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The West: "The Lion of Idaho" ... William E. Borah, More Than a "Little American"

Roughly six miles northeast of Fairfield, Illinois, in Jasper Township of Wayne County, a child was born, who would serve with distinction for 33 years (1907-1940) in the U. S. Senate under the administrations of 7 presidents (and, where in the Capitol, not far from the entrance to the Senate chamber, would one day stand a full-length, bronze statue of the man, honored as only very few Americans ever could be). Though this Senator guided but few major pieces of legislation through the Congress (he did, however, sponsor bills for the creation of the Department of Labor and the Children's Bureau), that is misleading in the extreme, so far as his influence and power were concerned in affairs of state both in this country and abroad (Borah, for example, became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1924, one of the most important positions in our governmental life, which he held until 1933). Best known though for his opposition (as leader of the"Irreconcilables") to the ratification of the Versailles Treaty and with it the entrance of the United States into the League of Nations, he became an outspoken opponent as well of big business, of the refusal of America to officially recognize the Soviet Union (which, in spite of his advocacy, did not occur until 1933), and of the incarceration of 53 men for speaking out against America's participation in World War One.

Always something of a"maverick" then in politics, though a Republican all his life, he voted his conscience, often against the party line. When he addressed members of the Senate, as with his most famous speech on 19 November 1919 on the floor of that chamber, against American entrance into the League, this man, known to history as William E. Borah, the"Lion of Idaho," could generally"pack" the Senate gallery, even standing room only!"When speaking the Senator did not read his speech. He spoke from very few notes. His words flowed freely, his sentences well formed, his grammar and diction excellent" (see Will Griffith, p. 14). Few orators were ever his equals, which would include the likes of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1926) with his inspiring"Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896; or, Daniel Webster's (1792-1852)"Reply to [Robert Y.] Hayne of South Carolina in 1830, concluding, as it did, with the powerful peroration:"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

My grandfather Frank D. Borah (1887-1966), a cousin (three-times removed) from Senator Borah, gave me many years ago, a collection of speeches of that honorable man, who was considered seriously for nomination as the Republican candidate for President of the United States in 1936. That compilation, known as Bedrock (1936), is one of my prized possessions, and I have made use of excerpts from it, in the composition of this article.

Senator Borah became a"moral force" in the halls of Congress and, before he died peacefully in his sleep in Washington, D. C., on 19 January 1940 (in his sixth term as a Senator), he had also become the"dean" of the Senate. Borah owed much of his reputation and influence to his family and upbringing in southeastern Illinois. For, as Claudius O. Johnson in his Borah of Idaho (1936) expressed the matter:"the Borahs were more than ordinary people (p. 1). Johnson got that right, I can tell you! My mother (Doris Eleanor Borah), and her direct line through her grandfather John Woods Borah (1842-1934), known affectionately to his many friends as"Uncle Johnny," who with his father Jacob Bailey Borah (1820-1901), both took part in the siege of Vicksburg on the Union side in 1863, lived lives of character and examples for good. And, it should be pointed out, Jacob Bailey was brother to William Nathan Borah (1818-1910), the father of Senator Borah.


On several occasions, I have paid homage to those men, with the exception, of course, of Senator Borah, who was interred in Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho, a city which became his home, and where he began the practice of law in 1890. Mary"Little Borah" McConnell, daughter to Governor William J. McConnell, who served for the state of Idaho from 1893 to 1896, married Senator Borah on 21 April 1896, with no children born to them.

As I was about to relate though, those men, named above, other than Senator Borah, along with his mother Elizabeth West (1829-1900), are all buried, but not forgotten, in the Old Tom's Prairie Cumberland Presbyterian Church Cemetery, situated about a mile south of where Senator Borah was born on 29 June 1865. To that cemetery and those there in the their graves laid, have I come with respect. And, I must add, with an abiding faith, that one fine day of glory, I will meet them all and then be with them all forever.

In the fight in the Senate over the League, some accused the"Irreconcilables" of being"little Americans" for their opposition to American acceptance of the Covenant; that is too, their isolationism. Borah, in his 19 November 1919 oration, countered:"Call us little Americans if you will, but leave us the consolation and the pride which the term American, however modified still imparts. . . . We have been ridiculed because, forsooth, of our limited vision. Possibly that charge may be true. Who is there here that can read the future [Congressional Record, vol. 59-pt. 9, p. 8783]?"

But, permit me to quote from another passage or two from that speech. Then, I ask you (especially from what we know by hindsight, namely of the hatred and bitterness engendered in Germany from reparations and the"war guilt clause," imposed through the Treaty of Versailles, not to mention the unfolding events of roughly 80 more years of history in Europe and beyond, including our present differences of opinion over dealing with terrorism), did Borah not make some telling points or what? The Senator, for instance, envisioned little or no guarantees for world peace in the presumed protection of"unanimous consent," as implied in Article 11, and as supported implicitly by Article 10, in the League Covenant. To quote him:". . . for the last 300 years? Did not Prussia and Austria and Russia by unanimous consent divide Poland? Did not the United States and Great Britain and Japan and Italy and France divide China and give Shantung to Japan? Was that not a unanimous decision? Close the doors upon the diplomats of Europe, let them sit in secret, give them the material to trade on, and there will always be unanimous consent [Congressional Record, vol. 59-pt. 9, p. 8782]."

Borah looked askance too at something else, so far as the League was concerned, that is--its Council, which would decide for or against intervention for peace or war, gave to the United States but one delegate. To which fact he observed, not without justification, it would appear:"we are transferring [or about to] to one man the stupendous power of representing the sentiment and convictions of 110,000,000 people [the U. S. population at the time] in tremendous questions which may involve the peace or may involve the war of the world [Congressional Record, vol. 59-pt. 9, p. 8782]."


Utterly fearless, no matter how unpopular the cause (and as Griffith gave it:"He [Borah] opposed issues, not men"). One Sunday afternoon on 11 March 1923 at the Lexington Theatre in New York City, Borah spoke out in no uncertain terms for the release of 53 men imprisoned for their outspoken opposition (during World War One itself) to our participation in that conflict. For, under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, along with three sections of the U. S. Criminal Code, those men, a grand total, however, at one time of about 100 International Workers of the World (I. W. W.) members, had been arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. That was at a time too, when nine states (all but one west of the Mississippi River), including Idaho (1917), had enacted (in the case of Washington state over the governor's veto) statutes, known as criminal syndicalist's laws (or, what amounted really to anti-sabotage legislation).

Senator Borah called the 53 protestors"political prisoners," for they had violated no" criminal statutes" or committed no"deeds of violence of any kind [Bedrock, p. 149]." He was not put off either by the cries, even by those in power, that many, if not all, of those inmates were members of the feared and hated I. W. W. Borah" conceded" the fact, to which though he quickly added:"these men are not now in prison, under sanction of law, for sabotage, for acts of violence to either person or property. They are being punished for political offenses--charged with having offered opinions and views upon the war and the activities of the government in the prosecution of the war [Bedrock, p. 151]." That being the case, Borah considered the whole matter an affront to the Constitution and its guarantees of civil liberty.

In"fleshing out" further this"body" on Senator Borah permit me to suggest (let the reader make up his or her own mind on the truth) why this man from Idaho had the loyalty of so many Americans (especially, of course, in his adopted state), where he garnered considerably more votes for his own re-election to the Senate in 1936, for instance, than did President Roosevelt in the state of Idaho, even though the latter defeated Alf Landon in that election by a landslide. I will present the case for Borah by way of an anecdote and two quotes, along with a slight amplification in the three instances.

First for the story. While a dedicatory reception for the Borah Foundation for the Outlawry of War was in progress at the University of Idaho, at which Borah was the guest of honor, two burly lumberjacks,"heavily booted and in blue blouses and overalls," and with unshaven faces," burst in upon the well-dressed party of"regents, deans, professors, and matrons." One of the unabashed intruders in a booming voice informed the startled guests:"'We have come 100 miles to hear Bill Borah speak and a flat tire made us lose out. Now, by God, we are going to see him before he gets away.'" And, see the Senator they did! For, respectfully, Borah escorted the two lumberjacks to a part of the room near a"large bay window," where the three of them talked earnestly together for quite some time. Watching them"in [this] deep huddle," a visiting professor from Harvard University, on Dr. Hudson, remarked:"'Very unique . . . Do you often have such experiences in this astounding West? Do you know, I rather like it'." (Memorial Services, p. 131)

Borah then had the" common touch." But, he also always had as well the support of the press (both locally and nationally). And he used that allegiance to great advantage in not only enhancing his stature with the people of the country, including the voters of Idaho, upon which he depended for his continuance in office, but also in his efforts to"broadcast" his views on local and national issues."No other Member of Congress was more highly esteemed by the press corps than Mr. Borah. . . . He never repudiated an interview, he never lied to the reporters, he never blamed them for his own vagaries and aberrations. He never whined. Always he delighted them with what he had to say. Partly in consequence of this camaraderie Borah was page one news for more than 30 years." Now, you the reader, having pondered that quotation (from Memorial Services, pp. 122-23), tell me, would Senator Borah not be appreciated today, by the news media (not to mention the rest of us), given the political climate of our day, and the often misleading, let us say as well, the less than candid responses, so often delivered on almost a daily basis, by our politicians, including even our presidents in recent years (surely specific examples are unnecessary here)?

In this day and age it would also do us no harm to have such a man in Congress (House or Senate), when one considers (in addition to what has already been presented by way of evidence) the following fact--Senator Borah, and indeed we all need more in his likeness in these troubled times, to speak out on issues and take positions, popular or not with some people, including our national leaders. So prone was Borah to do just that, an exasperated Senator George H. Moses from New Hampshire referred to him"as a son of a wild jackass," to which Senator Borah retorted:"'Well--tame jackasses always wear collars'." (Memorial Services, pp. 130-31) To that rejoinder need anything be added?

Let me leave the reader with a fervently worded wish from one of several memorial addresses, which were delivered in the U. S. Senate on 25 April 1941, in this instance for Borah. Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg from Michigan, who near the first of his speech had referred to Senator Borah, as"the greatest man" he (Vandenburg) had ever known, and was his"own personal legacy," summed up the whole illustrious career of"The Lion of Idaho" in one brief sentence, preceded by an exclamation:"BORAH! If only we could still hear him answer"present" in these cataclysmic times [Memorial Services, pp. 79-80]."

Bibliographical Note: The material I drew upon for this article (directly or indirectly) is rich and varied (much of which, I might well add) would not be readily available to anyone else. For the sources though, which could be found with relative ease, let me cite first, to wit: Claudius O. Johnson's Borah of Idaho (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936); Marian C. McKenna's Borah (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961); and Ralph Stone's The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1970). It might interest the reader to know, Professor Stone was on of my mentors, and taught one course I took on twentieth-century America, while I worked toward M. A. T. (1970) at Miami University of Ohio. At the larger research libraries one might well locate Wm. E. Borah's Bedrock: Views on Basic National Problems (Washington: National Home Library Foundation, 1936), along with Memorial Services, Held in the House and Senate of the United States, Together With Remarks Presented in Eulogy of William Edgar Borah, Late a Senator from Idaho (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1941).

Enhance all the above with David A. Horowitz's"Senator Borah's Crusade to Save Small Business from the New Deal," The Historian 55 (Summer 1993):693-708. For those readers, if there are any, not yet convinced, that Borah had worthy ideas (in this instance, on economic matters) dwell upon the following quote (let us say, with the Enron scandal in mind) from a letter, written by the Senator to E. W. Hamman, and dated 7 October 1934:"When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power. . . . The concentration of wealth always leads, and always has led, to the concentration of political power" (p. 695). And, as Horowitz offered by way of a summation for Borah's viewpoint(s) on the American economy and businesses (large and small):"The Idaho senator emerged as perhaps the most eloquent leader of a small business lobby created by the Depression. He pursued a difficult agenda with political skill, prodding Congress, the Roosevelt administration, and the Republican party toward greater sensitivity to the plight of the 'little man' in a period of rapid institutionalization" (p. 708). Enough said!

Enrich the above sources, if one can find them, which, however, might be doubtful, with: Will Griffith's"Idols of Egypt VI. William Edgar Borah,: Egyptian Key 1 (1943):10-15; Camden Borah Meyer's"Borah History": Bohrer-Borah-Borer (compiled from 1956 to 1965, then published privately, ca. 1966), see especially pp. 15, 422;"Death of a Jasper Pioneer," Wayne County Press (8 September 1910), p. 1 (the obituary for Senator Borah's father William Nathan Borah);"Enfield's 104-Year-Old College Razed," White County Press 4 (1 November 1979), p. 1. In that small college, the first in southeastern Illinois, opened as the Southern Illinois Academy, by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in September 1880, with $2,500, Borah received his first formal education, beyond that, of course, of his boyhood at Old Tom's Prairie near his home then in Jasper Township, Wayne County, where one of his teachers, a former college professor, had inspired him. At the Academy, some twenty miles south of his home, to and from which the future Senator rode a horse, he joined a literary society and enjoyed speech-making (like unto earlier deliveries at Old Tom's Prairie's public school) on various subjects.

Last, but not least, among other sources on Senator Borah (in this instance, in my own rich collection of material on the man), let me cite"Senator Borah to Be Honored at Meeting Sunday," Wayne County Examiner 26 (26 June 1941), p. 1. The remembrance came off on schedule 29 June 1941 with several thousand people in attendance on the courthouse lawn at Fairfield, Illinois, with the keynote speakers being none other than the Governor of Illinois Dwight H. Green and Senator Everett M. Dirksen, also of the prairie state. For those who would care, the speeches of Governor Green and Senator Dirksen on that occasion are to be found in their entirety in Memorial Services (cited above)--see pp. 149-56 for Dirksen's address and pp. 156-58 for Green's.

For the text in full of"The Covenant of the League of Nations," see Appendix (pp. 407-18) of George Scott, The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1973).