Borah, William

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William Edgar Borah (June 29, 1865–January 19, 1940) was a prominent Republican senator during the Great Depression. Known as the "Lion of Idaho," he defended Jeffersonian principles, upheld civil libertarian doctrines, espoused constitutionalism, and safeguarded the special interests of his home state. Despite his lengthy service in the upper chamber, Borah lacked an understanding of power plays in American politics. He remained a political maverick whose oratorical skills outweighed a plan of action, a characteristic that curtailed his effectiveness as a leader. Essentially he remained a loner. Yet for all his shortcomings, Borah possessed the ability to arouse people on public issues.

Born in Jasper Township, Wayne County, Illinois, Borah attended Tom's Prairie Public School and Southern Illinois Academy but never completed high school. He matriculated at the University of Kansas for a time in the 1880s. Thereafter Borah studied law in his brother-in-law's office, relocated to Idaho in 1890, earned a reputation as a good criminal lawyer, became interested in politics, chaired the Republican State Central Committee, attacked the trusts, and supported William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, for president in the free silver crusade of 1896. In 1902 Borah led the progressive Republican faction that defeated Idaho's Old Guard candidates. Five years later state legislators elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he remained until his death.

Borah was a reformer and individualist. He embraced Theodore Roosevelt but declined to follow him in the Bull Moose campaign of 1912. Borah endorsed legislation for labor revision and backed constitutional amendments for a graduated income tax, the direct election of U.S. senators, and national prohibition. He also belonged to the irreconcilable wing of senators who opposed any version of a League of Nations. After World War I, Borah surfaced as a major voice for progressivism, isolationism, and the outlawry of war. Although he whole-heartedly championed Herbert Hoover for president in 1928, Borah assailed the president's farm and tariff policies and berated him for not pursuing more aggressive action to relieve the suffering in the nation. Borah demanded relief for the needy and unemployed. In a blistering Senate speech in 1931, he challenged the administration to respond to the crisis. Borah's crusading voice against Hoover's economic philosophy helped prepare the way for the New Deal.

The severity of the Great Depression in the 1930s convinced Borah of the necessity for government intervention to combat the economic catastrophe, monitor the nation's financial condition, and protect the general interest. He accepted much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal domestic program, especially legislation that aided farmers and arranged for work remedies and alleviation. The senator favored the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Revenue Act of 1935, and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935, but he remained steadfastly against the National Recovery Administration with measures designed to benefit the industrial segments of American society. He suggested currency expansion as a means to ameliorate the Depression. Although the expansion of federal bureaucratic agencies and the possible dangers to individual rights worried Borah, he focused attention on the activist role of government in the 1930s.

By the end of the 1930s, Borah devoted his time primarily to foreign affairs and endeavors to avoid United States entanglement in case of war. He died at his home in Washington, D. C., three days after a cerebral hemorrhage.

See Also: NEW DEAL.


Borah, William E. Papers. Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Borah, William E. Bedrock: Views on Basic National Problems. 1936.

Johnson, Claudius O. Borah of Idaho. 1936.

McKenna, Marian C. Borah. 1961.

Leonard Schlup