my favorites from days gone by: 1. John Randolph of Virginia. He served from the 1790s to the 1820s. Randolph was the first maverick in American history. A supporter of Jefferson when Jefferson became president in 1801, Randolph later demanded Jefferson do more to restrict the size of the federal government. Randolph led the impeachment efforts against Federailst judges. A colorful character, he strode up and down the aisles of the Senate during one of his three or four hour speeches (they all did that without teleprompters) dressed in riding regalia, slapping his riding crop on nearby desks to emphasize his points, and taking draughts of liquor from a barrel one of his poor slaves carried behind him. 2. James Madison of Virginia. Madison served a short time in the 1790s, but his role was critical. He shepparded the Bill of Rights through Congress as he promised he would during the Constutitional ratification process, and, although he and Hamilton worked together to achieve ratification of a strong national government, Madison set about to create an interpretation for a smaller, states-centered national government. 3. Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay served from about 1810 to 1850 in both the house and the senate. I would argue that Clay was the most important legislator, second perhaps only to Madison. Clay had his hands in all the important legislation of his tenure on such topics as banking (when the country was building a banking a system) and a tariff (how we financed the government and protected our industries). More importantly, Clay brokered three critical compromises: 1820, 1833, and 1850 when the country could have been deeply torn by sectional strife over the question of slavery. 4. Stephen Douglas of Illinois. This is the Douglas of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1854 Douglas wanted to become president and he decided he could do this by winning over the southerner slaveholders and the northern Jacksonians by extending popular sovereighty (let the settlers and not Congress decide if there would be slavery in the territory) to the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. It was a bad idea becase the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had already settled slavery in that territory and Douglas had to revoke it. His Kansas-Nebraska Bill did more to bring about the Civil War than anything else in the 1850s. It turned the north against the Democrats and turned the south to Democrats (meaning that the parties became strictly sectiional which led to further polarization) and the popular sovereignty formula led to a civil war in Kansas that only made matters ten times worse. And Douglas never got to be president! 5.Charles Summner of Massachussets, late 1840s-1870s. Sumner was more than a windbag. He stood up for civil rights before the Civil War (and took a physical beating for it on the Senate floor), during the Civil War (pushed Lincoln towards Emancipation and for the 13th Amendment), and during Reconstruction (through the Civil Rights Acts and the 14th Amendment). Unfortunately his death marked the end of Reconstruction. His last bill passed, the posthumous Civil Rights Act of 1875, was watered down and then further weakned by the US Supreme Court.

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