Weldon B. Heyburn: A Most Disagreeable Senator

Idaho has long had a well-deserved reputation as a staunchly conservative Republican stronghold. It was 1964 when the people of the state last elected a Democrat (and did so only by two points) and 1974 when a Democrat was last elected to the Senate. However, the state’s early years were a bit different. Idaho was much more likely to elect Democrats and Populists given the currency issue, and conservative Republicans had trouble there for some time. A breakthrough for them was the election of Weldon B. Heyburn (1852-1912) to the Senate over future Senator William E. Borah in 1903. Senators at the time were elected by the State legislature, meaning that conservative Republicans had gained hold of the legislature. Heyburn was a staunch defender of what saw as the interests of his state: mining, timber, and development. He publicly opposed President Roosevelt’s conservation policies, going so far as to state that federal forests were “an expensive, useless burden to the public” (Kramer). Heyburn stressed state’s rights on conservation over federal, and was successful in requiring Congressional approval for the reserving of future forest lands. However, the foxy Roosevelt added 16 million more acres to be conserved before he signed that law to the great consternation of Heyburn, who threatened to cut off funding for conservation efforts (Kramer). He was also a foe generally of greater regulation of the economy and did not approve of interventions into child labor. However, Heyburn’s efforts were appreciated by some, including those who often didn’t agree with him. As former Senator Fred Dubois wrote in a February 16, 1909 letter to Harry Day of the Hercules Mining Company, “I do not know whether Heyburn appreciates the fact that you were more largely instrumental in his re-election than any one else. I know the word you sent and I also know the thin ice on which Heyburn was standing. You were extremely wise in foregoing your personal feelings against Heyburn. You and I both know his faults, but at the same time he has virtues. One of these is that he will be outspoken and fearless in protecting all the industries of Idaho, and you can talk to him very freely on matters of that kind” (University of Idaho). One of these virtues was his propensity for hard work, but this would later prove detrimental. Heyburn, however, has a significant contribution to American law: he introduced the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Heyburn not only disagreed politically with Roosevelt, but could also be highly personally disagreeable as well. He once declined to award a debate prize to a student with the rationale that “he does not seem to have learned enough to be a Republican” and on another occasion halted an orchestra mid-performance because he disapproved of the song they were playing (Kramer). Sources on Heyburn also generally don’t cover this aspect of his life, but his obituary noted that he was most known not for his opposition to Roosevelt’s conservation but for his “unyielding bitterness toward the south, and frequent denunciation of southern civil war leaders. He called the placing of Lee’s statue in the capital an insult to the nation, and in discussing this and many other incidents, engaged in acrimonious debate with southern senators” (The Spokesman-Review).

Heyburn was the largest man in the Senate, and this was among the factors that cost him his health. In March 1912, he collapsed in the Senate after delivering a speech on arbitration treaties. His doctors instructed him to rest, but he refused to do so, and his health continued to deteriorate. Heyburn died on October 17th, his last words being, “I have lived my life as best I could within the power of human limitation…I am worn out in the service of a great cause” (University of Idaho). Although his official cause of death was complications from heart and kidney disease, he had worked himself to death. Heyburn’s MC-Index score was an 84%. He is remembered in Idaho through Mount Heyburn, Heyburn State Park, and the town of Heyburn.


Kramer, B. (2010, August 22). Heyburn left thorny legacy on natural resources. The Spokesman-Review.

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Senator W.B. Heyburn Dies After Lingering Illness. (1912, October 18). The Spokesman-Review.

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Weldon Brinton Heyburn, 1852-1912. University of Idaho.

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