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William E. Borah

In office
March 4, 1907 – January 19, 1940
Preceded by Fred Dubois
Succeeded by John W. Thomas

Born June 29, 1865(1865-06-29)
near Fairfield, Illinois
Died January 19, 1940 (aged 74)
Washington, D.C.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Mary McConnell
Residence Boise
Alma mater University of Kansas
Profession Attorney
Religion Protestant

William Edgar Borah (June 29, 1865 – January 19, 1940) was a prominent Republican attorney and longtime United States Senator from Idaho noted for his oratorical skills and isolationist views. One of his nicknames later in life was "The Lion of Idaho."


Early life and career

Borah was born near Fairfield, Illinois. His schooling included the Wayne County common schools and the Southern Illinois Academy at Enfield. According to a drawing published by H. T. Webster in 1916, he had a boyhood ambition to be a railway conductor.[1] He attended University of Kansas in 1885 but was forced to leave after contracting tuberculosis his freshman year. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in September 1887. After practicing law in Lyons, Kansas, he relocated to Boise, Idaho, in 1890, where he became the most prominent attorney in the new state.

Borah once wrote a letter to the Board of Pardons protesting the change of sentence in hanging "Diamondfield Jack" Davis, a man charged with killing a sheepherder who was working for a cattle company.[2] Borah ran for the United States Senate in 1902, but was defeated in the Idaho Legislature by Weldon B. Heyburn, a Republican attorney from Wallace.

In 1907, shortly after entering the Senate, Borah, as the prosecuting attorney, was pitted against Clarence Darrow in the nationally publicized trial of "Big Bill" Haywood and two other radical labor union officials for the 1905 murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg.

He married Mary McConnell, daughter of Governor William J. McConnell, in 1895. They had no children.

By his mistress, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, he had one daughter, Paulina (1925-1957).[3]


In 1906, the Idaho Legislature elected William Borah to the U.S. Senate over the controversial Democratic incumbent, Fred Dubois. Borah was reelected by the Idaho Legislature in 1912, and four more times by popular vote (1918, 1924, 1930 and 1936). He remains the longest-serving member of the United States Congress in Idaho history.

A member of the Republican National Committee from 1908 to 1912, he was a delegate to the 1912 Republican National Convention. As a senator Borah was dedicated to principles rather than party loyalty, a trait which earned him the nickname "the Great Opposer." He disliked entangling alliances in foreign policy and became a prominent anti-imperialist and nationalist, favoring a continued separation of American liberal and European Great Power politics. He encouraged the formation of a series of world economic conferences and favored a low tariff.

In 1919 Borah and other Senate Republicans, notably Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Hiram W. Johnson of California, clashed with President Woodrow Wilson over Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I and establishing the League of Nations. Borah emerged as leader of the "Irreconcilables," a group of senators noted for their uncompromising opposition to the treaty and the League. During 1919 Borah and Johnson toured the country speaking against the treaty in response to Wilson's own speaking tour supporting it. Borah's impassioned November 19, 1919, speech on the Senate floor in opposition to the treaty and League of Nations was contributive to the Senate's ultimate rejection of it.[4]

From 1925 to 1933, Borah served as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Chairman, he became known for his pro-Soviet views, favoring recognition of the Soviet Union, and sometimes interceded with that government in an unofficial capacity during the period when Moscow had no official relations with the United States. Purportedly, Kremlin officials held Borah in such high esteem that American citizens could gain permission to travel throughout the Soviet Union with nothing more than a letter from the Senator.

Domestically, he sponsored bills that created the Department of Labor and the Children's Bureau. He was one of the Senators responsible for uncovering the scandals of the Harding Administration. In 1932, unhappy with the conservative policies of President Herbert Hoover in light of the Great Depression, Borah refused to publicly endorse Hoover's reelection campaign.

After Hoover's defeat by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, Borah, now the Dean of the United States Senate, supported certain components of the New Deal, such as old-age pensions and the confiscation of U.S. citizens' gold by executive order, but opposed others, including the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Personality and views

Borah was a progressive Republican who often had strong differences of opinion with the conservative wing of the party. Borah also had a reputation for being headstrong. When conservative President Calvin Coolidge was told of Borah's fondness for horseback riding, the president is said to have replied, "It's hard to imagine Senator Borah going in the same direction as his horse."

Conservative Republicans in Idaho, notably Governor and later Senator Frank R. Gooding, often feuded with Borah as well. Nevertheless, Borah became a strong political force in Idaho and elsewhere often in spite of opposition from his own party.

Wallace E. Olson, then president of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in mocking the United States income tax system and rates reported on the debates held in Congress that,

A fear expressed by a number of opponents was that the proposed law, with its low rates was the camel's nose under the tent that once a tax on incomes was enacted, rates would tend to rise. Sen. William E. Borah of Idaho was outraged by such anxieties, and derided a suggestion that the rate might eventually climb as high as 20 percent. Who, he asked, could impose such socialistic, confiscatory rates? Only Congress. And how could Congress, the Representatives of the American People, be so lacking in fairness, justice and patriotism? -- Wall Street Journal, October 5, 1973. Page 8 at columns 4-6.

In 1931 Borah declared he was in favor of the revision of the Versailles Treaty and the Polish corridor, and the revision of the Treaty of Trianon that divided lands from the old Hungarian Kingdom between Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.[5]

In 1932 Borah strongly disagreed with the suggestion of the drafters of the London Economic Conference of 1933, who met in Geneva, that the United States should settle intergovernmental debts as a step to recover from the Great Depression.[6]

1936 Presidential campaign

In an attempt to revitalize the progressive wing of the Republican Party, in 1936 a 71-year-old Borah ran for nomination as candidate for President of the United States, becoming the first Idahoan to do so. Borah's candidacy was opposed by the conservative Republican leadership and dismissed by Roosevelt. He managed to win only a handful of delegates. Borah won a majority of delegates in only one state, Wisconsin, where he had the endorsement of Progressive United States Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr. Borah refused to endorse the eventual Republican nominee, Alf Landon, leading some to believe he might cross party lines and support Roosevelt's reelection. As he had four years earlier, ultimately he chose to support neither candidate.[7]


Borah Peak, Idaho's tallest mountain

Despite his failed presidential run, throughout his long career Borah remained personally popular among Idaho voters. While in the Senate in Idaho he never faced a serious political challenge from either the Republicans or Democrats. After abandoning his presidential campaign, later in 1936 at the height of Democratic power during the New Deal era, Borah ran for reelection against three-term Idaho Governor C. Ben Ross, a Roosevelt ally, and won with well over 60 percent of the vote.

Known for his public integrity, eloquent speaking ability, and genuine concern for his constituents, his private affairs were less straight forward; his romantic relationship with the irascible and none too discreet Alice Roosevelt Longworth was unseemly, especially for the time, but it apparently did him no lasting political harm.[8]

William E. Borah died in Washington, D.C., on January 19, 1940 of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 74. He is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.[9]

In 1947, the state of Idaho donated a bronze statue of Borah to the National Statuary Hall Collection. Idaho's highest point, Borah Peak, at 12,662 feet (3859 m), is named for him, as are two public schools: Borah High School in Boise, and Borah Elementary School in Coeur d'Alene. At the University of Idaho, an annual symposium on foreign affairs, a residence hall, and a theater in the student union building bear his name.

William E. Borah Apartment, Windsor Lodge, a home of his in Washington, D.C., was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1976.[10]

Bora Laskin, the Chief Justice of Canada from 1973-1984, was named after Borah.[11]

Hitler quote

Borah may be best known today for having reportedly said, in September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, "Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler—all this might have been averted." The source of this quote was a 1940 Senate Document, News Articles on the Life and Works of Honorable William E. Borah, compiled and written by William Kinsey Hutchinson, then International News Service's Washington Bureau Chief. Hutchinson indicated that Borah said it to him in private "in words that ran like a prayer."[12] There is no other public record of Borah saying this; Borah died before Hutchinson published the document, and thus could not deny or confirm it; its veracity is therefore questionable.

The quote has been repeatedly cited as evidence of the alleged naivete of a belief in the power of pure diplomacy. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer has referred to the quote in at least three of his columns, making an analogy to negotiating with China in 1989, with North Korea in 1994 and with Iran in 2006.[13] In August 2006 United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to the quote when decrying those who want to "negotiate a separate peace with terrorists".[14]

On May 15, 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush referred to the quote in a speech to the Knesset in Israel commemorating that nation's 60th anniversary, after stating, "some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." Some, including Barack Obama himself, interpreted Bush's comment to be a criticism of Obama for his stated willingness to negotiate with the leaders of Iran. White House staff stated that the reference was meant more as a criticism of former president Jimmy Carter, who has argued that the U.S. should be willing to meet with Hamas.[15]

Other quotations

  • "No more fatuous chimera has ever infested the brain than that you can control opinions by law or direct belief by statute, and no more pernicious sentiment ever tormented the heart than the barbarous desire to do so. The field of inquiry should remain open, and the right of debate must be regarded as a sacred right." —1917[16]
  • "America has arisen to a position where she is respected and admired by the entire world. She did it by minding her own business... the European and American systems do not agree." —1919 speech in Brooklyn opposing the League of Nations.[17]
United States Senate
Preceded by
Fred Dubois
United States Senator (Class 2) from Idaho
March 4, 1907–January 19, 1940
Served alongside: Weldon B. Heyburn, Kirtland I. Perky, James H. Brady, John F. Nugent, Frank R. Gooding, John W. Thomas, James P. Pope, D. Worth Clark
Succeeded by
John W. Thomas
Party political offices
Preceded by
Pre-17th Amendment
Republican Party nominee, U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Idaho
1918 (won), 1924 (won), 1930 (won), 1936 (won)
Succeeded by
John W. Thomas
Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Cabot Lodge
Chair of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Succeeded by
Key Pittman
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Reed Smoot
Dean of the United States Senate
March 4, 1933–January 19, 1940
Succeeded by
Ellison D. Smith
South Carolina
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Gelasio Caetani
Cover of Time Magazine
5 May 1924
Succeeded by
Homer Saint-Gaudens


  1. ^ "The Best of H. T. Webster" (Simon and Schuster, 1953), page 104
  2. ^ Grover, David H. "Diamondfield Jack; A Study in Frontier Justice" (University of Nevada Press, 1968)
  3. ^ Cordery, Stacy A. Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. New York: Penguin Group, Viking Adult (2007). ISBN 0670018333 ISBN 978-0670018338
  4. ^ Classic Senate Speeches: William E. Borah to The League of Nations on November 19, 1919. Accessed May 15, 2008.
  5. ^ Show Stolen?, Time Magazine, November 2, 1931
  6. ^ The World Economic Conference, Herbert Samuel, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1931-1939), Vol. 12, No. 4. (Jul., 1933) 445.
  7. ^ A Lion Among The Liberals, by Kevin C. Murphy. Accessed May 15, 2008.
  8. ^ McKenna, Marian, Borah, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961.
  9. ^ Cemetery Walking Tour: William E. Borah, published by City of Boise. Accessed May 15, 2008.
  10. ^ Cathy A. Alexander, Ralph Christian, and George R. Adams (January, 1976) (PDF), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: William Edgar Borah Apartment, Number 21, Windsor Lodge / William Edgar Borah Apartment, Number 21, Chancellery Cooperative, National Park Service,, retrieved 2009-06-22  and Accompanying three photos, exterior, from 1975 and 1978PDF (1.56 MB)
  11. ^ Girard, Philip (2005), Bora Laskin: Bringing Law to Life, Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, ISBN 0802090443 
  12. ^ William Kinsey Hutchinson, News Articles on the Life and Works of Honorable William E. Borah, Late a Senator from the State of Idaho, Senate Document 150 (Washington, D.C., 1940), p. 37.
  13. ^ "Why the Nazi Analogy Is on the Rise", Brendan Nyhan, Time Magazine, August 31, 2006
  14. ^ Address at the 88th Annual American Legion National Convention, Donald Rumsfeld, August 29, 2006
  15. ^ CNN, "The Situation Room," May 15, 2008 at 5 PM EDT.
  16. ^ William E. Borah Quote/Quotation at
  17. ^ U.S. Senate: Art & History Home > Classic Senate Speeches

External links



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