Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 444

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 444


This is the grave of William Borah.

Born in 1865 in Wayne County, Illinois, he was sent to a Presbyterian seminary, but was expelled for hitching train rides to spend the night in a nearby city. He then spent awhile acting in a traveling Shakespeare company before his father convinced him to return home. He went to Kansas to teach school, where his sister lived, but then got fired for reading so much on his home that he was completely unprepared for class. He went to college a bit, but then came down with tuberculosis. So he rested at home and started reading the law. He finally found something he could put his energies toward. He passed the bar in 1887 and started practicing with his brother-in-law. He became city attorney of Lyons, Kansas in 1889. But Borah was kind of a dreamer and didn’t want to be stuck in some impoverished Kansas farm town the rest of his life. So he went to Omaha in 1890 and boarded a train to the West, unsure where he would stop. He ran out of money in Boise, Idaho. So that’s where he stayed.

Idaho has just become a state in 1889 and it was a good place for an ambitious young lawyer. Borah rose very quickly here. He became both one of the city’s leading lawyers and an active Republican. He became of the Republican State Central Committee in 1892 and started working for the governor, William McConnell. In 1895, he married McConnell’s daughter, Mary. During the Coeur d’Alene labor violence in the early 1890s, the state intervened forcefully on behalf of the employers. Borah took the lead in prosecuting a union leader, Paul Corcoran, for murder. He secured the conviction in part because he knew how to hop a train. See, Corcoran was charged with jumping off a train in motion with a rifle before killing the guy. The defense argued no one could do this without getting hurt. But then Borah went and did it himself. So that led to the conviction. This sort of physical display in the service of corporate power did not hurt Borah’s career in a frontier state.

Borah was a good Republican, but he was also from Idaho. So he supported free silver in 1896 and thus William Jennings Bryan over William McKinley. He ran for Congress that year, but it was a third-party campaign that split the silver vote and so he lost. The Democrats and Populists were controlling Idaho at this time, but Borah wanted to go to the Senate in 1902. They took the statehouse that year and got to choose a new senator, but Borah, despite having initial support, lost, possibly due to corruption. But he kept plugging away. He tied himself closely to Theodore Roosevelt and identified as a Progressive. Idaho Republicans were split, like they were through much of the nation, between Progressives and Old Guards. But Borah was able to take advantage of the current senator, Fred DuBois, being anti-Mormon and gathered support in that community. Fighting to have the people select the nominee instead of party insiders, he brought the party together and won election in the fall of 1906.

Meanwhile, Borah was in the news a lot. First, he was one of the prosecutors of Big Bill Haywood and other labor leaders for the assassination of former governor Frank Steunenberg, a crime for which they were definitely not guilty and were found so, much to the surprise of everyone involved, including Haywood and his attorney Clarence Darrow. At the same time, Borah was caught up in some timber land fraud on a deal where he was the legal counsel. Roosevelt, seeing the latter as an internal battle between factions of the Idaho Republican Party, at first stayed out of it, upsetting Borah. He was probably innocent and was found not guilty, leading to Roosevelt firing the district attorney.

All of this made Borah a very well known figure when he walked into the Senate in the fall of 1907. Borah played up his western ways big-time, wearing a huge cowboy hat on the floor of the Senate. He also emerged as an immediate ally of Theodore Roosevelt. Alas, this was for one of Roosevelt’s worst and most racist (which is saying a lot!) actions, the dismissal of black soldiers after a race riot in Brownsville, Texas. Borah gave his first Senate speech to defend Roosevelt here. But overall, Borah was a pretty good Progressive. Given his anti-union background, the Old Guard thought they had an ally against Roosevelt and placed him on strategic committees, only to find out that he was much more liberal than they believed. He broke from Taft’s pro-corporate policies before Roosevelt did and played a critical role in getting the Sixteenth Amendment passed in Congress after Taft turned down a proposal to include an income tax in a tariff bill. He was also a big supporter of the Seventeenth Amendment and had long worked for this in Idaho. Borah was also sleeping with Roosevelt’s daughter Alice and he was the biological father of her daughter Paulina, born in 1925.

But in the end, Borah was always a good Republican. He refused to support Roosevelt’s Bull Moose third party, even though he supported him over Taft for the nomination. It’s actually unclear who Borah voted for in 1912. Borah would spend much of the rest of his career finding reasons to oppose liberal legislation even though he agreed with the need for it. Much of this had to do with just being unable to support legislation from Democrats such as Wilson and FDR. So he proved rather uninfluential on domestic policy despite his reformist mentality. Where he did become a major player was on foreign policy. He was named to the Foreign Relations Committee in 1913, where he would become one of the most influential senators of the twentieth century. He clashed with Wilson early over the latter’s interventionist mentality in Latin America, whereas Borah thought these nations should be left alone. He initially opposed any U.S. intervention in World War I, but changed his mind with the German attacks on ships and voted with Wilson on the declaration of war in 1917. However, he would strongly oppose the League of Nations and, along with Henry Cabot Lodge, led the opposition to the treaty. Yet even when Harding took over the presidency, he continued to oppose any meaningful foreign policy agreements, including the Washington Naval Conference, which he saw as something akin to getting the U.S. into the League. Calvin Coolidge actually offered the VP slot to Borah in 1924, horrifying the party’s conservatives. But he turned it down, basically because he thought he should be president.

Borah became Foreign Relations chair in 1924 when Lodge died. He was probably more influential than anyone in Washington in creating foreign policy by this time and he played a critical role in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, as he was highly interested in the idea of outlawing war. He also strongly supported recognizing the Soviet Union. He came around to supporting Hoover in 1928 because they were both strong prohibitionists, even though he still thought he was the best qualified person for the presidency. Hoover offered him Secretary of State, but Borah declined. They broke pretty early though over Hoover’s pathetic response to the Depression. Borah thought about challenging him for the nomination in 1932, but decided against it. He liked FDR, but still struggled with any kind of state action to reform society. For a lot of Progressives, voluntarism was one thing, but the New Deal, that was many steps too far. However, Borah certainly respected Roosevelt, even if he hated the NRA and at least some other New Deal programs. He did finally run for the presidency in 1936, but did so by trying to turn the Republicans into the old Progressives, somewhat praising Roosevelt and attacking the conservatives. This meant he was not going to win the nomination, even though he was by now one of only twenty-five Republicans left in the Senate. He refused to endorse Alf Landon but won reelection in Idaho, making him one of only sixteen Republicans in the Senate in 1937!

In his later career, Borah played a big role in defusing the Supreme Court crisis by opposing Roosevelt’s courtpacking plan but also helping convince Willis Van Devanter, who he was friendly with, to step down. He initially believed he could work with Adolf Hitler and kept thinking, well into the war, that if only he had the chance to talk to Hitler, all this could have been avoided. Hmmm….But at the very least, Borah did not go all way with the isolationists such as Gerald Nye and maintained his credibility once Hitler invaded Poland. Borah died in his sleep in 1940, at the age of 74. His wife Mary managed to live until 1976, dying at the age of 105, maintaining a significant role in the Washington social scene until well into the 1960s.

William Borah, the Lion of Idaho, is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho.

If you would like this series to visit some of Borah’s contemporaries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gerald Nye is in Brentwood, Maryland and Alf Landon is in Topeka, Kansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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