Borah got his early schooling at the Tom's Prairie public school and at Southern Illinois Academy at Enfield, where he remained for only a year, his father removing him because he displayed no interest in entering the ministry. For the rest of his life, although a keen student of the Bible and a devout Christian, he was no more than a nominal church member. Unable to continue in school, he joined a traveling Shakespearean troupe to play the role of Mark Antony, but his angry father fetched the runaway home. At this juncture one of his older sisters invited him to Lyons, Kans., where he could continue his schooling. He spent a few months in the public high school there, taught in a country school at Wabash, Kans., for a few more months, and then in the fall of 1885 entered the University of Kansas as a sub-freshman. He failed to finish the year, leaving in the spring of 1886, possibly for financial reasons, but he returned as a freshman that fall.
Stimulated by teachers like Prof. James Hulme Canfield [q.v.], Borah received the highest grades in all his freshman courses that year, although he was working to pay his way. A hard-working, serious student, older than most, he showed no interest in social life. William Allen White, a fellow student, recalled that he had "no side," that his displayed an "obvious indifference to the opinion of others," that he seemed "a man who had years to make up and a purpose to attain, one of those older students in a group, like a big Newfoundland dog among smaller and more agile pups. . . ." Always a "loner," he was never to have an intimate friend to whom he could reveal himself.
In the early spring of 1887 Borah was threatened with tuberculosis and had to leave the university. This unfinished freshman year marked the end of his formal education. Although he soon regained his health, he decided to move immediately into the profession of law, reading law in his brother-in-law's office and meeting the easy requirements for admission to the Kansas bar on Sept. 16, 1887. But Kansas, hard hit by the agricultural depression that was about to precipitate the Populist revolt, was no place for an ambitious lawyer, and in the fall of 1890 Borah took a train westward with the vague idea of settling in Seattle. In part on the advice of an Idaho gambler, in part because he was short of funds, he got off at Boise instead, with only $15.75 in his pocket.
Borah quickly established himself there as a criminal lawyer, sometimes for the accused, sometimes as a special prosecutor called in by the district attorney of Ada County. In 1897 he secured the conviction of "Diamondfield Jack" Davis, a gunman for a cattle company, for the murder of two sheep-herders, one of the milestones in the attempt to bring order out the bloody range wars of the West. Borah lost no time in establishing himself in Idaho politics. Less than a year after he reached Boise he was nominated for city attorney on the Republican ticket, losing by only three votes, and by 1892 he was chairman of the Republican State Central Committee. He served as secretary to Gov. William J. O'Connell, and on Apr. 21, 1895, he married the Governor's petite, blonde daughter Mary, better known as Mamie and in later years as "Little Borah." They had no children.
In 1896 Borah, an ardent silverite and a critic of the trusts, bolted the Republican party to support Bryan, attacking the McKinley followers as supporters of the "grinning monopolistic gold-bugs of England." He chaired a Silver Republican convention in Idaho and ran for Congress on a Silver Republican ticket, but though he received more votes than the regular Republican, he lost to a candidate who had both Populist and Democratic support. This was the only time in his long career that Borah bolted the Republican party. In the next few years he gradually drifted back to the Republicans, and by 1902 he was the leader of the progressive faction within the party which routed the Old Guard in the primary of that year. In 1903 it seemed certain that Borah would be elected to the United States Senate by the Idaho legislature, but he was defeated in the Republican caucus, allegedly by the purchase of the decisive votes. In 1906 he ran as a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and an advocate of a direct primary law for Idaho, while his opponent, former Senator Fred T. Dubois, made a futile attempt to arouse popular alarm over the Mormons in Idaho. When the legislature met, early in January 1907, it chose Borah to the United States Senate by a handsome margin.
Meanwhile Borah had been involved in two important court cases. The first arose out of the bitter labor troubles in Idaho's Coeur d'Alene district. On Dec. 30, 1905, former Gov. Frank Steunenberg, who had used severe measures against striking miners in 1899, swung open the side gate of his home and was blown to pieces by a bomb hidden in the snow under the gate. Some days later Harry Orchard confessed to the murder, declaring that he had been hired by William Dudley Haywood [q.v.], Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone of the Western Federation of Miners to commit the murder, one of twenty-six he asserted he had committed at the behest of the union. The three union leaders were kidnapped in Denver and brought to Boise; Borah, who had secured the conviction of a union leader for murdering a strike-breaker a few years before, was named special prosecutor in the trial of Haywood, with Clarence Darrow [q.v.] as attorney for the defense. The jury voted acquittal, after a trial which won national prominence for Borah because of the fairness of his treatment of Haywood and the forcefulness and eloquence of his closing argument.
In the second case, in 1907, Borah was himself indicted for defrauding the United States Government of timber lands in the Boise Basin. Since it was clear that the men behind the prosecution were Borah's political enemies, Borah got William Allen White to intercede with President Roosevelt to send a special prosecutor for the trial. Borah, who had been counsel for a lumber company which had filed "dummy" entries, gained a speedy acquittal.
Since Borah entered the Senate with the reputation of being a corporation lawyer for timber and mining interests and a prosecutor of labor unions, Nelson W. Aldrich [q.v.], Republican leader in the Senate and no friend of organized labor, named him chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, a remarkable appointment for a freshman Senator. Borah proceeded to disappoint Aldrich by sponsoring bills to create the Department of Labor and the Children's Bureau, pushing through a bill to establish an eight-hour day on government contracts, and reporting out the bill which created the federal Industrial Commission and legislation to investigate harsh labor conditions in the steel industry. A Jeffersonian Democrat in his political philosophy, Borah stressed equality of opportunity; he led the fight in the Senate for the income tax and for direct election of Senators and was an uncompromising opponent of the trusts. At the same time there were limits to his belief in a plebiscitary democracy; he was opposed to the recall of judges and regarded Theodore Roosevelt's program for the recall of judicial decisions as "bosh."
He also broke with the progressives in his determination to protect the special interests of Idaho. He fought the Forest Bureau, derided Gifford Pinchot's conservation program, opposed federal control of water-power development, and defended Secretary Richard A. Ballinger [q.v.] from the attacks of the conservationists. Concerned about the sectional economic interests of the Northwest, he supported Taft on the Payne-Aldrich Tariff.
Theodore Roosevelt was Borah's hero, and in 1912 Borah led the Roosevelt forces in the Republican National Committee. When Roosevelt launched the Progressive party, however, Borah refused to follow him. But though he refused, then and later, to leave his party, Borah otherwise regarded himself as a free agent. A political maverick, he was the chief ornament of the American decentralized party system and the despair of men who believed in party government. Responsible only to the electorate of Idaho, which viewed him sentimentally as the state's leading export, he felt free to oppose the national leadership of the Republican party whenever he chose to do so. He received no financial or other support from the national party organization in his campaigns. He was no less independent of the people of Idaho; he refused to consider their sentiments on any question, looking only to his own beliefs, holding that the people should not attempt to dictate to their representative. If they did not like him, they could unseat him, but they should not attempt to influence his vote.
Categorized as a "progressive," Borah perplexed political observers by opposing most of the progressive legislation of the Wilson administration, voting against the Federal Reserve Bill (which he felt left too much power in the hands of private bankers), the Clayton Bill and the Federal Trade Commission, the Underwood Tariff, the Adamson Bill, and the confirmation of Louis D. Brandeis as a justice of the Supreme Court. Borah's interest in social reform was tempered by a dislike of Bureaucracy and of federal centralization. Opposed to trusts, he believed the answer to the problem lay not in federal regulation but in clarifying the Sherman Act and in state laws against trusts. What Borah desired was return to an ideal nineteenth-century egalitarian, competitive order; he liked federal regulatory commissions no more than he liked monopolistic corporations. Since he was concerned both to achieve social reform and to maintain state rights, his voting record has more coherence than might at first appear to be the case. Yet, in truth, much of his political behavior is puzzling, for he often appeared to use the state rights argument only when it suited him to do so. (He opposed the woman suffrage amendment but favored national prohibition.) Moreover, he often seemed to oppose Wilsonian legislation less for ideological than for partisan reasons.
In the years before the first World War Borah was a nationalist and an imperialist. In the most bellicose tones he advocated armed intervention in Mexico. Attacking Wilson for neglecting American interests there and for abandoning America's neutral rights in the European War, he gave a chauvinist cast to the Republican campaign of 1916. When he voted for American entrance in the war, he made clear that he did so as a nationalist, concerned not for the fate of world democracy or the plight of France but for American national interests. After the war he was the leader of the bitter-end irreconcilables opposing the League of Nations. Unlike Senator Henry Cabot Lodge [q.v.], Borah refused to consider any compromise, and he brought pressure on Lodge that forced him to draw back from any possibility of a compromise agreement on the League.
An ardent civil libertarian, Borah was one of six Senators who voted against the Espionage Bill in 1917, and he spoke out against the deportation hysteria in 1919. In Idaho he opposed the Ku Klux Klan in the years after the war. He took a diametrically opposite position with respect to civil rights for Negroes, however, regarding the Fifteenth Amendment as a "serious mistake." In 1908, in a demagogic, condescending speech, he defended Theodore Roosevelt's position on the Brownsville affair, accusing the Negro troops of "treason." He opposed federal anti-lynching legislation and, on one occasion, aided a southern filibuster against such a bill.
In the 1920's Borah became the most powerful force in foreign affairs in the country, particularly after December 1924, when he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The one American Senator whose name was known in every foreign capital, Borah never left the country at any time in his life. A particularist who stressed state rights in domestic affairs, he carried his particularism into international affairs in the years after the war, holding that each country should be allowed to solve its own problems free from outside interference. In 1922 he introduced a resolution for the recognition of Soviet Russia, in part because he believed that the Soviet government was a great improvement on the Czarist regime. No longer a jingo, he opposed the Marine intervention in Nicaragua, argued against intervention in Mexico over the oil question, and advocated the abolition of extra-territoriality in China.
Borah firmly opposed American involvement in any international organization with political powers; he was resolutely set against alliances, wanting the same freedom of action for the United States that he reserved for himself in his own political life. He fought American membership in the World Court as vigorously as he had opposed the League. Yet he was not against international action, so long as political decisions and military sanctions were not required. In 1920 he introduced a resolution calling for a disarmament conference, and it was Borah who brought about the Washington Conference of 1921. He approved the naval armaments limitations that resulted from the conference, but not the four-power pact.
A constitutionalist with a nineteenth-century faith in the force of public opinion for good, Borah hoped to achieve world peace by extending the rule of law; he sponsored resolutions for the outlawry of war, for a code of international law, and for an international court with compulsory jurisdiction but no sanctions other than those of public opinion. When, in 1927, Foreign Minister Aristide Briand of France proposed a Franco-American treaty renouncing war, Borah advocated extending it to other nations, thus playing an important role in bringing about the (Kellogg-Briand) Pact of Paris. However, he vigorously opposed implementing the pact by the use of force when acts of aggression occurred in later years.
Borah was a magnificent orator in an age when the art of oratory had gone into eclipse. A superb actor, his effect came from the richness of his voice, the simplicity of his approach, and his marvelous command of language. He never resorted to personal attacks, and even his opponents liked and admired him for his kindliness and sincerity. A man of imposing presence, he had a leonine head with a majestic mane and rugged features that conveyed the sense, quite early in his career, of the elder statesman. He was not an effective leader in the Senate; he lacked the temperament for routine, shirked committee work, and sometimes left it to others to follow through on projects he had initiated. Senator George Norris was once reported to have said: "Borah always shoots until he sees the whites of their eyes." He was a man of limited views, with a concept of society often irrelevant to twentieth-century America. He had a naive faith in law, believing that one could end monopoly or war simply by passing a law, and he had little understanding of power relations in politics. In his invocation of the Constitution in every public question he was often guilty of casuistry. Yet for all his limitations, few equaled Borah in his ability to arouse the country on a public question. When Borah spoke, the country listened.
Although Borah frequently found himself at odds with Harding and Coolidge, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Herbert Hoover in the 1928 campaign, working harder for Hoover than for any candidate since Roosevelt in 1912. Once Hoover was inaugurated, however, Borah resumed his familiar role of the Great Opposer, fighting Hoover on farm legislation and on the Hawley-Smoot Tariff and attacking him for not taking more positive action to relieve the suffering of the depression. Borah gave his support to much of the New Deal legislation, favoring the TVA, the SEC, social security, the Wagner Act, the Wealth Tax Act, and holding company regulation and breaking with his party to support increased relief spending in 1938. Borah's pet solution for ending the depression, other than disarmament and settlement of the reparations question, was currency expansion, and he strongly favored the increased use of silver. Not even his usual constitutional scruples prevented him from supporting legislation to cancel the gold clauses in 1933. Opposing suspension of the antitrust laws as a blow at the consumer and the small business man, Borah was the leading senatorial critic of the NRA and an outspoken member of the Temporary National Economic Committee. He was a powerful opponent of President Roosevelt's Supreme Court bill.
In every election after 1912 Borah was mentioned as a possible presidential nominee, but his party irregularity and the fact that he came from a state with few electoral votes stood in his way. In 1924 he could have had the Republican vice-presidential nomination but turned it down. In 1936 he was pushed for the presidential nomination by Representative Hamilton Fish, Jr., but he could not win sufficient eastern support. He played a neutral role in the 1936 campaign, but he won reelection to the Senate for the sixth consecutive term that year, polling more votes than Roosevelt in Idaho.
Borah was the leader of the isolationists in the Senate in the 1930's. Reversing the policy he had followed with respect to neutral rights before World War I, he supported the Neutrality Act of 1935 and would have gone still farther to forbid any American to travel on a belligerent vessel, even at his own risk. By 1940 he was almost wholly absorbed with foreign policy questions, supporting Frank Gannett for the Republican presidential nomination on a program of isolationism and constitutionalism. He died early that year at his home in Washington, D. C., three days after a cerebral hemorrhage. After funeral services in the Senate, he was buried in Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.
text by William E. Leuchtenburg, Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940. American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958.
Borah Papers, Lib. of Cong. (described in the Librarian's Ann. Report, 1940, pp. 96-97, 434; 1943, p. 119); William E. Borah, Bedrock (1936); Horace Green, ed., Am. Problems: A Selection of Speeches and Prophecies by William E. Borah (1924); Claudius O. Johnson, Borah of Idaho (1936); Marian Cecelia McKenna, "The Early Career of William E. Borah, 18651917" (unpub. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia Univ., 1953); Memorial Services . . . in Eulogy of William Edgar Borah, 66 Cong., 3 Sess. (1941); John Chalmers Vinson, The Parchment Peace (1955); John A. Garraty, Henry Cabot Lodge (1953).