Great Conservatives from American History #10: Norris H. Cotton

Not too long ago, I covered the most significant figure among New Hampshire’s 20th century senators, but now I will cover a man who I regard as having a great deal of conscience. This would be Norris Henry Cotton (1900-1989), who stands as an example of an American success story. He grew up poor on a farm in Warren, New Hampshire, but succeeded in getting an education at Phillips Exeter Academy as well as Wesleyan University. During his time in college, Cotton served as an intern in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and was elected to the body in 1922, serving in 1923, one of the youngest state legislators in American history. He was also a protege of Senator George H. Moses (R-N.H.), serving as his secretary from 1924 to 1928. While one could suggest that he got some of his conservatism from the influence of Moses, he was also considerably more flexible than him during his career. Although his start was early, Cotton spent a good deal of time as an attorney in private practice until being elected again to the New Hampshire House, where he served as speaker from 1945 to 1947.

Cotton in the House

The year 1946 was a blowout for Republicans, with them winning both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1928 election. This was the first term of Congress for two future presidents in John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the latter Cotton would befriend. Cotton, who labeled himself “a rock-ribbed conservative Republican and proud of it”, was a supporter of the 80th Congress’ domestic agenda and supported the Taft-Hartley Act and tax reduction (Weil). However, he also supported the Truman Administration on Greek-Turkish Aid and the Marshall Plan. Indeed, Cotton was something of an internationalist, and this included his vote for Point IV aid in 1950, which provided aid for poor nations as opposed to nations impoverished by war.

Cotton in the Senate

In 1953, Senator Charles Tobey died unexpectedly, and Cotton was elected to succeed him in the special election. Cotton was popular, and he thrice won his elections by double digits. The first issue he tackled in the Senate was none other than the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy. While Cotton was an ideologically welcome colleague for New Hampshire’s senior senator Styles Bridges, Cotton differed with him on this question, voting for Joseph McCarthy’s censure. He also came to believe that the media was responsible for an erroneous view of government power by the American public, as he saw it He was indeed an independent-minded man, and his independent-minded instances weren’t always pleasing for liberals.

Cotton and Civil Rights

Norris Cotton’s record on civil rights is complicated and therefore fascinating. He voted for banning the poll tax in 1947 but voted against the 1949 bill. Cotton voted against the Marcantonio anti-discrimination amendment for women’s coast guard legislation in 1949 but in favor of killing a segregated veteran’s hospital in 1951. He also voted in favor of the voluntary Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1950. In 1954, Cotton with ending segregation as “it rectified a long-standing injustice to the black race”, but believed the Supreme Court shouldn’t have stepped in (Sanborn). Cotton’s record would only grow more complex in the Senate.

In 1957, he, like every other voting Republican, voted for that year’s Civil Rights Act, but he voted for the Anderson-Aiken amendment knocking out 14th Amendment implementation and voted against the O’Mahoney-Kefauver-Church jury trial amendment. His most controversial stance, however, would come in 1964.

Cotton proved an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, voting to delete both Title II (public accommodations) and Title VII (employment discrimination) from the bill. However, he agreed to vote to end debate on the bill on June 10th in exchange of getting his proposed amendment a vote, which if enacted would have limited Title VII only to businesses with 100 or more employees, as its proponents thought the law couldn’t be enforced with impartiality nationwide on small businesses (Sanborn, 5). The amendment failed the following day on a vote of 35-51, a majority regarding the amendment as gutting much of Title VII. Cotton then was one of six Republicans to vote against the bill, the only senator from New England to do so. He said on the matter, “Mr. President, I cannot vote for this Bill. This has been the most difficult decision I have had to make in all the years I have served in Congress. For 18 years I have supported every measure to end discrimination between the races and guarantee full rights to every citizen and I hope and fully expected to vote for this one” (Sanborn, 6). Cotton would in the next year vote for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in 1968 would even support fair housing legislation. However, he also opposed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which repealed the national origins quota policy. He was supportive of extending the Voting Rights Act and in 1972, he was one of only eight senators to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment.

Cotton, Kennedy, and Johnson

During the Democratic years of the 1960s, Cotton had a conservative albeit pragmatic record. He opposed a strong minimum wage bill, public power in the generation of atomic energy, public housing, and the 1961 proposal for federal aid to education. Cotton also opposed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. However, although he voted to kill Medicare multiple times, in 1965 he would vote for the Social Security Act Amendments which contained Medicare and Medicaid. On foreign policy, Cotton voted for restrictions in funding and opposed aid for Iron Curtain nations, but supported the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty after voting for the Tower-Long “understanding” that would permit nuclear weapons in the case of war.

Cotton and Nixon

Richard Nixon’s presidency was welcomed by Cotton, and he proved a strong supporter of his friend, including his efforts on Vietnam, opposing the Cooper-Church Amendment to withdraw funds from military forces in Cambodia as well as the Hatfield-McGovern Amendment to provide a timetable for ending American involvement. However, this didn’t stop him from disagreements. He, for instance, voted to override President Nixon’s veto of an education bill in 1970 and indeed was more willing to occasionally vote for government programs when it came to helping children, such as education and nutrition programs.
Cotton agonized over the Watergate Scandal and was relieved when Nixon resigned as he did not wish to see his friend impeached and be in the position of having to vote to convict him.


In 1974, Cotton opted not to run for reelection, but the election to succeed him proved excessively close. Although Republican Congressman Louis Wyman was ahead by 355 votes on Election Day, a recount was sought by Democrat John A. Durkin. While the matter was being settled, Governor Meldrim Thomson appointed Cotton to temporarily serve again, serving from August 8th to September 18th, 1975. Durkin would ultimately be found the winner by only 10 votes. The next time a former senator would be tapped to temporarily serve was in 2018 when Jon Kyl was selected by Governor Doug Ducey to finish the late Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) term. In 1978, Cotton published his memoirs, In the Senate: Amidst the Conflict and the Turmoil. He died on February 24, 1989. I like Cotton because he’s sufficiently conservative, but he is not one who can be caricatured. His DW-Nominate score was a 0.395, which reflects his strong domestic conservatism as well as his mixed record on foreign policy, especially earlier in his career.


Ex-Sen. Norris Cotton, 88; ‘Rock Ribbed Conservative’. (1989, February 27). Los Angeles Times.

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Sanborn, R. (2017). The Pragmatism of Politics: Senator Norris Cotton and the Civil Rights Legislation in the 1960s. Inquiry Journal. 6.

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Weil, M. (1989, February 25). Norris Cotton, Ex-Senator of N.H., Dies. The Washington Post.

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