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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,232


This is the grave of Leverett Saltonstall.

Born in 1892 to an extremely wealthy and elite family, Saltonstall grew up in exactly that world. All the Gilded Age summer resorts, all the super fancy schools, etc. He then went to Harvard because of course he did. There he was a major athlete, noted for both his football prowess and his dominance at crew, two very elite sports at that time, even if only one is today. He graduated in 1914, went to Harvard Law, and finished there in 1917.

Saltonstall eagerly joined the military when the U.S. entered World War I, as many elite men did. He was a lieutenant in the 301st Artillery and was in France for six months before the war ended. In 1919, he was back in the U.S. and started practicing law in his uncle’s firm, because again, of course that was his start.

Saltonstall was a Republican–as if you have to ask that–but he was, like a lot of younger people, a Progressive and interested in the type of politics pushed forward by Theodore Roosevelt, who his family naturally enough knew personally. He started in politics almost immediately upon his return from France, running for alderman in Newton, Massachusetts in 1920 and winning a two-year term. In 1922, he was off to the Massachusetts statehouse.

Now, you can be rich and make it in politics. We all know that’s what matters the most. But that wealth doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be any good at it. That takes a certain amount of interpersonal skill and that’s one thing Saltonstall had. He rose quickly and became Speaker in 1929, where he would stay until 1937.

Now, Saltonstall was not the type of rich guy who was happy just being in the statehouse. Sure it was all basically a game for him–he surely did not need to work or anything like that–but he took it seriously. Moreover, the Republican Party continued to be split between conservatives and moderates; unlike in 2022, there were actual moderates. By 1936, we were well past the Progressive Era, but a lot of Progressives were now working for the New Deal and some of them were Republicans. Meanwhile, New England was the most anti-New Deal area of the country. In 1936, the only two states that voted for Landon were Vermont and Maine. A state such as Massachusetts or Rhode Island had too many immigrants now able to vote to go that far, but the Republicans in those states were still mostly bitter it was 1855. So if Saltonstall was going to keep rising, he had to keep the party united at a moment when it was desperately seeking a repudiation of FDR that was not going to happen. So he ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 1936. It was a deeply divided party that split and he slightly loss that nomination, though the party threw him on as lieutenant governor to unite the party. Didn’t matter–with the conservative leading the ticket, it could not win enough votes and Democrats swept the state.

Well, that could have ended Saltonstall’s political career. He was out of office after all, having not run for reelection to the statehouse. But he decided to take another shot in 1938 (these were still 2 year terms) and this time, not only did he win the nomination but he also won the general election against a damaged James Michael Curley who had been subjected to a brutal primary. Massachusetts was slowly becoming a Democratic state and it was hard for a Republican, even a relatively moderate one, to keep winning. Saltonstall couldn’t win by much, but he managed to pull out an extremely tight reelection in 1940 and then again in 1942.

In 1944, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. resigned from the Senate. Saltonstall decided to run to complete the term and he won that too. He would stay in the Senate until 1967. Now, Saltonstall was no genius. He wasn’t a leading senator. He was just a guy. But he was a guy who could work both sides of the aisle and use his retail politics skills and elite background to work people. He was the type of guy who really was a bipartisan type. Later in his career, for example, he was a big supporter of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Twenty-Fourth Amendment that banned the poll tax (I assume current Republicans would like to see that repealed). He was chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 1953-55 and was Republican Whip for a time.

He was an internationalist on foreign policy, conservative on fiscal policy, and liberal on social policy. That worked well enough for him. When Mike Mansfield pushed a bill in the 50s that would provide greater oversight over the CIA, which was a desperately needed move, Saltonstall led the fight to defeat it and it was indeed defeated. After all, by this time, the Eisenhower administration were relying on the CIA to produce its various coups in nations such as Guatemala and Iran and the last it or Saltonstall wanted was anyone knowing just what was going on.

He and JFK were relatively close, serving together in the Senate before the latter ran for president. Kennedy refused to campaign or endorse the guy running against Saltonstall in 1960 and although Saltonstall pulled off another fairly narrow victory that year, Kennedy had publicly promised him the ambassadorship to Canada if he lost.

But we should be clear–people liked the guy but few in Washington really took him seriously. This was the kind of genial politician that is at the core of Joe Biden’s nostalgia for the Old Senate, when a young senator could see Jennings Randolph’s wrinkled penis in the Senate locker room as the men told jokes to each other and smoked cigars. Is the nation worse off without that kind of bipartisan atmosphere of powerful people hanging out with each other? I doubt it. But in any case, this was Saltonstall’s world. He was just a friendly guy and that was good enough for the voters of Massachusetts evidently.

Saltonstall decided not to run for reelection in 1966. He retired to his rich lifestyle and lived his gentleman farmer life. He died in 1979, at the age of 86.

Leverett Saltonstall is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery, Salem, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other senators who have chaired the Armed Services Committee, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Russell is in Winder, Georgia (we need this grave post) and Millard Tydings is in Havre de Grace, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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