The State’s Rights Progressive

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Imagine if you will a senator who through one speech can convince multiple senators to change their minds and fights for numerous progressive stances, yet opposes many measures he thinks of as upsetting state’s rights and wants America to stay out of foreign affairs. Such a politician today would be a fictional character, but this accurately describes Republican William E. Borah (1865-1940) of Idaho.

Early Life

Borah was involved in the politics of Idaho from the very start of statehood, serving as secretary to Governor William J. McConnell, who had also been one of the state’s first two senators. He would marry the senator’s daughter Mary and become a renowned attorney. Although Borah was a Republican, he often held views counter to the party’s and in 1896 he for the first and only time left the party and became a “Silver Republican” due to the party’s full-throated embrace of the gold standard. By 1900, however, the issue had become irrelevant as the economy was booming and Borah supported the foreign policy of William McKinley. So unlike in 1896 when he backed Democrat William Jennings Bryan, he backed McKinley’s reelection. In 1903, Borah made his first try for the Senate, but was defeated by fellow Republican Weldon B. Heyburn, an irascible conservative. In 1906, he tried again, this time seeking to defeat Fred Dubois, who I have written about before. Borah campaigned against Dubois’ continued anti-Mormon stances, which included disenfranchisement. The Democrats got creamed in the 1906 midterms in Idaho in large part due to Dubois so the staunchly Republican legislature elected Borah in 1907.

Borah the Senator

That year he faced two trials, one that he was the prosecutor and another in which he was the defendant. In the former, Borah prosecuted radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood for the murder of former Governor Frank Steunenberg, but was acquitted. In the latter, Borah was accused of land fraud but the motivations behind the trial appeared extremely political and he was easily acquitted.

In 1908, Borah defended President Roosevelt’s dismissal of over 100 black soldiers after the Brownsville affair, which was being attacked by fellow Republican Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio. This was the first time he would defend racial injustice as a senator, but it wouldn’t be the last, which I shall get to later. By 1910, Borah had become a staunch critic of President Taft for siding with the conservative wing of the party on more and more issues including on tariffs and conservation and he backed some critical constitutional amendments, including the income tax and direct election of senators. Although Borah was asked by Theodore Roosevelt to play a prominent role in his campaign in 1912, he refused as he would not leave the Republican Party again. That year, he backed no one for president, and again, it wouldn’t be the last time he did so. With a new president, one might think that Borah would be a bit friendlier to him than Taft, but not quite so. He opposed Wilson more often than he supported and in 1919, he would be one of the two leaders of the Senate irreconcilables on the Versailles Treaty. Borah was so intractable on this issue that he stated that he would oppose the league even if Jesus Christ came to Earth and stated his support. For a Christian, no statement can be stronger.

On the questions of prohibition and female suffrage, Borah proclaimed support for both, but refused to back a constitutional amendment for the latter because he did not wish to force the South to enfranchise black women: he was the only Republican senator to back southern efforts to extend suffrage to white women only. In 1922, he emerged as a powerful voice in the Senate against the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was defeated. Although Borah proclaimed his opposition to lynching, he once again didn’t want to push a federal measure on the South and believed it to be unconstitutional. On both the matters of the Versailles Treaty and Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, he had used his strong oratory skills to sway senators. The senator served as a frequent critic of the policies of the Republican administrations of the 1920s but on the question of federal maternity aid, he went to the right of both parties in his opposition over state’s rights concerns. Borah proved about as much of a sometimes Republican as he was a sometimes progressive.

Borah and the Great Depression

In 1932, the senator tepidly supported Hoover for reelection but made no speeches on his behalf, only on issues. On New Deal legislation, he proved supportive of the Tennessee Valley Authority and was initially supportive of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (until he opposed the final vote) but strongly opposed the National Industrial Recovery Act. For the latter, Borah opposed the establishment of government-sanctioned cartels as harmful to small business. On foreign policy, he applauded the Roosevelt Administration’s diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, a policy he had advocated for years. The USSR was on good terms with Borah for his efforts and a connection to him could go a long way for an American seeking assistance in the nation. In 1936, he tried to win the Republican nomination for president and critiqued the conservative party leadership, stating in response to objections that certain expansions of government power were unconstitutional that “You can’t eat the Constitution” (Mason, 52). Borah didn’t win the nomination for two reasons: first, he was too progressive for party regulars and second, by this time he was 71 years old. Once again, in 1936 he supported neither candidate. The following year, Borah staunchly opposed the Roosevelt Administration’s court-packing plan as he believed it would fundamentally corrupt the separation of powers.

Borah and War

In the late 1930s, anxieties about war were coming to the forefront and finally culminated in Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Borah did not drop his views on foreign policy just as most of the old progressives stuck to their guns on the matter. Although disgusted by Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews, he didn’t want the United States to intervene in Germany’s affairs as he believed individual nations should be free to address the depression in whatever way they thought best and opposed the United States taking in a wave of Jewish immigrants when unemployment was so high. Borah had sought to travel to Nazi Germany to try to convince Hitler out of pursuing war, but the invasion of Poland had started before he could make satisfactory arrangements. He stated in a strikingly naïve response to the invasion, “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler—all this might have been averted” (Hutchinson, 37). Borah died only months after the start of war, a big loss for non-interventionists.


Borah was many things that would make him completely unfit for politics in modern times, but he was more than good enough for the people of Idaho in his day. They loved his independence, honesty, strong convictions, and a staunch commitment to non-interventionism. Borah’s philosophy of governance was perhaps best stated by himself, “I would sooner lose in a right cause than win in a wrong cause. As long as I can distinguish between right and wrong, I shall do what I believe to be right – whatever the consequences” (Hutchinson, 55).


Hutchinson, W.K. (1940, January 29). News Articles on the Life and Works of Honorable William E. Borah, Late a Senator from the State of Idaho. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.

Mason, R. (2012). The Republican Party and American politics from Hoover to Reagan. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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