Monday, February 23, 2009

An Alsatian Den

The Senate chamber, 1902. Library of Congress.

The pungent odor of venality surrounding former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the appointment of a U.S. senator would be familiar to the journalists and political reformers of the late 19th century.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined “Senate” as “a body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.” Bierce’s cynicism, published in 1906 after witnessing decades of malfeasance, was well justified.

In the first half of the 19th century, the Senate was home to a collection of orators and political theoreticians unmatched in U.S. history. Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay debated the weighty questions of war, peace, and slavery in speeches and debates that were read, applauded, or – depending on one’s point of view – denounced around the world.

With the advent of the Gilded Age, however, the Senate’s reputation for statesmanship gave way to notoriety for sharp dealing and sleaze. The Credit Mobilier railroad stock scandal touched a number of senators, including James Harlan and William Boyd Allison of Iowa and James Asheton Bayard Jr. of Delaware. The Star Route scandal concerning corruption in the Post Office involved Sen. Stephen Dorsey of Arkansas.

Once the domain of legislative giants, the Senate became the domain of political bosses and backroom wirepullers. Typifying the new breed was Republican Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York, who presided over a vast patronage empire in his home state and brought a distinctive sartorial style to the Senate.

In the words of Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, Conkling “swaggered among the Senate desks, conspicuous among his soberly clad colleagues in a costume that might consist of green trousers, a scarlet coast with gold lace, and yellow shoes.”

Allison, less colorful but more effective as a legislator, emerged as a consummate backroom operator who was, in the words of one of his colleagues, “so pussyfooted that he could walk from New York to San Francisco on the keys of a piano and never strike a note.” Allison’s name is attached to the bill that restored silver to the nation’s currency in the late 1870s – but his contribution to the “Bland-Allison” legislation severely restricted the quantity of silver in the supply of money.

Then, as now, the tawdry and bizarre commingled with corruption and cynicism. Democratic Sen. Charles Williams Jones of Florida simply stopped showing up after making a visit to Detroit in 1885 and attempting to romance the young daughter of a local tycoon. According to Kim Long’s Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals and Dirty Politics, Jones later was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1897.

The state of the Senate aroused fury among reformers whose efforts to overhaul the nation’s monetary system and rein in the excesses of corporate power often ran aground in the chamber. In 1892, former Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa offered a passionate case for the direct election of senators in A Call to Action.

Weaver attributed the Senate’s reputation as “an Alsatian den” of reaction and corruption to the Constitution’s requirement that U.S. senators be chosen by state legislators. Such a system, the Iowan argued, was rife with opportunities for secret deals and corruption. “The present constitutional method of election is a lamentable failure and the situation cries aloud for reform,” Weaver wrote.

Weaver had been advocating the direct election of senators since 1881, when he introduced legislation in the House authorizing a constitutional amendment to that effect. He lived long enough to see the Senate approve such an amendment in 1911, but died before the seventeenth amendment was ratified in 1913.

There is little doubt how Weaver would have reacted to the shenanigans in Illinois. “The time has come when the people should plat a whip of cords and scourge the promoters of bribery from the temple,” he wrote in 1892. “They who buy will also sell, and the punishment for such betrayal should be swift and relentless.”


Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Long, Kim. The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Weaver, James B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, Iowa, 1892.

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