Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois

By Channick, Herbert S. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois


Channick, Herbert S., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois. By Roger Biles (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. Pp. 258. Notes, bibliographical essay, index. Cloth, $35.00).

Paul H. Douglas, Democratic senator from Illinois from 1949 to 1967, was that rara avis among politicians, one whose positions on the great issues of his day were governed more by deeply felt conviction than by party dictates or considerations of career advancement. Now, preceded only by Douglas's own somewhat discursive 1971 memoir, In the Fullness of Time, Roger Biles has given us a carefully-researched and exceptionally well-written account of the career of the man Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the greatest of all senators."

Notwithstanding the title of Biles's work, no conventional political label entirely fits Douglas. He was indeed a consistent liberal on domestic matters, but he was also an uncompromising cold warrior and anti-communist who, to the dismay of his liberal allies, was a believer in the domino theory and a firm supporter of the United States military effort in Vietnam.

Douglas grew up in the backwoods of central Maine where, he remembered, "a person could travel 150 miles north to the Canadian border without seeing another person or other sign of human life." As a youngster he knew primitive living conditions, hard work, and near-poverty. An early voracious reader, he was gripped by the muckrakers' exposes of the robber barons of the 1890s and early 1900s and developed a lasting identification with and sympathy for the working man, first exemplified for the future crusading senator by the lumbermen and railroad section hands of rural Maine; they were victims, as he saw it, of conscienceless exploitation by the lumber companies and railroads.

Financed in part by his older brother, a small inheritance, and an array of odd jobs, Douglas attended Bowdoin College and graduate school at Columbia University, emerging with a master's degree in economics and a particular interest in labor relations, wages, and other aspects of the employer-worker relationship. After briefly pursuing a doctorate at Harvard, he served in a series of teaching positions, was a labor disputes adjuster for the government during World War I, and finally settled at The University of Chicago where he found an academic home and where he became a deeply-committed political activist. He supported Socialist candidate Norman Thomas in the 1928 and 1932 presidential elections and favored the formation of a progressive third party to oppose Roosevelt and Landon in 1936. Yet he was staunchly anti-communist and battled repeatedly against communist involvement in the progressive movement. In 1939, when no other willing candidate could be found, Douglas was persuaded to run as an independent Democratic candidate for election to the Chicago City Council. Surprisingly, the regular Democratic organization agreed to support him and the reform-minded academician served for the next few years as a member of what he later described as "the cunningest body of legislative bastards to be found in all of the western world."

In 1942, following an unsuccessful primary run as an independent seeking the Democratic senatorial nomination, the fifty-year-old Douglas enlisted in the Marines (after a waiver by the Secretary of the Navy of the normal age, eyesight, and dental requirements) and went through basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. A member of a platoon of recruits whose average age was nineteen, he was justifiably proud of making it through this ordeal. …

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