An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818-2003

By Jensen, Richard | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818-2003


Jensen, Richard, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818-2003. By David Kenney and Robert E. Hartley (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003. Pp. Xvii, 254. 111., tables, bib., index. Cloth, $30.00).

This compendium of forty-seven analytical biographies of United States senators is unique to Illinois. Southern Illinois Press deserves its award from the state historical society for handsomely producing such a broad-ranging collected biography. Every senator is included (except of course Barak Obama). Obviously the authors had to rush over some of the more obscure nineteenth-century figures and, indeed, over some of the obscure recent figures such as Ralph Tyler Smith (who was appointed to succeed Everett Dirksen).

The authors are unusually well qualified. Robert E. Hartley was a working political journalist who, in addition to his deadlines, has written several excellent book-length biographies, including the best we have on Senator Charles H. Percy, Governor "Big Jim" Thompson, and the sticky-fingered Paul Powell. David Kenney boasts a distinguished career as a leading political scientist, with stints of public service in Governor Thompson's cabinet as director of the Department of Conservation (1977-85), and the founding director of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency. His textbook on Illinois government is superb, and he has published a good biography of a dominant Republican figure from the 1950s, Governor William Stratton.

This is an effort at "collected" rather than "collective" biography. Personality and political skill dominate every story. The authors have their choices, and seem to prefer, for example, John Palmer and Adlai Stevenson III over Stephen Douglas or Paul Douglas. However, they do not try to systematically compare or rank the senators. Biographies are arranged chronologically and are not grouped by party, region, occupation, personality, ideology, or political characteristics. It was Charles Merriam and Harold Gosnell at the University of Chicago seventy-five years ago who tried to apply "scientific" (that is, mathematical) methods to political biography. Hartley and Kenney reject the Chicago approach and write in a journalistic narrative style that is unencumbered with any models, statistics, graphs, tables, psephology, or statistical maps. The book is much stronger inside Illinois than inside Washington. Although the authors are experts at election and roll call analysis, it is disappointing that they did not more fully employ their skills here to analyze either the popular votes at election time or explain the patterns of "ayes" and "nays" on the Senate floor. A stronger book would have included some basic statistics regarding interest group rankings or geographical patterns of voting support, drawing from sources like Michael Barone's Almanac of American Politics (1976-present). …

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