Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Influential Independent and Third-Party Senators (Part 1)

Jul 25, 2021

Influential Independent and Third-Party Senators (Part 1)

tags: political parties,US Senate

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

The United States has had 76 senators who have been either Independents or represented third parties for part or all of their senate careers. Fourteen have been of historic significance in their contributions in the US Senate.

Four of these political figures served in the senate under different affiliations in the 19th century, ten served since 1900, and two are still present in the US Senate in 2021.  Five of the fourteen are from the New England states, one from New York State, six are from the Midwest, one from the South, and one from the Pacific Coast. This article is the first of two to explain these 14 Senators and their impact on the nation.

Salmon P. Chase of Ohio served in the US Senate from 1849-1855 as a Free Soil Party member. He had been active before his Senate service as an antislavery advocate, frequently defended fugitive slaves in court, and left the Whig Party to help form the Liberty Party in Ohio in 1841.  He helped to recruit former Democratic President Martin Van Buren to form the Free Soil Party in 1848 as its presidential nominee.  He opposed the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and helped to form the Republican Party in 1854. 

Chase was the governor of Ohio from 1856-1860, and was a serious presidential contender in the latter year, and was selected by Abraham Lincoln to be Secretary of the Treasury, a key cabinet post with the challenge of the Civil War.  He supported the Radical Republican faction and was chosen to be the 6th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court upon the death of Roger Taney in 1864. He served in that post until 1873, including presiding over the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.  Even while Chief Justice, he sought the presidency unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee in 1868, and the Liberal Republican nominee in 1872.  Chase was one of a very few political leaders in American history to serve in all three branches of government.  He died in office while still on the Supreme Court in 1873.

Charles Sumner of Massachusetts served in the US Senate from 1851-1874, including almost four years as a Free Soil Party member to the end of 1854, before joining the newly created Republican Party, which he left in 1870. He opposed President Ulysses S. Grant, and joined the third party Liberal Republican movement until the presidential election of 1872.  Sumner stands out as one of the greatest US Senators of the 19th century, with his highly principled opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854.  Due to the tumultuous “Bleeding Kansas” Civil War over slavery expansion after 1854, Sumner was subjected to a vicious, severe caning on the floor of the US Senate in May 1856 by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, and it took until 1859 for Sumner to return to the Senate due to the psychological and physical effects of the most violent attack in American history by one member of Congress on another.

Sumner became ever more of a firebrand during the Civil War and Reconstruction years, criticizing Abraham Lincoln’s proposed plan of Reconstruction, and advocating for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He was a true advocate of civil rights for African Americans, and a key figure in the promotion of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.  His opposition to the corruption of the Grant Administration led him to support Horace Greeley and the alliance of Democrats and Liberal Republicans in the 1872 presidential election, but then returned to Republican ranks until his death in 1874.

Carl Schurz of Missouri served in the US Senate from 1869-1875, and later served as Secretary of the Interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes from 1877-1881.  Elected as a Republican, he left the party as part of the Liberal Republican opposition to President Grant, and actively worked in 1872 to try to elect Horace Greeley, but later returned to the Republican Party to serve under President Hayes.  He actively worked to promote civil service reform, and he was the Chair of the Liberal Republican convention in 1872.  Schurz had been a German revolutionary in 1848, served as a Union general in the Civil War, and was the first German American immigrant to serve in the US Senate.  Schurz in his later life moved to New York City, and served as Editor of the New York Post and of The Nation magazine, and an editorial writer for Harper’s Weekly

Schurz became known for helping to form the Mugwump movement for civil service reform in the 1880s, and helped to elect Democrat Grover Cleveland to the presidency in 1884, in opposition to spoilsman James G. Blaine.  He also was a leading figure in the Anti Imperialist Movement against the US involvement in the Spanish American War and the Filipino Insurrection under President William McKinley at the end of the 19th century, and supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1900.  He remains regarded as one of the most prominent and significant immigrants in public service in American history. Carl Schurz Park in New York City has a monument, and is the site of Gracie Mansion, the New York City Mayor’s official residence.

David Davis of Illinois served in the US Senate from 1877-1883, after an earlier career as the campaign manager of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and then being appointed to the Supreme Court by Lincoln in 1862, serving until his resignation from the high court in the midst of the controversial Rutherford B. Hayes—Samuel Tilden Presidential Election of 1876, removing himself from involvement in that difficult, and divisive election,  where he could have been the decisive vote on the Electoral Commission.  His Supreme Court career for nearly 15 years had been significant on a number of cases.  

Despite having been involved with Lincoln, and being the administrator of his estate after his assassination, he was seen as an independent, and was elected by the Illinois legislature to a Senate term as an independent with no party label, when he resigned from the Supreme Court in 1877. He had promoted the Liberal Republican movement against President Grant in 1872, and had been an announced candidate for that nomination, which went to journalist Horace Greeley.  Due to his independent status, he was named President Pro Tempore of the Senate in 1881, after the assassination of President James A. Garfield, putting him a heartbeat away from the presidency had Garfield’s successor, President Chester Alan Arthur, died in the remainder of the three and a half year term.   

The last three independent US Senators in this article were all part of the research done by this author in his first book, “Twilight of Progressivism: The Western Republican Senators and the New Deal” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

George W. Norris of Nebraska served in the US Senate from 1913-1943, as a Republican for the first four terms, and then as an independent from 1937-1943. He had earlier served ten years as a Congressman before his Senate service, leading the fight against the power of House Speaker Joseph Cannon (the Revolution of 1910), and he gained a reputation as a leader for progressive and liberal causes in Congress.  He is best remembered as the sponsor of the Tennessee Valley Authority during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, and of the Rural Electrification Act. He also supported labor unions and a non-interventionist foreign policy, opposing World War I as a member of the “Irreconcilables” in the upper chamber, as well as the Treaty of Versailles, and membership in the League of Nations.

He only finally supported intervention in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, although he expressed shock at the brutality of Japan in China in the late 1930s.   Norris also promoted the 17th Amendment (Direct Election of the US Senate), and the 20th Amendment, shortening the “lame duck” period between election and inauguration of the president.  Norris became a major supporter of FDR until he opposed the President’s Court Packing Plan, retaining his independent streak.  FDR called Norris “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals”, and a group of 160 scholars in 1957 ranked him as one of the top five United States Senators of all time. 

Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota served in the US Senate from 1923-1947, as a member of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party for the first three terms, and then as a Republican for his fourth and last term in office.  He was the lone Farmer-Laborite in the Senate, and was able to gain membership on the Foreign Relations Committee.  He became controversial for his opposition to the League of Nations, the World Court, and the Selective Service Act of 1940 while still an Independent in the Senate. 

He also was seen by critics as an extreme isolationist, and as a Republican in his last term, he voted against the United States ratifying the United Nations Charter and participating in that organization after World War II, a major factor in his defeat and retirement after the Senate elections of 1946. However, he had supported, across party lines, much of the New Deal domestic programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first term, while being vehemently against the Court “Packing” Plan in 1937 and pre-Pearl Harbor military and naval buildup in the late 1930s.  He had also opposed US intervention in the Western Hemisphere, including in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, and also spoke out against the unwise Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which made the Great Depression worse than it might have been.

Finally, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr. of Wisconsin served in the US Senate from 1925-1947, succeeding to the seat of his father, the famed “Mr. Progressive” Governor and Senator. The Senior LaFollette had been a candidate for the Presidential nomination in 1912 and a Progressive Party Presidential nominee for the 1924 election, winning his home state of Wisconsin and about 16.5 percent of the vote nationally.  LaFollette Jr.’s brother, Philip LaFollette, was also Governor of Wisconsin in the 1930s, and the two brothers formed the Wisconsin Progressive Party in 1934, with LaFollette, Jr’s last 12 years in the Senate as a member of this Independent party. 

He became a star figure in advocacy of the progressive causes of his father, promoted organized labor, and supported much of FDR’s New Deal, until the rise of isolationism in foreign affairs in the late 1930s.  At that point, LaFollette, Jr. broke with the President, and became one of the leading figures in the America First Movement in 1940-1941, trying to keep America out of World War II.  In his last year in Congress, 1946, before his loss in the Republican primary to future Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, LaFollette Jr. sponsored the crucial Legislative Reorganization Act, which modernized the legislative process in Congress. He and his father stand out as the most prominent father-son team ever to serve in the US Senate.

One final point about these seven Senators—all were reform-oriented Republicans from the pre-Civil War period through the Gilded Age , the Progressive Era, and the New Deal, and all except Charles Sumner were from the Midwest (Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin). Clearly, they came from a reform tradition in the Republican Party, very different than the modern party since the 1980s.

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