Wednesday, June 29, 2016

U. S. Senator William E. Borah, the “Lion of Idaho” [otd 06/29]

W. E. Borah, ca. 1898.
Illustrated History.
Senator William Edgar Borah, celebrated "Lion of Idaho," was born June 29, 1865 in Wayne County, Illinois. Tuberculosis cut short his formal education, so he read law for a Kansas firm and passed the bar there in 1888. During those times, steady railroad promotion fueled considerable growth in Kansas, yet the young lawyer soon headed further West.

With his cash running low, Borah heeded advice heard on the train and settled in Boise City. Even then an excellent orator, and good looking, as early as 1891 Borah ran for public office – Boise City Attorney. He only lost by three votes.

Borah's legal practice flourished, covering many important cases. He served as a Special Prosecutor in the 1907 trial of “Big Bill” Haywood, accused of conspiring to assassinate ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg. Although the state lost the case, it gained national attention for Borah. He carefully and successfully nurtured that notoriety.

As a Silver Republican, his Congressional bids in 1896 and 1903 failed. Then Borah returned to his original Republican roots, and used his new-found celebrity status. In 1907, he won election to the Senate. He would hold that seat for the rest of his life.

In the Senate, his oratorical skills regularly attracted crowded galleries when people heard he was about to speak. Even those who disagreed with him conceded his powerful eloquence and strong convictions, which earned him the "Lion of Idaho" sobriquet.

His forceful persuasion earned him much credit, or blame depending upon a person's views, for keeping the U. S. out of the League of Nations. Borah was often labeled an isolationist because of that stance, yet many of his positions contradict that image. He mostly opposed "entangling alliances" and what he considered impositions upon America's sovereignty.

Borah and wife, ca 1895. Kansas State Historical Society.
In fact, Borah's views often seemed wildly contradictory, even to those in his own party. Although he distrusted "big government," he was generally ready to use Federal power to curb monopolistic trusts. Suspicious of social programs that cast government as what we might call "big brother," he nonetheless helped establish the Department of Labor with better child labor oversight.

News media of the times turned a blind eye to Borah's one consistent failing: his tangled affairs with women. Regional historians now generally concede that he probably left Kansas because he had "gotten a young woman in trouble" and was "asked" to leave. In Boise, contemporaries attested that he almost obsessively frequented the city's "ladies of the evening."

Questions have been raised even about his marriage to Mary McConnell, daughter of Idaho Governor William J. McConnell. Despite Borah’s strong sex drive, the couple never had any children. Rumors, never actively denied, circulated that Borah had gotten Mary pregnant while they were courting, and that a poorly-done abortion left her unable to have children. Yet recently-available letters and diaries confirm that Borah fathered a child by another man's wife.

In 1936, Borah ran a vigorous national campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination. When that failed, he returned to Idaho and was easily re-elected to his Senate seat. He died in office in January 1940.
                                                                                 
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State]
“William Edgar Borah, June 29, 1865 – January 19, 1940,” Reference Series No. 538, Idaho State Historical Society (1971).
Waldo W. Braden, “William E. Borah’s Years in Kansas in the 1880’s,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (November, 1947).
Stacy A. Cordery, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, Viking Press, New York (2007).
Douglas O. Linder, “Biographies: William E. Borah,” Famous American Trials: Bill Haywood Trial, University of Missouri-Kansas City, School of Law (2011).

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