While Joseph McCarthy usually has first place among progressives as America’s worst Senator in history, they might want to consider Alabama’s John Tyler Morgan (1824-1907). Morgan hits just about every berserk button for the modern progressive. He was an imperialist who advocated for the construction of a canal in Nicaragua (which ultimately resulted in the Panama Canal), an ex-slaveowner, a Brigadier General of the Confederate Army, and a highly influential and effective advocate of Jim Crow laws.
Elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1877, Morgan represented the resurgence of Southern white power and proved a frighteningly effective senator. While McCarthy did much damage to the cause of anti-communism, Morgan aided his position of white supremacy through his eloquent speeches and arguments. He believed these speeches could make a difference on the Senate floor, and they did. Although he may not have won over a vote in the Senate with these speeches, they had a discernible effect on public opinion. He used this to great effect to filibuster the Federal Elections Bill in 1890, which was intended to counteract the denial of the right to vote for blacks in the South. After the defeat of this measure, pushes for federal civil rights legislation were for the most part quite weak until the 1950s. He also frequently advocated to deport blacks to places such as the Congo and the Philippines, but he didn’t get far on this one: other senators thought it impractical. He was wildly more successful in his advocacy of an American takeover of Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, all of which were acquired or kept under America’s influence. The only thing he probably did that was positive on race relations was voting to confirm Frederick Douglass for a federal position in 1877, a stance which put him in a minority for Democrats of the day, much like his imperialism. While he advocated for certain measures that were regarded as progressive in his day, such as free coinage of silver and reining in the power of railroads, economic issues are often tertiary to modern progressives.
By the time of his death in 1907, Morgan had accomplished much of what he wanted. His legacy was not underestimated by his contemporaries upon his death. In memorializing him in 1908, segregationist Rep. Tom Heflin (D-Ala.) credited him with Sen. Edmund Pettus (D-Ala.) for the Jim Crow system, stating that “the ballot, that which represented privileges and powers for which the quick-witted Celt and the thoughtful Saxon had struggled a thousand years to achieve, was given in the twinkling of an eye to the unfit hordes of an inferior race. . . .No two men in Alabama, or in the South, did more to stay the hideous tide of negro domination than the two dearly beloved Senators whose death the House mourns to-day. In the dark and trying days of reconstruction these two men were foremost among the defenders of Anglo-Saxon civilization” (United States Congress). Although McCarthy gained notoriety for his public hearings on suspected communists and his paranoid style of politics, he served only ten years and greatly harmed his cause. Morgan had a far greater impact on American history and on the lives of individual Americans and served thirty years. Jim Crow would not be undone until almost sixty years after his death, and the US still holds some of its territorial acquisitions gained during that time (Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam). Yet, you read about McCarthy in history books, not Morgan.
John Tyler Morgan and Edmund Winston Pettus- Memorial Addresses-Sixtieth Congress, First Session, Senate of the United States, April 18, 1908. House of Representatives, April 25, 1908,” ed. United States Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909). 188-189.
Upchurch, T.A. John Tyler Morgan. Encyclopedia of Alabama.
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