Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Illinois' Five Greatest Senators

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    NEWSLETTERS

     STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, D-CHICAGO (1847-1861): No Illinois senator ever had a higher profile in Congress than the 5-foot 4-inch “Little Giant.” A legislative genius, Douglas passed the Compromise of 1850 -- a package of bills designed to regulate slavery in territory conquered during the Mexican War. Each bill was unpopular in some part of the country, so Sen. Henry Clay’s effort to pass them as an omnibus failed. Douglas took over, found a majority for all five bills, and shepherded the compromise through the Senate.

    Four years later, Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which blew up the Missouri Compromise by allowing voters in the territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. He had an ulterior motive: he wanted Southern votes to run a transcontinental railroad through Chicago. Douglas got his railroad, the first step in Chicago’s rise to a major metropolis, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act inflamed the slavery controversy, hastening the Civil War. It also revived the career of former Congressman Abraham Lincoln. Douglas defeated Lincoln in the 1858 Senate election, but thanks to Douglas’s fame, their debates were national news, giving Lincoln the platform he needed to win the presidency two years later.

    After losing the 1860 presidential election, Douglas exhausted himself trying to keep the South in the Union, and died at age 48, in 1861.

    LYMAN TRUMBULL, D,R-ALTON (1855-1873): In the 1855 Senate election, Abraham Lincoln was within five votes of winning a majority in the General Assembly. When Lincoln realized he was never going to get those last five votes, he threw his support to Trumbull, a Democrat who, like Lincoln, had opposed Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act.
    Trumbull, who went from Democrat to Republican and back to Democrat during his Senate career, was the servant of no party or president. After the Civil War, he blocked Lincoln from suspending habeas corpus, assuring that authority remained with Congress. However, he also co-authored the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. Lincoln’s effort to get the amendment through the House of Representatives was the subject of the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln.
    After Lincoln’s death, Trumbull was one of only seven Republicans who voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial. Trumbull regarded the charges against Johnson as political, not criminal.
    “Once set the example of impeaching a President for what, when the excitement of the hour shall have subsided, will be regarded as insufficient causes, as several of those now alleged against the President were decided to be by the House of Representatives only a few months since, and no future President will be safe who happens to differ with a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important, particularly if of a political character,” he wrote.
    None of the Republican senators who voted for Johnson were re-elected, but by the time Trumbull’s term expired, he was a Democrat again.
    EVERETT M. DIRKSEN, R-PEKIN (1951-1968): The bill was the subject of the longest filibuster in Senate history: 57 days. Back then, breaking a filibuster required 67 votes. The Southern states were all represented by Democrats opposed to civil rights, so Johnson was going to need help from the 33 Republican senators. To get that help, he’d need to win over Dirksen, the Senate Minority Leader.  
    Dirksen had promised Kennedy that he would allow a floor vote on the bill, but when it actually arrived in the Senate, he balked. He wanted changes that would have weakened the public accommodations and fair employment sections. But Johnson refused to compromise.
    Johnson reminded Dirksen that not only did he lead the Party of Lincoln, he represented Lincoln’s home state. Dirksen realized he could not stand in the way of “an idea whose time as come,” as he would tell reporters. 
        “You’re worthy of the ‘Land of Lincoln,’” Johnson said. “And the man from Illinois is going to pass the bill, and I’ll see that you get proper attention and credit.”
    The cloture motion was approved, 71-29, with 27 of Dirksen’s Republicans voting in favor. It’s been said that the Civil Rights bill completed the work of Abraham Lincoln, but it couldn’t have passed without the support of a Senator from the Land of Lincoln.
    Dirksen was one of the most recognizable politicians of the 1960s, due to his deep, syrupy melodramatic voice, which he lent to “Gallant Men,” a patriotic oration that hit #29 on the Billboard charts in 1964.
    PAUL DOUGLAS, D-CHICAGO (1949-1967): Douglas was one those goody-goody politicians who are sent to Washington because nobody wants them hanging around Chicago or Springfield, poking their noses into the business of regular Democrats. Douglas, a University of Chicago professor and 5th Ward alderman, gave up his seat during World War II to join the Marines as a 50-year-old private. Wounded in the Pacific, he lost the use of his arm. 
    When Douglas returned, he wanted to run for governor, but Cook County Democratic Party chairman Jacob Arvey did not think he was “a practical man.” (In other words, he wasn’t corrupt and wouldn’t take orders from party bosses.) So Douglas was slated for Senate, and won an upset victory over incumbent C. Wayland Brooks in the year of Harry Truman’s upset victory.
    A liberal in an era of liberal activism, Douglas was such a strong supporter of civil rights that Martin Luther King Jr. called him “the greatest of all senators.” He was also responsible for creating the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Its Center for Environmental Education bears his name. So does the Paul Douglas Alliance, a caucus of liberal aldermen.
    DICK DURBIN, D-SPRINGFIELD (1997-PRESENT): As a student at Georgetown University, Durbin was an aide to Douglas, holding papers so the senator could sign them with his one good hand. Douglas was a father figure to Durbin, who’d lost his own father as a teenager, nicknaming his “Dick.” Durbin decided then that he, too, wanted to be a senator someday. When Durbin had a son of his own, he named the boy after Douglas.
    As Majority Whip, Durbin has advanced farther in leadership than any Illinois senator since Scott Lucas, who was majority leader from 1948 to 1950. One of the Democratic Party’s leading spokesman, he’s been the third most popular guest on Sunday morning talk shows in recent years. He has also provided stability for Illinois alongside a rotating cast of seatmates. In his third term, Durbin has already served alongside five senators: Carol Moseley Braun, Peter Fitzgerald, Barack Obama, Roland Burris and Mark Kirk. When Obama was running for president, and when Kirk was recovering from his stroke, Durbin was the only senator we had.
    A staunch liberal, Durbin was one of 23 senators to vote against the Iraq War authorization, and is a champion of the DREAM Act, which would allow immigrant students to attain citizenship. After he is re-elected next year, he’ll become the second-longest serving senator in Illinois history, after five-termer Shelby Moore Cullom.