19th Century Era
1. Daniel Webster vs. 5. Sam Houston
1. Daniel Webster, Whig - Massachusetts, 1782-1852
Dubbed “The Great Orator,” Daniel Webster fought to keep the country unified during the pre-Civil War debate over slavery. Indeed, he became the de facto spokesman for those seeking to save the union after delivering what’s been called, “The Most Famous Senate Speech” in a debate that lasted over nine days with a senator from South Carolina. Ironically, it was another speech – arguing in favor of the Compromise of 1850 and saying that bickering over slavery was pointless because it wasn’t going away – that ended his Senate career. That speech played well as a middle-of-the-road position in many parts of the country, but not in his liberal home state. Soon after, he resigned the Senate to become Secretary of State. Webster died just four months after Henry Clay – another #1 seed – did.
5. Sam Houston, D/Know Nothing-Texas, 1793-1863: The namesake for the nation’s fourth-largest city, Sam Houston still lives deep in the hearts of Texans. He was the Texas Republic’s first president, and when Texas became a state, he became one of its senators. In that chamber, he refused to endorse the Kansas-Nebraska Act – which allowed states to decide for themselves whether to keep slavery – because he felt it would further divide the nation. In fact, he was the only Southern Democrat to vote against the act, and he was right: Less than a decade after its passage, the country descended into Civil War. Houston’s opposition damaged him politically, and he was dismissed from the Senate by the Texas Legislature (remember, this was before direct election of senators), and then ran for governor and lost. Two years later, however, he ran again for governor, and won, but was deposed in 1861 after Texas seceded from the union – despite his best efforts to avoid that -- and he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederate states.
2. John C. Calhoun vs. 3. Charles Sumner
2. John C. Calhoun (19th), D/D-R/Nullifier-South Carolina, 1782-1850: During the debates over slavery before the Civil War, there was no bigger and notable champion of states’ rights than John C. Calhoun, who preached under his doctrine of nullification that states had the right to reject federal policies they believed were unconstitutional. Calhoun also served as vice president (under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), secretary of war (under James Monroe), and secretary of state (under John Tyler).
3. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., 1811-74: A prominent abolitionist on slavery, Sumner wrote the seminal piece of civil-rights legislation in 1870 during the debate over Reconstruction. The bill was far ahead of its time: It declared all men, including ex-slaves equal and to have equal access to all walks of life. The legislation passed in 1875 after Sumner’s death, but was ruled unconstitutional (leading eventually to the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision declaring “separate but equal facilities to be allowable). Sumner, though, is perhaps best known for being beaten with a cane by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina in 1956 – in fact, Sumner was beaten so badly he didn’t return to the Senate for nearly three years.
1. Henry Clay vs. 4. Robert La Follette
1. Henry Clay, D-R, Whig - Kentucky, 1777-1852
Henry Clay’s ability to navigate a fractured Senate is credited with fending off war between slave-owning and free states -- at least three times. He was pivotal in the negotiations in the creation of the Missouri Compromise, which allowed the United States to continue its Western expansion. For his efforts, Clay earned the nicknames “The Great Compromiser” and “The Great Pacificator.” How revered was he? Abraham Lincoln called him "my beau ideal of a statesman" and often used his quotes in his speeches. He was the first ever to receive the honor of being laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Clay also engineered the only censure of a president -- Andrew Jackson. Clay's death, which took place a decade before the Civil War's start, was regarded as the end of the Senate's "Golden Era.
4. Robert La Follette, R-Wis., 1855-1925: The quintessential senator of the Progressive Era, La Follette sought to regulate the railroads and worker protection. He also opposed America’s entry into World War I, and he helped launched an investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal. In 1924, he ran for president as a third-party candidate under the Progressive Party banner, and he won 13% of the popular vote.
2. Henry Cabot Lodge vs. 14. Scoop Jackson
2. Henry Cabot Lodge (Mixed), R-Massachusetts, 1850-1924: If you want to point to one person who re-defined how politics is played on Capitol Hill, look to Lodge. He wrote the playbook for how to oppose a president. He and Woodrow Wilson did not get along. So much so Wilson’s widow told him not to come to Wilson’s funeral. The position of majority leader didn’t even exist at the time, but Lodge is referred to as the de facto majority leader because of his tenure and influence, particularly on foreign policy. The hawkish Republican scuttled the U.S.’s joining of the League of Nations in the Treaty of Versailles, putting a premium on party unity. He was also instrumental in the annexing of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and pushed for a stronger Navy. If he has a weakness, it was that his focus in the Senate was almost exclusively on foreign policy.
14. Henry Martin “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash., 1912-83: The 30-year senator (1953-1981) and 43-year member of Congress wielded tremendous influence with colleagues on Capitol Hill and was regarded for his deep bipartisan ties. His counsel was sought after by presidents, especially on foreign-policy issues. He was liberal on most social issues, but he was hawkish on military affairs. For example, he supported U.S. efforts to get involved in Southeast Asia, even saying in 1975: “The basic decision to go into Vietnam was right.” He was popular with the American Jewish community for his support of Israel and crafting legislation to help Russian Jews emigrate more freely to there. He was one of the first senators to benefit from television’s advent, notably during the McCarthy-Army hearings of the 1950s; Jackson said McCarthy was “hunting headlines instead of hunting communists.” He also was seen as the “Senator from Boeing” for his work procuring funding for the airline maker in his home state. He ran for and lost the Democratic nomination for president twice – in 1972 and 1976. He got his nickname, “Scoop,” by the way, because his sister thought he reminded her of a comic-strip character.