Like New Jersey, Connecticut has suffered some from being surrounded by more prominent neighbors (in this case, New York and Massachusetts). Nonetheless, if we expand the notion of traditional politician just slightly, Connecticut has a pretty interesting group.
Putting together this list also brought up an important issue for the first time–deciding where certain people belong. In this case, George H.W. Bush. The guy is as New England old-money yankee as they come, but his political career was entirely based out of Texas, not Connecticut. Of course, this can get complicated–can anyone take the argument seriously that Hillary Clinton is from New York? It seems she has to be placed in Illinois or Arkansas. Or nowhere. It’s possible that we are entering a phase where many politicians are more or less stateless. The mechanisms of government doesn’t suggest this, but Hillary is a great example of how this might happen.
1. Roger Sherman–Helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Created the Great Compromise that solved the problems between big and small states during the Constitutional Convention. Later a Congressman and then Senator from Connecticut. One of the most unjustly forgotten Founding Fathers and Connecticut’s greatest political figure.
2. William O. Douglas. The longest-serving Supreme Court and the great civil libertarian and environmentalist. Wrote the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, granting a right to privacy. Interestingly, Douglas was FDR’s #2 choice for Vice-President in 1944. A Douglas presidency would have been a great thing for civil liberties, better than Truman’s, though who knows if he could have survived the early Cold War and defeated Thomas Dewey in 1948. And it could have led to an early engagement with environmental policy given Douglas’ love of nature.
3. Dean Acheson–Lists like this force you to answer questions like “What is a politician?” Does the person have to hold elected office to play a defining role in the American political system? I’d generally say no, though the individual does need to play a central role in defining American governmental institutions. Such a person was Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State and arguably the leading architect of American foreign policy in the early Cold War. Among his many achievements was playing a central role at the Bretton Woods Conference (which created the IMF and World Bank), helping design the Marshall Plan, architect of the Truman Doctrine, and helped frame U.S. policy toward Vietnam. These might not all be great things, but they are all very important. And when you are as thin as Connecticut among traditional office holders, Acheson looks pretty good.
4. Ralph Nader–If Nader hadn’t run for president, he wouldn’t be on this list. Though the reforms he engendered in American regulatory policy in the 1960s and 70s are very important, he wasn’t really a politician in any sense of the word. Then he decided there was no difference between the Democrats and Republicans and that he needed to run for president. Then he threw the 2000 election to George W. Bush, giving us the worst presidential administration since Andrew Johnson. Thanks Ralph. No one will ever forget your impact on the American political system now.
5. Orville Platt–the truly loathsome reactionary Gilded Age Republican senator, Platt opposed every law designed to help working-class people during his period, then, just to make sure we all remembered how evil he was, authored the Platt Amendment, placing Cuba under a state of colonialism in all but name.
6. Oliver Ellsworth–leading Revolutionary War figure, later Senator and then the 3rd Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
7. Joe Lieberman–Quite a list for Connecticut. All that’s been said about Lieberman is all that needs to be said. I was surprised to see him so high on this list, but he’s a very important figure in the late 20th and early 21st century Senate. Often more important as a symbol than as a policy maker.
8. Abraham Ribicoff–Liberal lion of the middle third of the twentieth century. Probably most famous for attacking the Chicago police beating protestors at the DNC in 68, causing Mayor Daley to refer to Ribicoff as “you fucking Jew son of a bitch.”
9. Chris Dodd–Ribicoff’s replacement and Senator from 1981 to 2011. A very important figure, though one whose career feels somewhat disappointing now that it has closed.
10. Clare Boothe Luce–Though I don’t think of her primarily as a politician, Luce was a Congresswoman from Connecticut for two terms, where she helped form the Atomic Energy Commission. Along with her husband, she helped shape American policy toward China late in the Chiang Kai-Shek era and was a leading anti-communist of the postwar years.
Jonathan Trumbull, Speaker of the House in the 1790s, just missed the top 10.
A reader e-mailed me to consider one individual when I got to Connecticut. He suggested John Moran Bailey, chair of the DNC from 1961-68 and the boss of the mid-century CT Democratic Party. While he doesn’t rate high enough in my view to be on the top 10, I wanted to make note of it, especially given the number of local people I don’t know that you all have discussed in comments.